Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Distancing Wagner from Hitler - the easy way

An interesting article appeared in last Saturday’s Independent, a travel piece by Adrian Mourby about Bayreuth to tie in with the opening week of the Festival there. The piece is evidently aimed at readers who don’t have tickets (“You don't get inside the auditorium without a ticket to the festival – and obtaining one can take years of lobbying”), so they would probably we well advised to postpone their trips until September if they want any hope of finding a hotel. The headline is a bit of a curiosity, “access all arias”, but was no doubt cooked up by a travel subeditor in blissful ignorance of how irrelevant the concept of an aria is to Wagner’s mature work.
More interesting though are the efforts Mourby makes to distance the composer and his festival from the most problematic of its 20th-century patrons. The relationship between Wagner and Hitler is complex, to say the least, and however anachronistic it may seem, both bear some responsibility for the perception of shared ideology that has come down to us. You wouldn’t know that from this article though, which goes out of its way to avoid the problem altogether.
Mourby writes: “Although Hitler preferred Franz Lehár's operettas, he recognised Wagner as a useful tool in the redefinition of German identity.” The idea that Hitler preferred Lehár to Wagner has been floating around for a few years; I first read of it, coincidentally, in an article in the same newspaper. I’m not going to question the validity of the claim, except to say that it is a real gift for Wagner apologists. Lehár’s stock couldn’t be lower these days, so few are likely to complain when he starts taking the flak-by-association deflected from Wagner. And even if Wagner was not Hitler’s favourite composer, he was almost certainly his second favourite, inspiring much Nazi ideology and taking a far more central role in the project than that of a “useful tool”.
Further on we read “Many people dislike Wagner by association because his daughter-in-law supported Hitler.” Again that’s true, but it’s not the whole story. The support was mutual to say the very least. And the complicity of the entire Festival in the Nazi project is something we should not ignore. That’s a complicated business, not least because the Bayreuth archives for this period still remain sealed, but it deserves a little more attention, or at least acknowledgement, than it receives here.
Finally, Mourby completes his tour at Wahnfried, where he writes, “For a left-wing revolutionary on the run in 1848, Wagner became adept at cosying up to the ruling classes.” A left-wing revolutionary? Mourby evidently did not take Adorno with him for his holiday reading. But you don’t have to be an adherent of the Frankfurt School to take issue with the idea that Wagner’s involvement in the 1848 uprisings was in support of ‘left-wing’ causes. This being Wagner, a whole book exists on this very subject, Wagner: Race and Revolution by Paul Lawrence Rose. The concept of revolution, Rose argues, as a progressive liberal or left-wing phenomenon is the result of a wholly modern prejudice. He goes on to point out that this deliberate misunderstanding has been continuously exploited in the rehabilitation of Wagner since 1945.
Of course, this is only a travel piece, so there is no point in going too deep into the ideology here. Mourby no doubt has a brief to make Bayreuth sound like an attractive holiday destination while allaying any fears from potential visitors that their trip will be mistaken for a neo-Nazi pilgrimage.
Don’t worry, it won’t. And when you get to the Festspielhaus, you’ll find the management there in a similar state of denial. But that doesn’t mean these issues are going to go away any time soon.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Prom 14 Das Rheingold Barenboim

Prom 14. Wagner: Das Rheingold (concert performance, sung in German)
Iain Paterson Wotan
Stephan Rügamer Loge
Jan Buchwald,Donner
Marius Vlad Froh
Ekaterina Gubanova Fricka
Anna Samuil: Freia
Anna Larsson, Erda
Johannes Martin Kränzle Alberich
Peter Bronder Mime
Stephen Milling Fasolt
Eric Halfvarson Fafner
Aga Mikolaj Woglinde
Maria Gortsevskaya Wellgunde
Anna Lapkovskaja Flosshilde
Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim

Daniel Barenboim’s much anticipated Ring cycle got off to a great start with this evening’s Rheingold. He’s just finished a Ring staging with his company in Berlin, and these Proms performances are essentially concert versions of those. So there is plenty of musical coherency here, with the soloists attuned to Barneboim’s vision for the score. The whole thing has been reduced to a barely dramatized—let’s call it quarter-staged—concert version for the Proms by Australian stage director  Justin Way. He just gives us the bare bones, so that you can work out what is going on from the minimal interactions on the stage (the Albert Hall acoustic, so-called, prevents any words from being audible), letting Barenboim present the music without undue distraction. We came for Barenboim’s Rheingold, and that’s exactly what we got.
But Barenboim is an unpredictable Wagnerian. It is easy to get frustrated by his readings that stick rigidly to unyielding tempos with little sense of breadth in the climaxes. But then he can take the same work to a different company and present it completely differently, full of sensitivity and expressive detail. This evening’s Rheingold had a bit of both. There were occasional passages where he seemed to be on autopilot, but he gave the set pieces plenty of weight. I love the way he makes each of the thematic expositions into real events. The first time we hear the Valhalla motif for example, or the giants’ theme, it is as if the continuum of the music has been temporarily suspended for this major announcement.
The Berlin Staatskapelle fielded a band this evening that almost filled the stage. The throaty German brass instruments were a real treat, and completely different from anything you will hear from a British orchestra. The six harps were predictably inaudible in the Albert Hall, but it was nice to see them anyway. No anvils for some reason. All we got were some pre-recorded anvil sounds, and very feeble they sounded too. I’ve no idea why: this is one of the few effects in Wagner’s orchestra that could be guaranteed to project to the upper tier.
Justin Way had some interesting ideas about the placement and interaction of the singers, although for the most part they were lined up along the front of the stage, but then, given the number of characters he had to deal with in Scene Four, what else could he do? Curiously, the cast, even though they were all in concert dress, all seemed to resemble the characters they sang. Johannes Martin Kränzle, who sang Alberich, is a born actor, and there is no stopping him from immediately transforming into the part he plays. Then there is Stephen Milling as Fasolt, who really is a giant, and Peter Bronder as Mime who really is a…well, maybe he’s not literally a dwarf, but he was by far the shortest singer on the stage.
As a whole, the cast that Barenboim assembled was strong. No singer stood out as particularly weak, and some of the main leads gave real world class performances. It was a very international cast too, with many names we in the UK have only heard so far from recordings, but who, with any luck, will be visiting us again in the near future.
The first scene took place at the back right of the stage, a risky strategy, given that it meant the singers were even further from the audience. But both Kränzle as Alberich and the three Rhinemaidens had the projection to bring it off. Kränzle was last seen in the UK as Beckmesser at Glyndebourne. That too was and excellent performance, but his acting is so convincing that any memories of the Nuremburg stooge were distant indeed as he presented instead the reptilian Alberich. From Scene Two the action moved to the front of the stage, introducing Iain Paterson as Wotan and Ekaterina Gubanova as Fricka. Paterson is a likable and very human Wotan, with good diction and a very discursive approach to the part. He has a rich tone in store too, but reserves it for the more emphatic and dramatic passages. Gubanova is more lyrical in tone, and her every line was a musical delight. She has a rich and complex alto, elegant rather than pretty, but able to convey the drama of every phrase just through her timbre. I read from her bio that she also sings Brangäne, and I can imagine that she has few serious rivals for that role. Stephen Milling, I’m guessing, is one of the few singers here unfamiliar with Barenboim’s reading, as he and the conductor were out of synch on a few entries. But both he and Eric Halfvarson as Fafner have the deep, bassy voices required to make the giants sound convincing. Stephan Rügamer is light of tone as Loge, but still manages to project well. Anna Samuil is a bit Italianate for the role of Freia, but she’s there more to be seen than heard anyway. And Jan Buchwald and Marius Vlad are both convincing as Donner and Froh, and both are singers who could potentially shine in more demanding Wagner roles.
The Nibelheim scene sans anvils (or transformations of course) was a bit of a weak spot dramatically, although Way did a good job of the scene changes, with Wotan and Loge descending from their mountain top into the arena, and then arriving in the netherworld via one of the high staircases to the side of the stage. There were a few neat tricks in the final scene too, not least the appearance of Erda (Anna Larsson) up behind the bust of Henry Wood, who would no doubt have heartily approved of the whole enterprise. Larsson’s intonation was a little unstable at the start of her “Weiche, Wotan, weiche”, but she soon found her form. And the conclusion to the opera was a proper climax. It turned out that Iain Paterson had been saving the best for last, and his final exclamations were given with real power and gravitas. Jan Buchwald also upped his game for Donner’s final thundery invocations. The orchestral conclusion as the gods enter Valhalla was just thrilling, and gave no suggestion that either Barenboim or his brass players were holding anything back. An impressive Rheingold then, and one that augers well for the following instalments later on this week.