A ‘Ring’ at Bayreuth, as Beauty Shines Through Newness By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Published: August 2, 2006
BAYREUTH, Germany, Aug. 1 — During the curtain calls for any new production here at the Bayreuth Festival, it is practically a tradition for the audience to greet the creative team with a lusty chorus of competing boos and bravos. On Monday night the audience in the Festspielhaus honored that tradition at the end of “Götterdämmerung,” which concluded the festival’s new staging of Wagner’s four-part epic, “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”
Before agreeing to take on the “Ring,” Tankred Dorst, the eminent 80-year-old German playwright, director, filmmaker, storyteller and actor, had done just about everything one could do in theater with one exception: direct an opera.
“My advantage is that I don’t have to continue a career as an opera director,” he said when his appointment was announced. Judging from the audience response and the initial buzz in the opera world, his debut will be heatedly debated for months. I found his work fresh, provocative and mostly effective. But more on that later.
The real hero of the Bayreuth “Ring” is not Siegfried or Brünnhilde, but the conductor Christian Thielemann. Whether the Bayreuth Festival can still claim to be the world’s premier Wagner house has long been an open question. But whatever one’s take on the production, Mr. Thielemann drew a probing, radiant and exhilarating musical performance from this orchestra of dedicated instrumentalists (drawn from top-tier German orchestras), as well as from the robust festival chorus and an involving, if vocally uneven, cast.
Mr. Thielemann, who is not the most articulate talker, has a way of getting into trouble when he speaks of national tradition in German culture. What he means, though, it seems from reading some of his most recent comments, is that German orchestras in the first half of the 20th century brought a natural pathos and a traditional connection to their playing of Wagner. In striving to recapture this quality today, musicians are in a bind. The struggle comes through, and the pathos seems strained. Moreover, Mr. Thielemann, 47, is a conductor with a contemporary sensibility who also wants playing to be incisive and up to date.
This is a difficult balancing act. But he pulled it off in the “Ring.” His tempo for the stormy opening music of Act 1 in “Die Walküre” was on the slow side. The tension came from the clarity he brought to the strangely overlapping lines and riffs. By revealing the complexity of this driving, frightful episode, he made the music seem interesting as well as hypnotic.
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