So now we come to the final episode of our Bayreuth adventure (see Part 1 and Part 2) – more to share with you and some final thoughts.
As I’ve already said, it was more of a pilgrimage than a vacation and, like all good pilgrimages, it had its highs and lows. Artists are not the only ones who suffer for their art. Wagnerites are sometimes asked to do the same.
If you’ve been following the last two episodes where I make frequent mention of the heat in the festspielhaus, you’re probably wondering just how hot it was.
So, How the Heck Hot Was it in the Opera House???
Frankly, halfway through the second night and the second Act of Die Walküre I thought to myself, “I’ll never survive this,” and we weren’t even halfway through the whole “Ring Cycle.” Somehow, I made it to intermission, but it was almost as hot outside as in the opera house. Intermissions at the festspielhaus last a full hour, during which I saw people eating huge bratwurst sandwiches dripping with mustard while downing enormous tankards of beer. The thought of sitting through the next act in that oppressive heat with a belly full of undigested bratwurst and beer was not, shall we say, on the menu, at least not on MY menu.
So, Dan and I opted for two big bottles of mineral water and shared a pretzel as big as my face. Eat your heart out, Texas, everything is bigger in Bayreuth. Suddenly, I started to feel a little better and then I saw her. Near the entrance to the restaurant there was a woman selling fans. For a moment, I thought I was seeing a misty mirage in the middle of the Sahara, except that it was real. That little red fan that cost a mere 10 Euros saved my life. It literally got me through the rest of the “Ring Cycle.”
And here’s the proof of how hot it was in the opera house…..
When we got back to the hotel restaurant for a very late dinner, Dan took off his bow tie. Do you see those black marks on his shirt? The bow tie was so sopping wet that the dye had run all over the neck of the shirt and under the collar. And THAT’s how hot it was in the opera house!!
You Meet the Nicest People in Bayreuth
Since Dan had extra shirts but hadn’t thought to bring an extra bow tie, we needed to buy one before the next performance that evening. The lovely people at the hotel sent us to Becker & Exner, the oldest haberdashery in Bayreuth, where we met Stefan.
What a charming fellow he was. After making apologies for his English, which was totally unnecessary, we explained what happened to Dan’s tie, and he didn’t seem the least bit surprised. “It happens a lot,” he told us. He also told us that the King and Queen of Sweden had been to the festival the week before and stayed at our hotel. His Majesty had stopped in to Becker & Exner for a bowtie and to check out a line of Swedish men’s wear they carry called Cavaliere. Stefan proudly showed me Cavaliere’s Look Book. I was very impressed. But, I couldn’t help wondering how the King and Queen of chilly Sweden had survived the heat of the festspielhaus.
We met this beautiful parisienne with her husband at the opera. He was having trouble figuring out how to take her picture with her phone, when I offered my help in French, of course. It turned out that they had lived in the US and he had worked in Philadelphia, my home town – small world. They were HUGE Wagner fans, and, like us, this was a dream come true. We saw them at every opera and, frankly, I should have taken her picture at each of them, since she always looked stunning, but, instead, we spent so much time chatting, that I not only didn’t get her picture, I didn’t even get their names. I did, however, get her permission to use this picture, so, hopefully, she’ll see it and contact me. In any case, she was lovely and terribly chic.
|Note Wagner Conducting in the Background -- He Was Everywhere in Bayreuth!!|
Dan and I fell in love with this German couple from Dusseldorf who were staying at our hotel for the festival. After the first night’s opera, we were all piled into the tiny elevator. Ludwig pushed the wrong button twice and he came in for some good-natured ribbing in English and German. We got out at our floor and went to the room to change my shoes (Hours of sitting and walking on cobblestones in high heels wreak havoc on your feet!). When we got back into the elevator, there was Ludwig. “Have you been riding up and down all this time trying to find your floor?” I teased. Ludwig found that very funny. When we got to the lobby, he introduced us to his girlfriend Elisabeth. Of all the couples we met, Elisabeth and Ludwig were our favorite. They had been friends for many years, and following the death of their spouses their friendship had blossomed. Just being in the company of 80-year-old Ludwig and Elisabeth (“I’m much, much younger,” she told me tactfully), made us feel young at heart. She had a wicked sense of humor and he simply radiated joie de vivre – a perfect pairing.
Another small world moment – Ludwig’s daughter was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia.
There were so many more wonderful, brief encounters with lovely people too numerous to mention – the passerby who saw us looking at a map, stopped to help and gave us some wonderful restaurant tips; the young African-American student who served us at a fast food counter who was enrolled in a Masters program working towards her dream of becoming an art curator; the handsome Argentinean gentleman who switched seats with my husband so that we could sit together (even though his was a superior seat); the French couple from Montpellier we met at Wahnfried (Wagner’s home) whose five-year old daughter zeroed in on my kitty cat blouse and insisted on talking to me. We not only shared a love of kitty cats, but maman and papa were also HUGE Wagner fans. I could go on and on.
So, How Was Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring Cycle”)?
To answer that question I need to address the 1,000-pound elephant in the room, the opera production itself, or should I say the crocodiles in the room. You’ll see what I mean.
First, a little background. I started noticing a change in opera productions in the 1970’s when the artistic world decided it was time to épatez les bourgeois (shock the middle class). Operas were taken out of the time period indicated by the composer and moved to contemporary settings (sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t), minimalism became all the rage with lots of monochromatic colors, mostly black, white and touches of red (sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t). We got used to gratuitous nudity, gender bending, pot shots at capitalism (ho hum) and all manner of anachronistic nonsense.
When a growing group of nihilistic, narcissistic production directors began to realize that instead of shocking us they were simply boring us, they decided it was time to annoy, insult and disgust us. Things have gone downhill from there. The brilliant pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim is said to have coined the phrase eurodreck. If you speak German or Yiddish, you’ll know what the word dreck means – excrement. It’s a perfect word for the muck being served up to us in European opera houses today. Americans have sanitized the term a bit by calling it eurotrash, and, with a few minor exceptions, the Metropolitan Opera has been mercifully free of the worst of it. But, whatever you call it, the current Bayreuth “Ring” is the worst (or should I say best?) example of eurodreck that I have ever seen.
The Director of this production, whose name I cannot even bring myself to type, did everything he could to destroy, demean and denigrate the characters and the relationships between them. Only Brünnhilde, the magnificent woman at the heart of the drama, escaped relatively, but not completely, unscathed.
Here is just a small, but no less egregious, example.....
Here is just a small, but no less egregious, example.....
At the end of Siegfried when our hero Siegfried has discovered and awakened the sleeping Brünnhilde with a kiss, they fall instantly and passionately in love. They sing of that nascent love to some of the most sweeping, romantic and thrilling music you’ll ever hear. But that didn’t cut it for our soi-disant brilliant director. He decided that while singing about their love for each other, Brünnhilde and Siegfried should be punching crocodiles that had inexplicably wandered onto the stage. And don’t even get me started about the cheap motel setting that substituted for the mountain top surrounded by a ring of fire that protects our sleeping heroine from all but the bravest man willing to fight his way through that ring of fire to get to her.
In 48 years of attending operas with some 15 complete Ring Cycles under my belt, I can say that this was the worst production I have ever seen of anything. The good news was, however, that no matter how hard the director, whose name I dare not type, tried to ruin Wagner’s magnificent story about these fascinating but flawed characters, he could not succeed in destroying Wagner’s music. Hearing that glorious music played by 110 superb musicians in the acoustically perfect house that Wagner built and listening to some of the greatest Wagnerian singers in the world today made it all worth it. When the production team came out at the end of the fourth and final opera to take a bow, the whole opera house erupted in loud and prolonged boos and hisses. That was definitely worth it.
I’ll close by quoting an opera-loving friend of a friend living in Europe. “I’m so lucky to be blind. I can just sit back and enjoy the music and the voices.” There were times when I did close my eyes and just let the music and the voices wash over me. Suddenly, the hideous dreck on stage disappeared and I knew why I was there – I was there for Wagner and his magnificent music. And, yes, it was worth it. It was the experience of a lifetime.