Showing posts with label Opera. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Opera. Show all posts

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Letter From Bavaria (5)

Dear Andrew,

I have been imagining you walking around Bayreuth – I have a pretty good picture of it in my head. I can visualise the beer, sausages and coffee having eaten and drunk many of them in various German towns.  I have had a pretty good go at imagining the first three operas – probably wholly wrongly. This last description leaves me at a loss but wishing so very much I had been there with you last night.

I first saw Parsifal when I was 14 having read the summary in the opera plots book. I couldn’t follow the words having only studied German for two terms at the time but I remember being left with the feeling I had witnessed something that mattered. Later I got a boxed set of the records – sides 3 and 10 were my favourites (the two grail ceremonies). By this time I could understand the words (courtesy of dual language librettos) but I’m not sure it took me much further. I just wanted to listen again and again. Who was it who said that poetry can communicate before it is understood?

Come to dinner tomorrow and tell me more.

Love Opera- Buddy

Dear Opera-Buddy

T.S Eliot said poetry could communicate before it is understood. I think he was just covering his back after writing the Wasteland. (Question in the Guardian Quiz today: which quotation from Our Mutual Friend was nearly used as the title of The Wasteland?) The funny thing is I do remember reading the Wasteland in the sixth form, not understanding it, but liking it very much indeed. If anything, I think I liked it less after I studied it at college and had more idea of what he was getting at. But reading something, not understanding, and liking the fact that you don't understand it may not be quite fair to the poet, who probably intended you to get it to some degree. Obviously (obviously!) the Wasteland is a kind of distant cousin of Parsifal, being vaguely about the quest for the Holy Grail, or at any rate, being vaguely based on a theory about what the quest for the Holy Grail is all about. But it occurs to me that there was something Waste Land ish -- modernist or post modernist -- about last nights Parsifal: a lot of image that were quotes and references to other things, that didn't really make sequential sense, but created an overall emotional effect. "These fragment have I sured against my ruin" as the fellow said.  (You remember A.N Wilson's "interview" with the Queen Mother? "This rather lugubrious man in a suit, and he read a poem ... I think it was called The Desert....At first the girls got the giggles and then I did and then even the King ... Such a gloomy man, looked as though he worked in a bank.")

Trust that your imagining of me walking around Bayreuth doesn't focus too heavily on me realising I don't know which turning to take 5 minutes from the hotel and walking around in circles for 20 minutes. Or being asked directions by an American tourist, admitting that I can't help him, but being congratulated on my excellent command of English. 

Yes, I particularly missed you at Parsifal because I know you liked it so much when you were younger and the production was so....special. I probably didn't describe it very well: imagine the plot of Parsifal pretty much as per the libretto, but with each scene representing a period in German history -- pre-War (Act I), First and Second World War (Act II), post-war and modern era (Act III) with the grail castle, I suppose representing German society -- getting corrupted and healed; wrapped in a prologue which suggests the whole thing is a dream. Now I've thought about it, I think that was what the wings were about: the child was dreaming that his dead mother was an angel in heaven. I was also a bit obtuse to say that the Grail was "a baby": obviously since the woman is Kundry/Parisfal's mother, the baby is Parsifal himself. So Parsifal is the Grail, so "the redeemer redeemed" is him overcoming his primal Oedipal wound. Kind of thing. 

Parsifal itself is such a complex opera -- the actual plot takes some grasping, before you even start to think about all the philosophy in the libretto. The really strange thing is that the music is so sensual, emotional -- you could almost say syruppy in places -- but that it's carrying all these heavy ideas about renunciation and lack of attachment and oblivion and stuff. (So you could reasonably say that the producer oughtn't to have been piling three more levels of symbolism on top of it.) I can't remember when I first heard the opera, but I was crazy about King Arthur and grail mythology when  I was a teenager, so I was ready for the basic plot about healing the Grail King. Not that T.H White and Malory have much to do with the German version of the story, and Wagner's version doesn't have much to do with that...but the idea of the Grail being this super mysterious ceremony, and that someone had to heal the King to heal the land was very much in my head, and music seemed and seems to capture that idea. (I was flirting with Bob Dylan a few months ago, but I am quite sure that it's the opening of Parisfal that contains the meaning of life, not Visions of Johanna after all :))

Actually, I wonder if that's a justification for these conceptual productions: it's the music that says what Wagner wants to say; and the libretto is really just a commentary on that, some of it being hard to understand and some of it being (arguably) tosh; so it's all right for a person who isn't Wagner to provide pictures which present a different commentary on the music, provided you don't change the music? 

Apart from a scary moment when the Munich ticket machine refused to talk to either of my credit cards, journey back last night was hitch free. (12 noon, leave hotel. Consume coffee on Bayreuth station, catch 1PM train to Nuremburg; 2.30 ish train from Nuremburg to Munich, consume coffee near Munich station from about 4PM to 6PM; Metro to Munich airport; much checking in off baggage and tickets at Munich airport from 7ish to 8ish, and one last cup of coffee before getting on airybuzzer around 9PM, and then caught a coach from London to Bristol. Back in Stokes croft by about 3AM.) 

Haven't been able to bring myself to listen to any other music either on planes and coaches or back home: don't want to listen to a different version of Parsifal and Tristan and don't quite want to listen to anything else either. Was almost tempted to go and listen to the man singing Buddy Holly covers in the Cat and Wheel last night as a means of re-grounding myself. 

Ah well, only three months and we can go to the Ring in London. ("Is Wagner actually a man? Is he not rather a disease?)




"He do the police in different voices"

Friday, August 17, 2012

Letter from Bavaria (4)

Dear Opera Buddy

O.K. So I have now seen Bob Dylan perform live, heard Parsifal at Bayreuth and met Tom Baker. I can therefore die happy. (For the avoidance of doubt, I am not intending to, at any rate not any time soon, but it is nice to know that if the need arose I could do so.)

I am on Munich station, or in fact in a cafe near Munich station. I am drinking the cafe's famous cappuccino although I must admit that I had never heard of it before. (It is quite like other, less famous cappucino that I have drunk, only without chocolate sprinkles.) Check out from the hotel was 12.00, and what with breakfast and having had a more than usual amount of beer in the hotel bar last night (having, obviously, observed a total fast before Parsifal, unless you count a bratwurst, a mocha, and a mango ice cream)  didn't actually do anything before catching the train. The hairybuzzer doesn't  fly away until 9.30 but allowing for 60 minutes to get to the air port and too much time to check in, I've only got a couple of hours which doesn't seem long enough to venture forth on a bus or a metro. So you have to imagine a German visitor who has come though London but not actually gone more than a hundred feet from Kings Cross station.

This has been true of the week in general: you have to remember that the operas themselves run from 4PM (doors locked, music starts) to 10.30 or so (sixteenth or seventeenth ovation), and by the time you've got changed, availed yourself of the pre-theatre buffet and stood around outside the theatre admiring everyone's clothes, "going to the opera" takes from about 2PM to 11PM – which doesn't leave much space for visiting typewriter factories.

Which reminds me: clothes. About 50% of the men are in dinner jackets, but the other 50% are in everything you can think of: ordinary jeans and teeshirts; a bright orange suit; one man in full highland dress; one man in German peasant costume, if not actually liederhosen. Women in every kind of ball gown; I don't know about fasting, but it seems to be positively immoral to go and see Parsifal displaying quite so much of one's boobies. A few people tried resolutely not to clap after act one (there were non curtain calls, mercifully) but that tradition (the tradition of not applauding Parsifal because it isn't an entertainment but a stage-consecration-festival-work) seem to have died out.

That's the big deal, of course. Parsifal is a festival play for the consecration of the Stage. The Stage being here, Bayreuth. While I think the Ring is still my favourite opera, there is something very special and unique about seeing this opera here. (Here in Bayreuth, I mean, not here in the very famous capuccino cafe on Munich station.)

I think that it is fair to say that Parsifal has created a Sensation.

Act II finishes with Kundry on a raised dias, ranting wildly; and Klingsor (in silk stockings, suspenders, and wings) declaiming from the balcony, at which point huge swastikas are rolled down from the ceiling, and a squad of men in S.S uniform march across the stage. (I mean to say; the scene last night in which Elizabeth arguably died by arguably walking into what was arguably a gas chamber was understandably regarded by some as being a little near the proverbial knuckle, but SWASTIKAS and NAZI UNIFORMS at BAYREUYTH. I didn't know that was even legal.) And then a little boy is raised up at the centre stage, on a raising and lowering dias which has probably represented the Holy Grail throughout. Parisfal has been represented, thoughout, as both a small child in a sailor suit and the adult opera singer (also mainly in a sailor suit). The boy throws the spear at Parsifal; Parsifal catches it. All though the production, there has been a mound of earth at the front of the stage, and the boy-Parsifal has been building something which could be a wall with toy bricks on it. I would totally have spotted that this was Wagner's grave if the man who bought the spare ticket hadn't pointed this out to be. So man-Parsifal, holding the spear, point in menacingly at the toy brick structure, where upon all the swastikas fall down, and the rest of the set, collapse. It was pretty strong stuff for me; I can't imagine what it must have felt like to the Germans in the audience.

In the Arvena Kongress bar, opinion seemed to be pretty evenly split -- between the ones who thought that it was sensational and beautiful and the ones who wanted something that was more recognizably Parsifal. My feeling is that these kinds of productions – conceptual productions where what is going on on the stage is suggested by the music, but isn't necessarily telling the story of the libretto – have got to be both very interesting and brilliantly done before they work. Lohengrin and Tannhäuser just basically weren't good enough to get away with their ideas. (Lohegrin was pretty but incoherent; Tannhäuser was clever, but seemed to have attached a different story to the libretto more or less arbitrarily.)

Parsifal actually stays fairly close to the story: we have two grail ceremonies; the healing of Amfortas; the spear; and the whole thing is very much about Redemption. But it turns out that the story is really about the redemption and purification of Germany in general and Wagner's family after certain bad choices they made in the 1930s. It also turns out that the story is at least mostly a dream; Parsifal is the little boy who we first see playing with a toy bow and arrow while his mother is dying, in a 19th century bedroom in what is very probably House Wahfried. It appears that the rest of the production is the boys dream; Kundry is a dream projection of his mother; Gurmenez is very probably a dream projection of his father; and Parsifal, Amfortas, Klingsor and Titurel are all (if I have read this right) dream projections of the boy. Oh, and everyone has wings. I didn't get the hang of that. But characters are definitely fluid. There is a striking moment in Act I where the boy in the sailer suit is put into Amfortas bath and comes out as a very old man. (This happens in passing, on one side of the stage.)

Presumably, at some point in the development stage, all the producers get to write a word on a piece of paper and put it into a hat, and which ever word they pick out has to feature in every production at Bayreuth. This year the word was BABY. So we had the embryo in Lohengrin (signifying rebirth) Venus' child in Tannhäuser (signifying rebirth). The Grail ceremony involved Parsifal making love to Kundry and Kundry being delivered of a baby. The elevation of the grail is the baby being passed around the grail knights (who are Victorian German ladies and gentlemen, with wings, obviously.) The baby is then circumcised (at which point Amfortas' wound starts to hurt again), a cloth is placed over him (the baby), and he is turned into eucharistic bread and wine. Which a lot of solidiers with points on their helmets consume before going off to, presumably, the first world war. I have no idea. But the stage imagery was so beautiful and striking and well staged and matching the music that understanding it would almost seem impertinent.

Act II takes us through the first and second world wars (the flower maidens are 1920s dancers out of Cabaret, the one rather obvious image in the whole evening) climaxing with Parsifal taking the magic spear and bringing down Nazism with it. I think that's three genuine coupes de theatres in two acts, actually: the dying mother in the prelude; the bizare cannibalistic grail ceremony; and the Nazi climax to Act II. But none of that really prepared us for Act III.

Just let's run through the main ideas in the last act. I am probably forgetting sixteen or seventeen of them: 

1: We're now looking at a stage within a stage; there's a mini Festspielhaus proscenium arch lying back from the front of the real stage, and its on the "model" stage that all the action now happens.

2: The set is the ruins of the building from Act II – the ruins of post War Germany.

3: Granted that it's taking place in this industrial landscape on a miniature stage the opening of Act III of Parsifal is done almost completely straight, and very powerfully: Parsifal, now old and beardy and looking much like Amfortas comes in in armour, Kundry removes his armour. The spear opens up a fountain at the center of the stage (where the grail was in Act I, I think), Kundry bathes his feet and dries them with her hair.

4: The Good Friday magic. A lot of poor people presumably refugees, walk out onto the stage (in front of the "model" theatre. The "model" theatre light up with bright footlights. The poor people are brought onto the "model" stage and given water from Parsifal's fountain. And then (there is a little jiggery pokery with house lights coming up and stage lights going down) a huge mirror rotates into the middle of the stage and, we see the crowded festspielhaus audirorium reflected back at us. Just the most fantastic image I've ever seen on the live stage; and in combination with the Good Friday music, completeley overwhelming. One imagines the producers brainstorming idea, and one of them saying "follow that".... 

5: ....So one of the does.The final grail ceremony....we're back on the "model" stage, but the ruined post-war Germany has been replaced by....a straight, realistic, modern depiction of the German Parliament, with the chorus of knights as MPs waving their order papers, and Amfortas addressing Tirturel's coffin wrapped in the German flag; Parsifal wafting the spear over the heads of the MPs, and then saying "Open the shrine..."

6: …."the shrine" is, of course, Wagner's grave which has been at the front of the stage from the beginning; and when it is open the little boy in the sailor suit emerges, to be joined by Mum and Dad in a sort of holy family tableau. A huge luminous globe is lowered from the ceiling. A dove of peace (which could just possible be the German eagle, and therefore the swan which Parsifal killed) hovers above it. The end.

There were things in the production that I didn't understand and things that I thought didn't quite work (I wasn't sure about having Parsifal in his white robes and holy spear addressing the modern German MPs) but there was a succession of quite fantastic imagery. I think that I "got" what was being said: "A child is psychologically wounded; that wound creates a nightmare which is 20th century German history; Amfortas, Tituriel, Klingsor and Parsifal are all representation in different ways of that basic wound; Parsifal's quest is the quest to heal that psychological wound and its political consequences; when that happens, the starting point – peace in the world and a happy family – is restored. Oh, and there are wings as well."

There's apparently already been a book written to elucidate the production. I would very much like to see it again (its being shown in cinemas, I think) to try to work out all of what is going on, and unlike The One With The Rats I am quite sure that it will all turn out to have hung together. 

Its now about six o clock and it properly makes sense to head to the airport. Hopefully see you tomorrow or the next day.


P.S I am now at gate number something on Munich airport and flight number something has been delayed... This is your fault, Wilbur and Orville....

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Letter From Bavaria (3)

Dear Andrew,

I always find coffee problematic in foreign parts - milchkafee should be coffee with milk but for some reason my efforts to order coffee often result in unexpected beverages. My advice is to stick to the beer.  Beer is a bit of a lottery when it comes to size.  “Ein bier”  can produce a genteel sip or a vessel that puts me in mind of the scene where hobbits discover it comes in pints.  I like both - the tiny ones mean you can indulge in an endless procession of  fresh cold beers and the big ones are, well, big. Make sure you try a dark beer tomorrow if you haven’t already and don‘t forget to have a plate of small sausages in the dining car on the train.

Will you put roses on the grave?  Do you remember last time we were deciding between a final beer and a return visit to the Wagner house to lay flowers?  We came down in favour of the house.  We didn’t have long and  I tried to buy the flowers off the table in the tea shop only to be directed by the nice owner to a nearby  florist.  The lady in the flower shop was obviously used to this as she asked me if they were “for laying”. Considering how ostentatious Wagner could be the grave is very plain.

Tristan often seems to bring on production ideas that don’t go anywhere, perhaps because it is almost purely about feelings and emotions. I remember a production in London where they spent the whole of the first Act alternating between striking stiff poses against the sides of the stage and throwing themselves around on the floor, presumably to suggest strong and confused emotions, as if the music wasn‘t already doing so rather better.  Maybe the sight of so much dialogue with no inherent activity engenders a state of panic resulting in an urge to fill the stage with action. Or maybe it is an urge to illuminate some perceived hidden meaning or just use the work to make a comment on whatever the director’s current enthusiasm happens to be.

Act three of the same production opened with Tristan and his loyal retainer together on  a bare stage, lit to suggest the sea off to the back.  They hardly moved during the whole of the “waiting” scene and when Isolde arrived, aside from a brief flurry of activity, there was very little action.  It was one of the most moving performances of anything I have sever seen.

It is midnight here so an hour later for you.  I hope you have enjoyed tonight and are even now sitting in the bar dissecting/enthusing over/ranting about tonight’s offering.

Love Opera-Buddy

P.S. have you visited the smoking materials museum yet?  

 Dear Opera-Buddy

 No, I haven't been to the smoking materials museum. Or the typewriter museum. If it stops raining, I will go and have a look at the Other Opera House, the one that wasn't grand enough for Wagner.

The inside of the Festspielhaus is less plain than I remembered it, by the way, a certain amount of gold foliage painted on the ceiling, lots of doric, or possibly ionic, columns. But still very plain and big and awesome; it really is more like watching live cinema than being in a theatre. In general the orchestra does not come out on stage in order to take the applause; that seemed to be a specific idea by the Lohengrin producer.

I have to say that Lohengrin must, at some level, have been a very good production: tonight in the bar the discussion was still running – "Tristan and Isolde...very interesting, a bit 1950s. Tannhäuser – very spectacular, not sure what it meant... Now, about those rats...")

 Producers really ought to take into account the unintentional connections which audiences are going to make with what is going on on the stage? There was a point in Lohengrin when Elsa was walking around in one of those long, floor length ball gowns (doubtless intended to be swan like) and every English person – me, at any rate – thought "it's a dalek." And obviously the rats seemed as if they were going to start singing "Here's a pin and here's a pingle" at any moment. Tonight, Elizabeth was at one point in sparkly dress, front stage, gesticulating wildly and everyone thought "Don't cry for me, Argentina."

 Had a walk round Wagner's garden yesterday. It must have been a very interesting street to live on; Lizt's house was next door, and there was also a famous artist called John-Paul Museum.

I think that, with lots off "Ifs" and "Buts" and possibly even some caveats, Tannhäuser was the best show of the week so far. It did raise lots of difficult questions, the main one being, who is this stuff aimed at? The programme notes include a long, long essay about Wagner's theory of the art of the future and gesamkunstwerk (bless you). In the olden days, when art was sacred, people worshipped it even if they didn't like it very much; and Wagner's scheme involved whole communities presenting mixed media art which would be in some sense sacred; the purpose of which would be to create and transform those communities. Which seems a rather long way of saying that if you are here with any notion that you are going to enjoy the opera, then you've missed the point.

It's a funny thing, isn't it: you have people from all over the world dressed in tuxedos drinking champagne and eating bratwurst and staying in nice hotels; and you have a producer quoting Marx and Brecht and Deirrida and coming up with productions which are, frankly, impenetrable

Mind you, I am always torn between two kinds of ambivalence at these events: on the one hand – "All these people didn't have the experience of watching the Ring on BBC 2 when we did, they probably don't really like Wagner but have just come for the sake of it" / "I'm an imposter, I can't remember who I heard singing Parsifal at Covent Garden and don't know what an unresolved chord is, among all these music reading Wagner experts." I feel the same at folk festivals.

I reckon that in fact most of us really do think of Tannhäuser as a romantic opera with a religious twinge – about a medieval knight caught up in a world of sensuous pleasure who has to go on a pilgrimage to purify himself; and I think that Wagner really did intend his operas to be serious political philosophical statements, so that those of us hoping for a pretty swan and a holy grail that looks like a holy grail are probably in the wrong. (I also think that a lot of producers have the idea that the operas are pure symphonies that work quite separately from the plot and the libretto, and that therefore you can have any old rubbish going on on the stage, which is quite simply wrong.)

 OK: so Tannhäuser appears to be happening in an oil rig. There are big tanks and cannisters on the stage, which is on three levels, with lots of balconies and beams. The curtains are already open when we arrive, and various characters are operating the machines and generally doing Stuff. (The actions carries on after each act finishes, apparently, in the second intermission, there was a full scale religious ceremony performed to a virtually empty hall.) Oh, and part of the audience is on the stage, watching the action: I assume member of the Friends of Bayreuth, but for all I know they were the German equivalent of equity members who had work-shopped fidgeting and applauding and programming waving very realistically. During the overture, a lot of x-ray pictures are projected on the back of the stage. One bit was definitely of someone drinking a glass of water. There were also quite a lot of things which I guess were sperms, but could have been sea-monkeys for all I knew. Then a big cage is raised up from the middle of the stage, with much smoke and red light, representing the Venusberg. (Can I translate that "Sex-City"?) Tannhäuser is being embraced by lots of rather bestial people of both sexes, and Venus is pregnant. Actually, I think the thing I said yesterday about the opening of Act III of Tristan is probably wrong: the first 20 minutes of Tannhäuser – overture and Venusberg scene – may be the best music Wagner ever wrote.

Is it very wicked of me to positively look forward to some poor person passing a very quiet comment to his neighbour (I am pretty sure I now know the German for "what the hell is going on"?) and getting aggressively shushed.

So, in the first interval I ordered cappuccino, which turns out to be the German for "flat white" (very small, very strong, just the way I like it) and a mango ice cream and actually read the programme. It turns out that I had been completely misunderstanding it. It was not supposed to be an oil rig: it was, and I quote:

"A vision of the transhumanist trajectory veering very near to the post human negative extreme as the societal transformation process approaches completion as per novelist Aldous Huxley's futuristic world state of the controllers or the direst predictions of the socialist philosopher Francis Fukuyama."

 Which, I must say made everything much clearer. It was supposed to be a future world where everyone is drugged, everything is regulated and everything is recycled: what we saw on the stage was supposed to be a model representing the whole of that world. The Venusberg is an experiment in producing clones animal human hybrids. The pilgrims are not going to Rome, they are going off to a social conditioning centre to be brain washed. Tannhäuser and Elizabeth are resisting this oppressive world. The song competition isn't about love, it's about the meaning of human existence. I must admit that having read this, Act II did make a lot more sense. There was certainly a lot of striking imagery in it. The lady sitting next to me couldn't understand why Tannhäuser was being chased around the set by turtles. I had to explain that they were – obviously – giant spermatozoa.

Actually this is the worst thing about these kinds of productions: you get "symbols" which mean something to the producer, but don't actually make sense even in terms of the world that he's built on the stage. Drugged underworld in which the individualist is having sex with savage human-animal hybrids; yes. Giant sperm? Giant sperm?

 In Act III, Elizabeth dies by throwing herself into one of the big chemical tanks, which is supposed to suggest that her essence is going to be recycled and absorbed by Tannhäuser, and also call to mind gas chambers and suggest that these regulated scientific societies always become awful in the end....but unfortunately, most of what was going on was obscured (from the point of view of everyone on the right of the theatre) by one of the superfluous beams. Quite a lot of text was projected on screens, as well, explaining obscurities in the production, possibly, but you couldn't actually read them either. There may be something in the idea that the production was designed to be watched by the people on the stage, and those of us in the auditorium were superfluous.

Which would be very Wagnerian, wouldn't it – "What difference do fifty or sixty more schwienhund make?"

It does seem awfully precious that Bayreuth is happy to fill the stage with screens and text, and run productions which are borderline deranged but refuses point blank to have surtitles because it would be different from Wagner's intentions. (This seems to annoy the native German speakers as well: even you have fluent German, you can't always follow the words that are being sung by an English or Korean singer.) One bit which definitely did work, by the way, was the overture to Act III, in which what we could see on the back of the stage was film of a spermatozoa impregnating an egg, and the egg splitting into multiple cells just as the music goes all triumphant. (At least I assume that was what I was looking at.) Oh, yeah, and the opera ends, not with the staff flowering, but with Venus giving birth to her child, and the baby being passed around the cast. I think the idea was that the baby is a new chance for the society to get things right, because it is so far unaffected by all the conditioning.

So, all very clear.

Literally five minutes from the hotel, my I-Phone ran out of batteries, and I realised that I didn't actually know where I was; I spent 20 minutes walking round in circles trying to spot a land mark. (I think the problem was that I was on a different plaza to the one I thought I was one, so even by going down each road systematically I wasn't going to find the right one.) In the end I walked back to the main road with the station on it and started again.

The multi-lingual Wagner debating society was still in progress in the bar when I got there. A new Canadian man was crazy about the production – "what a show! What a show!" Enthusiastic German man said that if he had to choose one way or the other, he didn't like it. The American lady (who seems to have seen absolutely everything) was quite cross; she thought (not unreasonably) that the opera ought to have at least something to do with the libretto

. …..Decided I would venture out of the hotel (not actually raining hard) and went to have a look at the Markgrafliches Opernhaus. I spent about ten minutes looking at all the angels, carvings of musicians, crowns, coats of arms, etc which is almost exactly the right amount of time to spend looking at an old building, whereupon a lady came and shut all the doors and talked to us in German for half and hour. 

....I am back in the coffee shop and the Americans have joined me, and are still talking about how angry the production made them. I think if you went to Bayreuth and weren't angry you'd probably feel short changed. The programme notes keep talking about the "Bayreuth workshop" and the "Bayreuth laboratory" as if the producer and the cast are doing an experiment and the audience is almost not there.

 Another advantage of a hat is that it keeps the rain off your head. Who knew?



Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Letter From Bavaria (2)

Dear Andrew, 

 I really did mean it when I said I wanted to hear from you. When I was learning Latin at school we read Pliny’s letters. There was one where he said he took pleasure in seeing his friends enjoying the good things in life he could no longer partake of. I thought he sounded rather sanctimonious. Now it comes to it I find I do want to know what you are doing.Anyway, I have been to Bayreuth twice without you. 

The first time was when I was 15. I had become obsessively keen on Wagner about a year before. I first saw it on television, the Chereau Ring, you saw it too. Funny to think we both watched it. I always had toast and marmite while watching, what did you have? 

 I loved Wagner in an uncomplicated way. I didn’t know the ending of the Ring and watched it like an adventure story. I remember telling someone I met at a conference part way through the Cycle that I thought Wotan would sort it out somehow. I was wholly unaware of the politics - I remember telling Granny I liked Wagner and she said she did not. I assumed because it was too loud and too long but I guess there may have been other reasons. 

 My parents were more accommodating. They took me to Bayreuth on our summer caravan holiday. We stayed on a site outside the town and there were people going to the festival. They stepped out of their caravans in evening dress. I went on a tour of the theatre and bought postcards. In the evening I sat in the caravan laying them out in a scrapbook. I found it yesterday while clearing the cellar to make way for the law books. I remember waiting outside the doors for the tour. We ate in McDonalds to save time. 

 The next time I went to Bayreuth I was inter-railing with R & J. We were somewhere on a station and I looked up and saw a train going to Bayreuth - we jumped on and arrived in the evening. There was nowhere to stay. We drank chocolate in the station hotel until past midnight. Then we went to the park at the festspielhaus and slept on the benches under Wagner’s statue. We woke up at about 5am and went back to the station to get a train to Munich. I liked the idea of not staying to see it in the day. 

 The third time was with you so you know all about that. We lay on the lawn and I told you how I had slept on the bench. 

 I have spent my day setting put my belongings in the downstairs study. I have made it look as much like my old chambers as I can. I went to chambers for a few minutes to collect what I needed to bring home. It’s funny to think of the room and chambers going on without me. It’s like hotels - you spend a week in a place on holiday experiencing it rather intensely and when you leave it all goes on without you. My flat in London is like that now - even though it is all still there. 

Right now you are sitting in the Festspielhaus. I remember it in every detail. It’s something I do - I remember buildings perfectly but cannot remember faces. I also remember the hotel, we had breakfast in the garden and drank Sekt. There was a bottle of Sekt in the hall - is there one in your hotel? If so I hope you have had some. 

 I can’t even begin to suggest what the production might have been about. Remember the program for the Dutchman where the producer said he wanted his production idea to be easy to grasp so had set it in a disused space shuttle factory in Khurgizstan? Last time we saw Lohengrin it was at the Coliseum and the knights were wearing blue knitted Chan mail and clustering round a large red cigar. Maybe I am destined never to know what Lohengrin is “about”. I am off to bed soon. Have fun and write again tomorrow. Love Opera Buddy.

Dear Opera-Buddy

I always thought Pliny was doing the Jewish mother thing: "Oh, you go an have a nice time, don't worry about me." I say "I always thought" in the spirit of one who owns a translation of Pliny's letters and can probably find the one which contains the one definite no-kidding reference to T.H.J outside of the Bible.

Yes, I thought that coming on our trip by myself was going to be like that scene in Doctor Who when Donna has been kidnapped by aliens and her family go ahead and have her wedding party without her. In fact of course I am having a quite different trip; there are things I wouldn't think of doing my myself, like going out to dinner (although there isn't really very much time, or need for that) and doing other things, like talking about rats to strangers in the bar which I wouldn't have done if I had a companion.

The barman in the hotel is totally a barman. He appeared to have my beer poured out before I arrived. When I asked for a half, he explained that I had been drinking halves (half litres) and that what I probably wanted was a baby one.

You remember the old joke about country churches always being at the top of steep hills, to ensure that customers say "" before crossing the threshold. (Possibly not, because I think I made it up.) I believe the French really did bury Napoleon at the bottom of a deep hole so that no-one could look at his mausoleum without bowing. I think that this may be the neglected secret of Wagner's design of the Festspielhaus: all those standing ovations are caused by people who've been sitting down for 90 minutes and desperately need to stretch their legs; and all that stamping is being done by people who are trying to get some circulation back in their feet before staggering to the official bratwurst stand.

QUESTION: Is "Milkcoffee" coffee which is suitable for adding milk to, or coffee which has already had milk added to it? Or possibly "milch" means decaffeinated?

Today, in addition to the pretty six seater mini bus a full sized bus came to the hotel. It claimed to cost 3.50, but no-one seemed interested in charging us. A nice Australian man thought that the rats represented a corruption in the body politic that was cured by the coming of the new generation; the enthusiastic German in the bar (let's call him "Steffan" because that's his name) thinks that they represented the masses who are going to enthusiastically follow their leaders wherever they are sent because they don't have a choice. Possibly the nice American lady was nearer to the mark when she said that the producers were just trying to be different.

NOTE TO SELF, 1: Do not use Phylida Lloyd's re imagining of Brunhilde as a suicide bomber as an example of a modern interpretation which worked well: people always reply "Oh, how awful!". I had already undermined my credentials with American Lady by remarking that I saw Parsifal at Covent Garden last year. "Oh, wonderful, who sang it?" "Er...I don't have the faintest idea." We were able to bond over Bryn Terfel, though.

Australian Man was rather put out by the new regime (in which Wagner societies no longer get an allocation of tickets). Although the Australian Wagner Society only gets a small number of tickets, there are an even smaller number of people in Australia willing to travel to Germany, so he had been able to come fairly often. Back in the same cafe drinking iced mocha. Didn't queue for Lohengrin autograph in the end because I found I hadn't brought my copy of the programme. (The programme's by the way, contain the usual rubbish you get in E.N.O programmes – quotes from Karl Marx and Brecht and what have you --- but everything is printed in three languages, there loads of photos of the production, which is what you actually want, and no advertisements for private schools.)

I must admit to finding Tristan the most challenging of Wagner's operas. This is probably because it is the most purely musical of them. I do not for one moment deny that it has some of the best music Wagner ever wrote in it, which is to say, some of the best music ever written. But there really is an awful lot of it. King Marks aria in Act II, when he finds Tristan and Isolde together ("I'm not angry. I just feel that you've let yourself down. If you find your best friend in the arms of your sweetheart, brother, that's when your heartaches begin...")...right up to the point where he says "If Tristan --- Tristan – is untrue" is one of the most dramatic things I've ever heard; but it then goes on for another twenty minutes. And when Tristan and Isolde recover from their suicide pact in Act I, and look into each others eyes and sing each others names....fantastic. But he's made us wait a long time to get there. And obviously the beginning of the duet in Act II, which is basically the dirtiest music ever written, but did we really need an hour and half of it. Chap playing Tristan (Robert Dean Smith, I have my programme with me today) did a fantastic job of the mad scenes in Act III. I'd forgotten how much I like the long prelude, in fact, with the horn (poss. Cor Anglais, but don't write in); the ranting madness in the bed, and the shepherd playing his horn to indicate that Isolde still hasn't arrived. But Wagner does it three times. (I guess that's why Sam Beckett hovers around productions....waiting for someone who doesn't come, "nothing happens, twice" and so on. And Isolde's love death (which is German for "Love-death"), of course, which is the really what the opera is there for. But for those of us who are not quite clear which is the Tristan chord and what it would mean to have resolved it, there isn't a great deal of action compared with the Ring. I seem to think that one of the baby Wagner's (Wolfgang, possibly) said in a TV interview that Tristan is the best because it is the one where Wagner abandoned all the political bull sheet.

I think the flautist outside the bookshop is trying to do a medley of themes from Tristan.

The production is the one that they showed as part of the live cinema series in the multiplex last year; people at the bar who know about these things felt that the new cast did not have quite the passion and physicality of last year. The production was far more penetrable than last night. Very brown. Act 1 is in a frumpy room, possibly meant to be the cafe on a cruise ship, full of chairs. Isolde spend a lot of the first minutes knocking them over, and then systematically knocks the last few down during her big scene with Tristan. Act two is in another big 1950s room, possibly the foyer of a hotel. (There is a life jacket outside one of the doors, so possibly we are in a port, or even still on a ship.) There are lots of light switches, all of which are turned off during the assignation, and dramatically turned on when Mark discovers the lovers together (a very nice effect, from dark to light quick enough to actually dazzle the audience.) Act three seemed to be in the same room, but a long time later – tiles taken off walls to reveal bare plaster. Tristan spent the act on an adjustable bed that tilted him to every possible angle. Isolde, after doing her big death song, simply lies one the bed (Tristan being conveniently on the floor by this point) and pulls the sheet over her face, which was very dramatic.

Everyone clapped exactly the right amount of time: footstamping for Tristan, footstamping for Isolde, rapturous footstamping for both of them together. Everyone then got up to leave, whereupon the whole company came out arm in arm and we had to go through the whole thing all over again. "The Germans are a terrible people Baldric: they have no word for "fluffy" and their operas last for several weeks." And it appears they also have no word for "leave them begging for more."

 No-one at the bar agree with me, but the more I think about it the more sure I am that the embryo in Lohengrin was meant to be the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Space Baby = Thus Sprach Zarathrustra = Nietzsche = Wagner. Makes sense to me.

 How did we ever visit foreign countries before we had I-Phones? I asked Mr Google Map to draw me a line from the hotel to Wagner's house, and here I am. I have put my waistcoat and tie in my bag, and will probably head directly to the theatre without going back to the hotel. I will, however, where my tux tomorrow (for Parsifal: I believe it is obligatory to fast before the production as well) and get some pictures taken.




 I am very sorry to say that I couldn't sell last night's spare ticket. All the others have been sold, so just imagine that the box over took them back for a 20% cover charge. There were four or five people outside the ticket office trying to buy and sell tickets – there was at least one other person with a single for Tristan, and one man with several to sell. (I did not know the German for "make me an offer", though I did resort to "Come on, I have a ticket for Wagner, I heard he was quite popular round here.") I may get "The man who couldn't give a ticket to the opera away at Bayreuth" printed on a tee shirt As a result of this, I spent both intervals being approached by people who thought I had tickets for Tannhäuser and Parsifal for sale. It probably helped that I was the mad Englishman in the waistcoat and orange tie. Considering that I am never likely to start smoking a pipe, I really wish I had bought a hat years ago. I am quite aware that it makes me look like an idiot, but it is brilliant to have something to put on and take off and even occasionally wave around, and people are so astonished by the hat that they don't notice the tie or waistcoat or the fact that I don't speak German. I think it communicates "I am the sort of fellow who cares enough about his appearance to have bought a hat, but cares so little about his appearance that he bought a hat."

If this is Bavaria, you must be the Illuminati.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Letter From Bavaria

Dear Opera-Buddy

So I said I'd give you a running commentary on what is going on in Bavaria. (I hope this is really what you want. If I had had to sell my golden tickets, I think I would have refused to even think about Wagner for a year – like the athletes who just missed out in being in "team GB" and went off to Las Vegas to pretend the Olympics weren't happening. Did you tape the closing ceremony, by the way? The German Lady in the bar last night said that the Opening Ceremony was so good she could hardly believe that the English had done it... I mentioned Paul McCartney and she said that his song was the best thing about it, so I was probably wrong about that.)

I realise that it is pathetic that I should have reached the age of very nearly 35 and still be as terrified of flying as I still am. Its not the flying bit. I entirely trust that the wings are not going to drop off the planes, but I spend the entire 24 hours worrying about things which are going to go wrong, as, will they refuse to let me on the plane wearing jeans, is my pass port out of date despite saying 2015, how on earth am I going to get to a hotel in a foreign country in the middle of the night. (I have decided to make no attempt to speak German to anyone: much safer to grin and point and, if they turn out to speak English, which lets face it they do, to complain about the awfulness of language teaching in English schools and say that it you understand that it is much improved nowadays.) Travel in fact went without a hitch: Taxi from Munich to airport hotel, shuttle from hotel back to airport, metro from airport to station. Since we were last here, German stations have become much more like English stations, with lots of different kinds of coffee and sandwiches.

(I am writing this in the breakfast buffet on Tuesday morning. It sounds as if Kundry is telling Percival that there is too much peril on the big TV in the front lobby, which is a nice touch.)

Obviously resorting to national stereotypes of any kind is very cruel, so I shall merely say that all the German people I have met are wildly eccentric, drink copious amounts of Guinness and kiss the blarney stone. Oh, and that all the trains run on time.

Any way you don't want to hear about this, you want to hear about the opera. I got to Bayreuth by about 1PM as planned, and by 2PM people in the hotel were wearing tuxes and or dinner jackets (possible even la smokings) eating very small sandwiches at the free buffet, and waiting for the shuttle to take them to the Festspeilhaus. (The shuttle was designed to look like and old fashioned vintage car, but it would have been better if it has been an ordinary minibus but bigger.) Reception set me up with a German lady who wanted to buy the spare ticket. We didn't manage much conversation. "It is beautiful, on top of the hill, yes? Very singular." "Yes, Covent Garden is really not quite the same." (There seemed, in fact, to be very few English people around: quite a large number of spectacularly over dressed Japanese people, though.) I opted for best waistcoat tie and hat rather than tux, although you will be glad to know that as a result of weightwatchers I can get into the smart suit if needs be. Probably for Parsifal. (I bought a pair of cufflinks on the station. That was quite fun: no, I do not want something with union jacks on them, or gold plated, or with diamonds. I want something costing about five pounds to keep my shirt on.)

For future reference, there is a very posh looking restaurant in situ at the festival house, but there are also kiosks selling champagne, coffee, ice cream, pretzels, official Bayreuth bratwurst etc etc etc. Each interval technically lasts an hour, although I think that means "the next act starts exactly 1 hour after the curtain goes down on the previous one". By the time you've applauded and got in and got out again, you don't seem really to have that long. (Better than insane Covent Garden 15 minute breaks half way through Mastersingers, of course. The leisurely pace of Bayreuth makes a real difference to your perception of opera, I think: it feels much more as if you are watching three short opera than that you've enlisted for a five hours of solid music. The end of act 3 in particular felt a lot like the climax of a whole long show.)
Of course, the last time we were here we saw Dutchman / Hollander so we didn't have a chance to get blasé about going in and out of the theatre I guess German fire regulations must be different from ours, or else they don't apply to Wagner. The whole of the main arena ("stalls" is to small a word) is a mass of long rows, without an aisle of gangway in site...everyone has to push past everyone else (efficiently if you are German, politely if you are English). The comfortableness of the seats has been massively exaggerated, especially by me. I almost had enough leg room. The lady in front of me seemed to glare at me because my knees were sticking into the back of her chair, but I explained in perfect English that given my height and Wagner's acoustics, this was probably unavoidable. The man behind be kept sticking is toes into my bottom.

The programme notes say that the question everyone asks about this production, to the exclusion of everything else, is "why are the chorus dressed as rats". I think that if you take a nice romantic fairy tale like Lohengrin and dress the chorus as rats (black rats, mostly, but a few white rats, and some pink rats during the love scenes) that is probably what you can expect audiences to focus on. During some of the exposition scenes, they lowered a big cine screen down from the ceiling and illustrated the action with cartoons of rats running down roads, being cut in half, and having crowns inside their heads. This didn't really help very much. They were, I must admit, very good rats: there was much action of them waving their little hands and a quite funny scene in one of the musical interludes where two of them were chased across the stage by people in green environmental suits, possibly intended to be rat exterminators. This is, apparently supposed to emphasis that Lohengrin is a very human opera about the relationships between two human beings, and not a fairy tale about a man from the land of the Grail and a magic swan at all. I mean, I like crazy productions, I like to be challenged and I don't even mind being annoyed, but I actually didn't understand what this was doing. Act one begins with Lohengrin struggling to open some doors on a blank white wall, possibly (if we agree with the programme) representing Time; but the whole of the rest of the act seemed to be set in some kind of laboratory, with the rat-chorus being poked by the exterminators. About half way through (when Lohengrin arrives and every body cheers up) they take of their rat costumes and spend the rest of the act in bright yellow pimp-suits (the rat masks and tales are suspend above the stage on wires.) This made me think of that scene in the Phylida Lloyd ring when the vassals go from being grey riot police to colourful wedding guests? But it wasn't nearly as well done. Possibly we were supposed to think of them as the Common People be experimented on? Lohengrin himself is done fairly straight, he walks on from the back bathed in light, with a swan in a boat (or possibly a bath) being carried by four of the rats. However, the music – particularly the end of the first act when everyone is singing joyfully about how Lohengrin has exonerated Elsa and is going to lead them into battle against the Hungarians (is it Hungarians? Foreigners, anyway) is quite brilliant: as everyone says the Bayreith chorus is on a different level to anything you've heard anywhere else.

(Getting the impression they'd like to me leave the breakfast room and go somewhere else. Efficiently.)

….Resuming in a coffee shop in Richardwagnerstreet. (Stratford doesn't have William Shakespeare Avenue and Measure for Measure villas, does it. I am not going to start doing that thing that people do in epistolary novels: "I am afraid that my host can barely say it.....") But I quite definitely have just ordered dark mocha. I did my usual thing of walking straight out of the hotel and finding myself in the mean back streets of Bayreuth, but eventually worked out where I wanted to be. Since Bayreuth is such a legend for us, its funny to think that for the people who live here, its just a place, with a discount supermarket and a sports centre and a disco describing itself as the Number One Partyspot. I think englishspeakingpeople should sooncopy the Germantalkingmethod of wordstogethersticking.

Coffee arrives slurp slurp.

Act Two of Lohengrin is if anything even more grotesque; we start with the baddies (can't be bothered to check spellings of names) plotting in what appears to be the wreakage of a hearse, complete with dead horse. And rats. The producer really likes that trick of moving scenery around the stage on invisible casters. Elsa spends the first half of act 2 in a room within a room, made of mirrors so she is talking to the reflection of herself, and, unfortunately and unintentionally, I assume, the reflection of the conductor. (It really is very strange and special not to be able to see the orchestra or the conductor: you wonder why, when so much else of Wagner's dramaturgy – good word – was copies and taken for granted, I don't think there's anywhere else that hides the orchestra under the floor. The stage is, I think, narrower – certainly more square – than at Covent Garden – but it seems to go back forever.) But the second half of the second act was so pretty that I couldn't really complain about it, even though still don't really follow it. The rats took their costumes off (again) and this time the men rats were in tuxes and the lady rats were in bring pastal coloured lolly pop dresses (they still had tails, though.) The act finishes with Lohengrin and Elsa walking down the aisle to be married in front of a cross. But two of the men in exterminator costumes come and take the cross apart; but Lohengrin takes the pieces and holds them in the air, so you end with Elsa kneeling in front of a cross which Lohengrin is holding.

I had an official festival Bratwurst in the interval.

The enthusiastic man in the bar tells me that Lohengrin (the singer) has been the cause of a controversial argument in the Germany, because his singing is not macho enough for the classic Wagnerian parts; but that if he is too lyrical for Sigmund he makes up for it by being such a good actor. (I didn't get if he was saying that he had actually done straight acting parts, or just that he acted far better than most opera singers too.) Certainly, he had the great otherworldly voice for the big Lohengrin arias, but was very natural and convincing in the love scenes with Elsa. (Although they both suffered from Sad-actor-disease; throwing each other across the stage and at one point Elsa curls up in a fetal ball in the way real people don't.) The chorus actually got rid of their masks altogether; they were wearing military uniforms with swan insignia.

The big question is : how did they do the scene where the swan transforms into Elas's brother? The answer in this case being, they didn't; or rather, he didn't so much transform as, er, hatch. I think everything had been so mad up to this point that all we could do with the ending was to nod and say "aha". When Lohengrin gives his answer to Elsa' question about who he is, there is a large question mark projected on to the back of the stage, which becomes an exclamation mark when he is finished. Subtle. The boat comes back, this time as a large object with a silk covering hanging on it, and a large swan embroidered on the silk. At the last moment, Lohengrin whips the cover off and underneath is, er, an egg. Lohengrin, with I have to say a completely straight face, turns the egg slowly around, and reveals a large male embryo (I take it that it was supposed to be the star-baby from 2001, but by this stage, who knows). The embryo stands up and cuts its own umbilical chord, by which point everyone else on stage, apart from Lohengrin, has dropped dead. I have absolutely no idea.

They really do milk the applause in Europe, don't they. Principles together, principles separately, chorus master, chorus master and the orchestra really perform in casual clothes, just because we can't seem them? I somehow assumed they'd be in full evening dress like BBC radio news readers.

There was definite booing from the front rows as the curtain went down, but a proper standing ovation for Lohengrin himself (a few people first off all, and then a few more people, and eventual, everyone, even the England.) I think that's a fair summary, actually, scattered booing for the production, standing ovation for Lohengrin.

The reception just called to say they have a buyer for Tannhäuser, so provided I can find someone for Tristan, you get your money back. It's worth knowing for another year: planning at trip to stay in Bayreuth and look at Ludwig's castles, but with a very good chance of buying tickets on the day. Although if it is true that the festival has loosened up about "the black market" it may be that this won't be as feasible in the future.

There is an exhibition in the grounds of the festspielhaus about Bayreuth and the Jews. Apparently, Wagner himself was quite anti-semitic, Cosima was very anti-Semitic, and Hitler was really not very nice at all. The exhibition is basically photos and biogs of Jewish singers some of whom performed in the early years but were progressively excluded by Cosima and the next generation. Which makes the point quite interestingly.

There is a large queue outside the bookshop opposite the cafe. I am going to go and see if Lohengrin will sign my programme.



Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Double Dutch

I am not what you would call a purist. In the last two years, I have seen Siegmund pull Notung from between Sieglinde's legs; Siegfried on a skateboard wearing a cowboy hat; and a "Flying Dutchman" which seemed not to have an actual Dutchman in it. All of these productions earned at least a qualified "bravo!" from me. They made sense dramatically; they were theatrically interesting; and they explored ideas which are certainly present in the operas which they were responding to.

The Welsh National Opera's current staging of the "Flying Dutchman" is directed by someone called David Pountney. His programme notes explain that Space represents to the twenty-first century imagination very much what Sea did to that of the nineteenth: "the ultimate lonely, desolate place where someone might be condemned to wander aimlessly." Well, yes, which is why sci-fi appropriates sea-stories so shamelessly. There are probably half-a-dozen updatings of the "Dutchman" story in "Star Trek" alone. It's not hard to imagine a science-fictionalized staging of the opera. The helmsman falling asleep on an empty bridge as an ancient black starship appears on the viewscreen; the cursed Captain emerging from cryogenic storage and beaming aboard; holograms of his long-dead crew terrifying the living during their shore-leave; the final moment where Senta hurls herself out of an air-lock and the black ship dissolves into an Industrial Light and Magic explosion (followed by a brief hologram of the lovers against the stars.) Yes, Wagner's music is explicitly and un-subtly about the sea; but science fiction frequently appropriates nautical music, so there wouldn't be too much of a culture clash.

Instead, Mr Pountney offers us a Cube. A very nice Cube, certainly. Some critics thought it was an allusion to "2001: A Space Odyssey" which smacks of desperation. On to this Cube, all kinds of video-imagery is projected: it's that kind of production. The first thing we see may be the radar receiver on a submarine; although it could possibly have been a rotating sofa. (It's that kind of production.) We keep seeing film of what appear to be factories and industrial sites. The notes inform us that some of these are "the Soviet space training center in Kazakhastan" because "in its crumbling bureaucratic Soviet way it has something of the lonely, isolated world of the Flying Dutchman." Well, obviously.

Daland and the Steersman are discovered above the Cube, on metal scaffolding. In the Dress Circle, we had to crane our heads to actually see the singers, but we did have an excellent view of the Cube. (We had no chance of seeing the surtitles, though I doubt they would have helped very much.) The Steersman descends to stage level to sing his ballad. He is upstaged by the Cube. It turns out that the Cube is made of four separate panels. They are capable of sliding around the stage independently, and do so incessantly. Memo to producer: If you insist on using sliding panels; and if your stage machinery is apt to make scraping noises, then for goodness sake don't slide the panels during the quiet passage in the score. The Steersman falls asleep rather dramatically: if you didn't know, you'd have thought he was having a heart attack. (The programme notes claim "Solaris" as an influence. This would make sense if it was the kind of production where the Steersman is dreaming the whole thing. But nothing further seems to come of this.) As the music becomes sinister, we see huge, close up video images of someone's Eye. The sliding panels eventually part to reveal Bryn Terfel, initially in shadow. During the Dutchman's great monologue, we encounter Production Idea #2: a huge, black and white close up video of Bryn's face is projected on the Cube. (Not, however, live footage of him singing, because this would have been too "Brechtian.") The panels move around him while he sings.

When he was Wotan at Covent Garden, Bryn was required to share a stage with actual pyrotechnics. One wonders whether having to sing against Silly Production Ideas had anything to do with his decision to take a break from opera and spend more time with his recording contract?

Interestingly, Daland, the Steersman and the Dutchman have come dressed for a perfectly sane performance in generic gray trench coats and indistinct semi-period sailor's gear. Daland and the Dutchman act out their meeting in a perfectly naturalistic manner, as if no-one had told them about the production going on around them. The video imagery on the panels remains at crossed-purposes to the action. When the Dutchman explains to Daland that his ship is loaded with treasure we are given videos of a room full of telephones. Have we perhaps wandered into "A Night at the Opera" by mistake?

The Spinning Song is performed by a group of women who are, I guess, meant to be Soviet factory workers, with Mary as a matriarchal overseer. They are doing some sort of work on big, luminous tubes which dangle from the ceiling; these could possibly have been fiber optic cables? If so, does this mean that the Dutchman and his telephones represent an obsolete form of telecommunications? Instead of mooning over a painting of the Dutchman, Senta is obsessively drawing a gigantic eye which Mary keeps erasing.

The duet between Senta and the Dutchman is the only point where the production achieved any kind of coherence. The singers walk between the moving panels as if through a maze; the panels at all times separating the two lovers from each other. The singer's faces are again projected on them. Senta stands on the stage by herself, singing to an image of the Dutchman; then the Dutchman sings to an image of Senta. As the duet proceeds, they get closer together: at one point, they are on either side of panel, touching each other through it. Only at the end of the duet do they come face to face, and Daland binds their hands together. This makes an obvious, sub-Freudian kind of sense: Senta has been obsessed by a painting of the Dutchman; and the Dutchman has spent centuries dreaming of a woman like Senta. They are both in love with an image of the other. I'm far from sure that the music says that they experience disillusionment or transfer their love from the erotic ideal to the real person, but it worked okay as a stage-idea.

The climactic choral section was completely doo-lally. In the text, Daland's sailors and their women jocularly invite the Dutchman's ghost-sailors to join their party; when the ghosts awake, they are terrified, and there follows a sort of musical battle in which the sailor's jolly tune tries to drown out the ghost's spooky one. Here, there is no differentiation between the ghosts and the sailors (both parts seem to be sung by one chorus). As the ghost's dark music starts, the sailors, er, gang-rape the women. One tries in vain to make sense of this: the Dutchman is a force which possesses mortals and drives them crazy? There's not much moral difference between Daland's sale of his daughter and an actual rape? I give up.

And so we end with Senta's redemptive suicide, which is represented on the stage by the panels sliding back together into a cube, and video images of an astronaut, followed by images of a desolate landscape, possibly the Challenger pictures of Mars, but equally possible a desert where a cosmonaut might land. Representing the lovers coming back to earth and being redeemed; or going off to Mars and being redeemed, or something.

Producers seems to only be capable of having two ideas about Wagner.

#1: "Despite the mythological setting, this is really a very human drama about ordinary people, who quarrel, fall in love, steal, screw their sisters and commit suicide just like we all do every day. I will therefore make the cast wear boiler-suits".

#2 "Despite the mythological setting, this is really a study of Freudian psychology in which the characters act out various unconscious and spiritual journeys. I will therefore make the cast perform in front of black curtain."

Pountney's production seems to involve both ideas. His programme notes tell us that "the horror is the least convincing aspect" and "the whole redemption theme is not an important part of the whole piece", which seems rather close to saying that he decided to omit the plot of the "Flying Dutchman". On the other hand (referring to the scene two duet) he explains "All we are describing here is the difference between the materialistic and the spiritual view of the world. You can find both of these in Kensington -- you don't need to go to sea."

There is no obligation on a producer to follow the composer's stage directions. There is not even any obligation on a producer to follow the composer's general intentions: in the theater, and in music theater, anything goes. The producer is, however, obliged to be intelligible to the audience -- preferably, intelligible to an audience whose only previous knowledge of the work is the programme synopsis -- and, above all, he is obliged to be interesting. This staging failed on all accounts: it had nothing to say about the opera; it was opaque; it was dull. One really felt that one was watching a brilliantly sung concert performance, with some rather uninteresting but irrelevant special effects as a distraction.

According to the programme, Pountney's previous production used a an open-air stage which floated on a lake. It was, apparently, socio-political. Erik lived on an island inhabited by ducks and Senta saw a grand piano coming up out of the water. "The one thing that it was impossible to do on a lake was have anything to do with boats."

I guess we got off lightly.


Thursday, September 15, 2005

What I did on my summer holiday (2)

Saturday, 10 AM
"I shall need a dinner jacket," thought Andrew to himself.

"I shall hop on a Bus to glamorous Macclesfield, purchase one in Burtons, and be back in time for lunch" he decided.

Sunday :8PM:
Andrew returned home, the proud possessor of a dinner jacket.

Mr Burton had never heard of dinner jackets. Nor had Mr Marks and Mr Spencer. So Andrew decided he had better go to Stockport, which is even more glamorous than Macclesfield.

Mr. Branson had put a big notice outside his railway station, saying that there were no trains to Stockport. Or Manchester. Until October. (He was kind enough to drive everyone to Stockport on a Very Slow Bus, and to allow them to pay the full fare so they wouldn't feel bad about it.) In Stockport, they had heard of dinner jackets, but said that only very, very thin people were allowed to wear them. So on Sunday Andrew allowed Mr Branson to drive him all the way to Manchester on the Very Slow Bus.

Manchester is more glamorous than Macclesfield and Stockport put together. It has an art gallery, and a cinema, and a tram, and a theater and a Great Big Shopping Mall which will sell dinner jackets even to fat people.

Andrew left Manchester with a dinner jacket, and a funny shirt and a red bow tie to go round his neck, and a red cummerbund to go round his tummy. (48 hours later, he would discover that he did not own a pair of cuff-links.)

Funnily enough, "Own a cummerbund" had never featured on any of Andrew's lists of "30 things I expect to do before I die"

Note for Americans
Dinner Jackets" are "Tuxedos". Side-walks are "Y-fronts".

Friday (morn)
I fly just rarely enough that I still find it exciting. It amuses me that if you go up high enough on a rainy day, you can find a sunny one above it. It intrigues me that from a sufficiently high vantage point, the ground looks like a map -- and yet they had maps before they had areoplanes. However much money I may have paid for the ticket, the in-flight wine and sandwiches still feel like "free stuff". I even like airports. In the terrestrial world, I only go to a shopping malls as a last resort, when I need to do something desperate like buy a dinner jacket. I get out again as quickly as possible, hoping not to have been corrupted by the experience. But when I am flying, it feels wonderfully naughty to spend an hour in an area where there is nothing to do but look at silk ties and buy croissants from Cafe Nero.

Oh, and I discovered that I'm a racist. There was some small delay while queuing up to have our passports checked, and I found myself thinking "That's typical, that is: the security guy is obviously giving that woman a hard time because she's wearing a hajib". When it was my turn to go through I discovered that the woman in the hajib was, er, the passport officer.

Speaking of stereotypes: every single train we caught in Germany left and arrived on time. But who on earth had the idea of laying out railway timetables by time rather than by destination -- so you can find out what trains leave at 18:00, but not the time of the next train to Nuremberg?

Friday: Eve
The first thing I actually saw outside the station was a piece of public art (or possibly an advertisement for the local sushi bar) consisting of giant plastic multi-colored frogs climbing the side of a building.

I thought: "I'm here. I'm actually here."

Actually, that's a lie. I really thought "Where's the taxi rank?" and "How can I be thinking about something so mundane as taxis" and "Are all these other people fellow pilgrims?" and "We shouldn't look too excited, or they'll think we're mad English tourists?" (I guess foreigners arriving in Stratford expect the shop staff to wear ruffs and the policemen to speak in iambic pentameters.)

Bayreuth is not, in fact, a Wagner theme park. The chemist shops all appeared to have operatic names ("Parsifal Apotheke") and the bookshops all have musical tomes prominently on display but its probably easier to avoid Wagner on Bayreuth high-street than to avoid, say, Godiva in Coventry or Shakespeare in Stratford.

Louise had visited the town once before. She pointed out that if I crossed the road and looked to my left, you could see the festspielhaus at the top of the hill. So, frogs notwithstanding, we had come to the right place. It was 4PM. People would have been sitting down for Act 1 of Tristan at that very moment. Bastards.

I don't speak any German. I can follow the text of a libretto and work out that walvater sounds better than Father of Battles, but Louise had to brief me for ten minutes so that I could say "Guten Tag" to her German friends without sounding like a complete idiot. (I didn't wish to look too much like an ignorant Englishman in front of the person who had performed The Miracle of the Tickets.) Over lunch I expressed an opinion about Gotterdammerung, and evidently gave the impression that I was referring to something called the Twilight of the Dogs.

Three hours before curtain, I started to become twitchy, like an alcoholic who needs to know where all the liquor is before the party starts. Could I actually have a look at the tickets, please? I need to see the words "Flying Dutchman, Curtain 6PM" or I won't be able to relax. I think we should definitely have our pre-theater snack at the festspielhaus rather than at the hotel, and I think we should get there two hours early, in case it turns out that 6PM is 4 o'clock in Euros.

So we had tea and cakes in the the big posh expensive restaurant in the park near the theatre. We decided that chocolate fondue would be dangerous to my dinner jacket, and the confection described as Cup Tristan and Isolde would just be dangerous. We watched people arriving. Men in Dinner Jackets, presumably not purchased in Macclesfield. Women in a range of styles, from the mildly formal to the most outrageous ball-gowns. The doors don't open until shortly before curtain; Wagner's grand vision of total theater evidently didn't include front-of-house amenities, so people assemble on the courtyard in front of the theater. They admire everyone else's clothes, and drink champagne and think "How did they get their tickets?" A man appeared on the balcony and snapped photos of the assembled Wagnerians. For some reason, there was a large alsation dog running lose among the opera goers. "Is it Uncle Wolf?" asked someone.

There is nothing so mundane as a bell. The brass section of the orchestra comes onto the balcony and blows a fanfare.

Then we are inside; inside the theater Wagner built with his own hands, or at any rate, his own money, or at any rate, Prince Ludwig's money. The only theater suitable to perform his works. Parsifal is sub-titled "a festival play for the consecration of the stage". This festival. This stage.

And if you are relatively sane, there's no way of explaining it to you. Louise phoned me on my 40th birthday to tell me we had the tickets. (I think they were returns; it seems likely that in the wake of July 7th, someone had decided that Bavaria was too close to London for comfort.) I spent the next 48 hours telling all my friends that I had tickets for Bayreuth. I could tell they were impressed by the way they said "What's a Bayreuth?" I referred extensively to the seven year waiting list to try to get my point across. "Oh I see" said one of my colleagues, "It's a bit like getting front row seats for Last Night of the Proms." Flash ended up with " what you are saying is that you are going to Germany to hear a German opera sung in German by Germans." Louise explained it to her friends in these terms: "Remember the pop group you fell in love with when you were imagine that you never fell out of love with it, and imagine that they have just reformed, and that you have a ticket. It's like that." Like me, her first brush with Wagner were the TV broadcasts of a Bayreuth Ring on BBC2 in the 80s. Like me, she spent her teenage evenings obsessively playing the Goodall Rings and Parsifals on vinyl, when she should have been listening to Duran Duran and taking drugs. Occasionally one of would say "Of course, our name's on the waiting list. One day we'll go to Bayreuth." Neither of us really believed that one day we'd be inside Wagner's own theater listening to an opera.

"At some point" said Nietzsche, "We will all be sitting together in Bayreuth, unable to imagine how anyone could stand being anywhere else." (1)

Nothing that I had read, or imagined, or dreamed could possibly have prepared me for how uncomfortable the seats would be.

You might think that here, at the epicenter of his cult, at a festival still largely controlled by his grandchildren Wagner's intentions would be followed pretty slavishly. You'd be wrong. There is as much experimentation here as there is anywhere else. This is a Good Thing: Bayreuth is a living theater festival, not a mummified pastiche of productions from 1878. This years Parsifal apparently interprets the Holy Grail as a dead woman's vagina. We got off relatively lightly by comparison. A production of the Flying Dutchman which, er, didn't have the Flying Dutchman in it.

(My synopsis of the opera can be found here, if you think that might help.)

The very first stage image gave us a pretty good idea of what we were in for. Wagner's stage direction is "A steep cliff....a wide expanse of sea. Daland's ship has just cast anchor close to the shore." This was represented by a modern house interior: wallpaper, an armchair, a radiator. A big flight of stairs divides the stage in two -- the wall behind the stairs is hidden by a red curtain. Something which is recognizably the first scene of the Flying Dutchman is going on in the little flat: a man in a naval officer's uniform is telling his sailors that they aren't going any further tonight, and they might as well have some rest. On the stairs, a little girl (silent, not in the libretto) is playing with a toy ship; moving it slowly along the banisters. There's a framed picture of a ship on a wall, lit by a small light: next to it, there is a blank, discolored space, where another painting has obviously been removed. The girls also plays intermittently with a marionette in a sailor's uniform, like her father.

"Aha!" I thought "So, the conceit is going to be that the story is going on in the little-girl's imagination."

After the steersman has fallen asleep, the Dutchman arrives, and sings his great opening aria: "The term is up. Once more the seven years have run their appointed course." (2) He delivers the soliloquy on the stairs. He's dressed as a modern naval officer, the same as Daland. The two characters are made up to look completely indistinguishable. During the monologue, the Little Girl and Daland are in the main room. The girl is sitting on Daland's knee. Daland is reading her a story. The story of the Dutchman, perhaps? The red curtain at the back of the stage is slowly raised, revealing that the space behind the stairs is exactly the same as the space in front of it. Except – hang on, why is there a radiator hanging from the ceiling? Realisation dawns: what has been revealed behind the curtain is an upside-down reproduction of the same room. We are looking at two identical rooms, one a mirror image of the other, bisected by the flight of stairs. While Daland reads to the girl in the main room; the Dutchman sings his aria in the reflection of it. In fact., the person singing isn't "the Dutchman" at all, but some kind of double or doppelganger for Daland. When Daland and the Dutchman meet and strike their bargain (the Dutchman's treasure in return for the hand of Daland's daughter in marriage) the two singers strike identical poses; make identical gestures: at one point, the two of them stand in front of each other. Just as we have two reflected images of the same space, so we have two reflected images of the same person. My old man's a Dutchman.

In scene 2, we meet Daland's daughter Senta; who is dressed exactly the same as the little girl. Unexpectedly, Mary (Daland's housekeeper) is a third copy of the little girl. She's wearing dark glasses – apparently blind. The picture of the ship has been removed from the wall: both Senta, and the little girl -- or, as we are clearly supposed to say, both the young Senta and the grown-up Senta – reach out obsessively for the blank space.

No-one does any spinning during the spinning song: the other girls circle Senta threateningly.

At one point, slides of the two rooms are projected onto the stage and rotate, giving a powerful kaleidoscopic impression -- reflections of reflections. In another sequence, a slide of the red curtain is projected onto both halves of the stage.

When grown-up Senta meets the Dutchman, they sing their great duet on the stairs (in the mirror image room); but while the song is going on, Young Senta is again being read stories by her father. Before he reads to her, the little girl hitches up her dress and makes a few dance steps in front of her father – possibly hinting that there is something un-usually close in their relationship?

When the curtain opened on scene 1, I thought "This is rather interesting and clever"; but by the time we had got to the end of scene 2, and the various permutations of Little Girl interacting with Daddy Daland and big girl interacting with Daddy Dutchman had been worked through, I was starting to feel "Yes, I've got the message, and I am not convinced that it's a very interesting one".

But when we get to scene 3, the production becomes so visually playful that I stopped worrying about interpretation. The one thing everybody agrees on is that the Bayreuth chorus is fabulous. The climax of the opera comes when Daland's crew try to wake up the sailors on the Dutchman's ship. They are terrified when the crew of ghosts appears. Unusually for Wagner, this is a big, tuneful choral number. Although the Flying Dutchman is a reasonably short piece of work, Wagner still managed to make it an endurance test for the audience by insisting on its being performed in one long act. And when you hear the end of the Senta/Dutchman duet in "act II" segue directly into "Steersman leave your watch" in "act" III you realise that he was absolutely right. It's an overwhelming moment which would have been ruined, musically and dramatically, by sticking an interval in between. So, as ever, it may very well be that the music was so wonderful at this point that it made everything else in the production seem wonderful as well.

Young Senta – the silent girl – is playing with her sailor marionette. The chorus of sailors are all dressed like the puppet, and engaging in Pinnochio style dancing. They are obviously marionettes too. But Senta also has another puppet: a skeletal deaths-head dressed in the more dressy uniform of her father and the Dutchman. When the puppet sailors are joined by the ghosts, the Dutchman's crew turn out to all be dressed like the Dutchman: which is to say, Senta's toy sailors are terrified by a whole ship full of copies of her father. And at the climax a gigantic figure the Daland/Dutchman/Death puppet is lowered, upside down onto the stage; and lifts up the grown-up Senta and carries her away. Obviously, one remains absolutely silent during a production at Bayreuth – I believe you still aren't allowed to applaud Parsifal – but I certainly felt like cheering at this point. Even though I didn't have the faintest idea what it meant.

At the end of the opera, when Senta proclaims her life-long faithfulness to the Dutchman by committing suicide, we see grown up Senta advancing up the stairs towards the Dutchman, who recoils from her, rather like a movie vampire being repelled by the Cross. He eventually disappears at the top of the stairs...but Senta finds that all the doors in the reflected house are closed off, and she can't leave. She's left trying to find an exit: Mary (old, blind Senta, we assume) is still looking at the empty space left by the picture of the boat.

What to say? Clearly, this has more to do with Sigmund Freud than Sigmund the Walsung. I thought that the idea was that the Daland character had sexually molested his daughter; and that Daland and the Dutchman were a series of reflections of "good father" and "bad father". The blank space left by the painting of the ship represents Senta's repressed memories of her abuse – I think Freud may actually uses the metaphor of an empty picture frame to describe his concept of a "screen memory", a single image which "stands in" for something which is too painful to face. The ghostly Dutchman are the monstrous memories of what her father did to her, which she's both frightened of and obsessively attracted to. Marrying the Dutchman represents recovering the memories of abuse, which would cure her. Louise, on the other hand, thought that Daland was not an abuser but merely an absent father; a father who was away at sea or who had died when the girl was very young -- hence the death's-head. The Dutchman is a dream father who she has created to compensate for the absence of the real one. These memories means that she can't "move on" and grow up: she'd sooner go with the dream lover than stay with real-life Erik.

Well, the libretto of the Dutchman certainly contains lots of imagery about dreams, fantasies, and fathers. Almost the first thing which Daland says is "to trust a wind is to trust the devil"; and within five minutes, the Steersman is falling asleep at his post, singing "Oh gentle south wind, do not fail". Immediately, the Dutchman appears and tells his story about cursing the wind and being cursed to wonder the earth until judgment day. It is not too much of a stretch to say that the Dutchman has to some extent being invoked or called by Daland and the Steersman's words – as Freud might have said, that he is a projection of their fears. When Daland discovers that the Dutchman is fabulously rich and looking for a wife, he says "Could all this be a marvelous dream?" Senta, of course, has been looking at a picture of the legendary sailor and singing ballads about him just before the real thing turns up on her doorstep: again, it is not too unreasonable to think that he could be an externalisation of her erotic fantasies. Before the Dutchman turned up, Erik says that he had a dream of Senta's father giving her away to a mysterious sailor – making the Dutchman a projection of his fears that Senta will leave him. The Dutchman himself says that he has dreamed of Senta ("for in my dreams of yearning long unnumbered this was the face that I would see"); Senta wonders if the Dutchman is only a dream. And the big musical climax is Daland's crew trying to wake the Dutchman's crew up. So at some level, you could read the story as a complicated nest of dreams in which everybody is everybody else's fantasy . The idea that the Dutchman is Senta's memory of her father is perfectly valid, but (as ever) less interesting than the complex web of dream and reflection that is going on in the actual opera. (3)

So I don't really have a problem with the interpretation that this production places on the work. My problem is that it is really asking you to follow two different stories in parallel: the mythical story about the ghost sailor and his lover which is in the libretto; and the psycho-realist drama about the girls memories of her absent Father that's being acted out on the stage. The words tell one story, but have little to do with the actions. The action tells a different story, but don't match the words. The music expresses both. The producer assumes that you know what "really happened" and are playing it out in your head, watching "his" version as a sort of critical negation of it. That's a lot to hold in your head: it makes Wagner's romantic melodrama seem quite intellectual.

It also means that there is an awful lot going on on the stage. While Senta and the Dutchman are falling in love, your eyes are being drawn away from them to look at Daland (arguably) falling in love with his daughter. While Erik is protesting his love for Senta, you are thinking "why have they lowered the red curtain at the top of the stage again." A production which you have to solve like a puzzle probably not doing its job very well. And this really did feel like a puzzle. When we were getting onto the plane home on Tuesday morning Louise suddenly said "Oh, I get it: the second blank picture frame was the where the picture of the Dutchman himself should have been."

Some mad people -- okay, Germain Greer – claim to like Wagner despite the storyline and despite the libretto. They think that Parsifal is as a symphonic tone poem; whose psychological impact comes wholly from the music; the story and the libretto is more or less dispersible. If you think this way, you might say of the Flying Dutchman: "This music invokes love, fear, horror, father-daughter relationships and dreams But the libretto is only a crap ghost story that makes no sense; so I am justified in making a completely new story that largely ignores the libretto, and treats the opera as abstract sounds." You'd be wrong, but I think this kind of production may be a symptom of this kind of thinking.

But it was done brilliantly well and the opening of the third act in particular was as stunning a piece of theater as I've ever seen. The singing, particularly the chorus, was head and shoulders above anything I've ever heard before.

The other main musical shrine in the town is the Markgrafiches Opernhaus, which I hadn't heard of before I arrived. In Wagner's time it was one of the largest opera houses in Bavaria; and it was what drew him to the town to begin with. Of course, when he saw it he realised that it was quite unsuitable for his music-dramas. One pictures a man arriving in London and taking one look at Covent Garden: "Very nice, but not big enough. I shall my own – over there."

Seeing the Margravial certainly helped me understand what was so radical about Wagner's festspielhaus. It's a gloriously vulgar baroque knickerbocker glory of a building, with with gilded cherubs holding a coat of arms above the proscenium arch, and neo-classical painting of Apollo on the ceiling. The royal box is totally out-of-control: it's in the center of the balcony, and has a gigantic crown floating about it. And get this: the auditorium is horse-shoe shaped so that the audience face towards each other, and towards the occupant of the royal box, rather than towards the stage. By comparison, the festspielhaus is relatively austere: its almost un-adorned, apart from a few Greek columns, and the seats may be uncomfortable, but you can see the stage from anywhere in the auditorium. Wagner even completely hid the orchestra – they are underneath a wooden platform which apparently does wonderful things to the acoustics (4) – and for the first time, turned the house lights out. You go to Bayreuth to see the stage, not the theater and certainly not the audience.

And thence to Haus Wahnfried, Wagner's home in Bayreuth. "The house of freedom from illusion," apparently: well, there was no chance that he would have called Accacia Terrace. Due to a bit of unpleasantness that broke out in the 1930s, it's actually something of a reconstruction of his house: it was badly bombed but restored in the 1970s. The hall and drawing rooms are apparently quite close to the way Wagner left them: the rest of the house is a museum. Rather an old fashioned museum, it must be said; with glass cases containing hand written musical scores and yellowing programmers; effigies of Senta and the Dutchman, used in an early production to give the effect of them floating up to heaven; rooms and rooms full of photos from all the Bayreuth productions; the Holy Grail from the opening nigh of Parsifal; and other holy relics: Wagner's hat, his death-mask, the chair he died in, and the piano on which he composed Siegfried, Gotterdamerung and Parsifal.

The drawing room (where you can sit and listen to recording of his music) is lined with Wagner's own book collection. I don't know if this has been arranged by the custodians of the museum or whether it is based on on his own bookcases, and I don't particularly care. We saw copes of Wolfram's Parzifal alongside the Nieblung saga and a copy of Beowulf.

"Do you know" said Louise "I do believe that's the same wallpaper that was on the set of the Dutchman." I think she was probably quite right.

The balcony of the house overlooks the garden where Wagner and Cosima are buried.

So on Sunday evening, after our German friends had departed, we ended up in a pub drinking German beer. We had a white beer in tall curved glasses, and when the waitress came back, we said "We liked that very much, but we want to try another beer. Bring us any nice German beer of your choice." She brought us a sweet hoppy beer in an earthenware beer mug. Also drinking and eating were people in dinner jackets who obviously been to that nights Lohengrin. Bastards.

We had a last wander round the town. We found the shop where the man on from the balcony was selling his pictures, and ordered a number. I bought some chocolates with Wagner's face on them for my mother, and plaster bust of Wagner for me.

"There's time for another beer before we catch the train", said Louise. "Unless you want to go and have another look at Wagner's house."

"We ought to go back to the house", said I.

"Are we going to put a flower on the grave?", said Louise.

"We should", said I.

"OK", said Louise. "I am going to go into that coffee shop there and offer them two Euros for the rose sitting in the vase on their table."

"That's an excellent idea", I said. "While you do that, I am just going into this green grocers to see if the ground opens up and swallows me."

Moments later, Louise returned.

"I think they would have sold me the flower", said Louise, "But they asked me whether I wouldn't rather go into that florists shop two doors down."

So we went into the florist shop two doors down, and Louise, though a combination of German and bluff, gave them to understand that we wished to purchase a small bunch of roses. The florist lady said something along the lines of "Ah! Vor der putten-onnen-Rikard-Wagner-houze-grave" followed by something which may have been "Das Inglish are krazy but in buzziness keepen uz"

So we went back to the house, which we actually know is not much more than a copy of the house, and there were some cyclists sitting on a bench having a rest, and they could see we had a bunch of flowers, and we got back to the big grave mound, where there were fading floral displays from the New York Wagner Society and the South African Wagner Society, and I had to stretch to get the flowers on the slab, and I said that photographing someone by a grave was inappropriate, but we took a picture of our roses on Wagner's grave, and then we went on a train and a plane and another train and on Tuesday we we were standing in Louise's kitchen in London and while she was making a cup of tea and toasting a crumpet she said "It's funny to think that our flowers are still in Bayreuth, isn't it?"

"We badly need," said C.S Lewis, "a word which means 'the exact opposite of disappointed'. 'Appointed' won't do."

(1) I know this because I have it printed in German on a teeshirt.

(2) The bookstall was selling postcards with a cartoon version of the Dutchman on the festspielhaus stage. "The seven years have run their appointed course. Perhaps this year I will get a ticket."

(3) And anyway, everyone knows that the sea is a symbol for the spirit and the unconscious. Doesn't Jim Hawkins dream about John Silver before he ever meets him, and carry on dreaming about him once the real John Silver is dead. Come to think of it, he sets out to Bristol to find the one-legged sailor whose been haunting his nightmares just after his father dies.

(4) The reason why they won't put modern seating is, apparently, that soft cushons could mess up the acoustics.