Tag Archives: bayreuth

Guerrilla Opera: Reflections on Bicentennial ‘Rienzi’ at Bayreuth’s Oberfrankenhalle


Under the heading “Better Late Than Never,” I figure it’s worthwhile to jot down a few thoughts on my seeing Wagner’s Rienzi in Bayreuth this past July. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for months, but as the schedule got increasingly busier with work, teaching, and playing, the blog grew dormant. It’s not yet midnight/2014 EST, and it’s best to at least get this out during the same year as the performance…

Also, I feel compelled to at least mention it here because the performances seem to have came and went with little notice from the journalistic- and blogospheres. (A handful of reviews are here, here, and here, with a brief video from the Bayreuther Festspiele here.) I can somewhat understand the cold shoulder, unintentional or not: of the three orphans, Rienzi is perhaps the “most performed,” so particular attention was paid to performances of Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot. (But don’t let that fool you, Rienzi is rarely performed and gathers much dust.) And of course there was the Castorf Ring, which sucked much of the air out of the room at summer’s end…

The ban of the first three operas from the Festspielhaus remained in place during the bicentennial. However, as a compromise, they were performed down the road at Bayreuth’s Oberfrankenhalle: an arena that’s home to sporting events and pop concerts. (Bayreuth’s municipal opera house was closed for renovations.) Hence “guerrilla opera” – the experience of seeing any opera in such a venue would be memorable enough, let alone Rienzi in Bayreuth during the bicentennial celebrations. As regular readers know, I’ve attended many arena rock/pop shows, but never have I seen an operatic performance in such a venue. It provided an odd but unique backdrop to the occasion.



Because of July’s teaching schedule in Bregenz, Austria and August’s schedule back in MI, I was only able to make it to Bayreuth for two days and nights. After my train journey, I spent much of Saturday 07.06 wandering around Bayreuth on foot, including my venturing into town from my hotel, which was approximately an hour’s walk away. I of course paid my respects at Wahnfried and the Festspielhaus. I spent the first part of my Sunday catching up on work at the hotel before trekking to the Festspielhaus. (While there, I was unintentionally serenaded by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, members of which were staying on my floor and loudly singing excerpts while hanging out.) Heading into town for the performance, I found the Oberfrankenhalle to be prepped for the operagoers who came from all over the world, including cloth tables for drinks beforehand and during intermission. An added twist for me was the fact that, while it was my second visit to Bayreuth, this was my first time attending a Wagner performance in the city. And while I have yet to see a performance in the Festspielhaus, this was technically my first festival concert (since it was a co-production). (But considering I’m only 30 and live in the US, there’s still much time to get inside.)



The juxtapositions continued into the arena. Throughout the concourse formalwear abound, and merchandise stands sold official Bayreuth Festspielhaus goodies including clothing, CDs, DVDs, programs, and books. A very different scene than, for example, Rage Against the Machine at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

Once I took my seat – pricey, but near the back – the transformation/juxtaposition continued. Tiered seating filled the arena floor to provide the “illusion” of the theater, as well as a specially-designed stage and set design and and makeshift orchestra pit. Worlds had definitely collided to realize this performance:


The co-productions of the first three operas were joint ventures by the Bayreuther Festspiele and Oper Liepzig, the latter city being Wagner’s birthplace. At the podium was Bayreuth staple and renowned Wagnerian Christian Thielemann, leading the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Oper Leizpzig Chorus in a solid and often moving performance. Because of the venue, there were understandable limits to the staging, but Matthias von Stegmann‘s production was often effective, all things considered. It was a mix of old and new. While not a historic production by any means, allusions to ancient Rome were peppered throughout. As you can see from my (snuck) photograph above, coliseum arches were a mainstay for much of the production, often trading place with a tree and another pillared platform that occasionally doubled as a church. One effect – mostly effective but occasionally head-scratching – was the use of image and video projection. There were occasionally militaristic videos and images to complement the militaristic themes of ancient Rome (and/or other militaristic powers and societies). However, there was one image that appeared a few times that looked to be a visual continuation of either the bleachers or the “inner working” of the arena. Was it supposed to give on the illusion that the arena – and therefore the audience – was part of the story? Hard to tell, but it nonetheless made an impression, if only a confused one. The wardrobe choices were a mix of austere, leather-clad designer-wear for the militaristic and political figures, and pastel outfits for the townspeople who looked more at home in the Hamptons than ancient Rome. A nice visual cue throughout, however.

With it being almost six months later, some of the musical nuances are fuzzy in my mind. But certain aspects definitely stuck out and still remain clear:
• The chorus was lovely. They shined throughout, but particular highlights were the end of Act I and beginning of Act II. A very nice blend, especially considering the sporting complex’s acoustics.
• Mezzo-soprano Daniela Sindram as Adriano. Hers was the single role that musically stole the show. She was impeccable, emotive, and forceful.
• Tenor Robert Dean Smith as Rienzi and soprano Jennifer Wilson as Irene were quite fine, though they didn’t stand above the rest like Ms. Sindram. Smith’s Rienzi was rather light and lyrical.
• Thielemann and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra received the biggest ovation, and deservedly so.

We were treated to an edited version of Rienzi, not the 5+-hr. behemoth. (Though, considering the arena seating, I think my back appreciated it.) It would have been nice to see the ballet, but there are a lot of “would haves.” It would’ve been neat to have seen it in the Festspielhaus, but oh well. I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed Rienzi at Oberfrankenhalle. However, I must admit that the simple fact that it was Rienzi in Bayreuth during the bicentennial helped. Would I see Die Zauberflöte at such a venue, etc.? Nope. All that aside, it was a fine performance and truly a unique experience – one that helped make this Wagnerian’s bicentennial a special one. Furthermore, considering all the hubbub around Castorf’s bicentennial Ring at Bayreuth just a few weeks later, perhaps I lucked out with my 2013 Bayreuth experience? (Though, admittedly, I would like to see that Castorf production in person for myself.)

Bicentennial or not, here’s to more Wagner in 2014. First up, details from Chicago Lyric Opera on 01.17 regarding their next Ring…

More bicentennial Wagner posts here, here, here, here, here, and here.

(All above photos by yours truly, 2013.)

Austro-German Opera-ing 2013

I recently returned from my annual month-long course in Austria. It was another great program and I saw some great performances.

As mentioned before, the program is based in Bregenz, Austria, home of the Bregenzer Festspiele. I teach a music appreciation course focusing on opera, and as part of the program I take the students to both of the festival’s operas. This year featured Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte on the renowned floating stage and the posthumous world premiere of André Tchaikowsky‘s The Merchant of VeniceDie Zauberflöte was, as expected, pure spectacle, though it was well performed. (What else is there to expect when the Queen of the Night wears a crystal-encrusted gown with the help of Swarovski?) Tchaikowsky’s almost Berg-ian setting of Shakespeare’s Merchant was rather compelling. The official reviews have been mixed to positive, but I enjoyed it. The audience at the premiere was somewhat lukewarm, but I was told that subsequent performances were enthusiastically received.
Festival aside, I also took the group to see Verdi’s Attila at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien. This little-performed work was staged for Verdi’s bicentennial. Although it was far from a traditional staging, as it was featured a new production by renowned director Peter Konwitschny. Known for his association with the Regietheater movement, he directed a surprising and lovely production that was both entertaining and artistically satisfying. For example, Attila and his Huns were lost boys with wooden spoons and fur pelts, and the closing (supposedly serious) quartet portrayed the characters as senior citizens on the verge of comical deaths. While it’s not a scientific measurement, all but one of my students – many of whom hadn’t previously attended an opera – enjoyed the production. In fact, many of the students credited the production with their enjoying the opera overall. From what I could tell, the rest of the audience was in general agreement.
The crown jewel was my pilgrimage to Bayreuth to see the bicentenary production of Rienzi under the baton of renowned Wagnerian Christian Thielemann. The fact that one of the “orphans” was fully staged in Bayreuth is news alone, even if it didn’t take place in Wagner’s Festspielhaus. Nonetheless, it was under the banner of the annual Bayreuth Festival. And the audience’s excitement over Wagner, Bayreuth, and seeing a rarely-performed work fully staged under the direction of the Bayreuth Festival’s unofficial music director was palpable. Needless to say, this experience deserves its own post. (But doesn’t everything regarding the old wizard?)
It was a nice operatic assortment: Classical, Romantic (both Verdi and Wagner), and contemporary. I’m glad the students were able the productions (minus Wagner), as it was a great assortment both musically and visually.
What’s more, I’m glad to be home and getting back into the usual routine. Keep an eye out not only for new posts but also possibly a new release or two on the horizon.

MTH-V: Rhinemaidens

“How brightly you once shone, glorious star of the depths!” -Richard Wagner, Götterdämmerung

2013 may be Richard Wagner‘s bicentennial year, but this coming Wednesday 05.22 is his 200th birthday. Therefore I can’t help but post just a taste of his genius for this week’s video. (Finally back after last week’s absence as the semester wrapped up.)

More elaborate thoughts on Wagner are to come, but for now I’d like to share one of my favorite of his musical sections. Of course, with Wagner, one has a difficult time isolating segments. His concept of “endless melody” makes it difficult to find start- and endpoints in his operas beyond whole acts. Like many, arguably my favorite part of Der Ring des Nibelungen is in Götterdämmerung‘s Act III. However, unlike most, it’s the first scene. Most go to the Siegfried’s “Trauermarsch” or Brünnhilde’s “Immolation Scene,” both of which are sublime, but the Rhinemaidens’ trio which opens the act (after the prelude) is heaven. (Believe me, I have a hard time placing the trio above the “Trauermarsch,” but right now I’m going by which track has the bigger play count in my iTunes library.)

(Photo: Arthur Rackham‘s The Rhinemaidens lament the loss of the Rhinegold.)

Oddly, this lyrical, light, and melodic passage by the three Rhinemaidens – Woglinde, Wellgunde, Flosshilde – doesn’t quite jive with the stereotypical Wagner sound, especially that associated with the Ring. If looking for aggressive Wagnerisms, see the aforementioned “Trauermarsch” and “Immolation Scene.” This scene occurs almost 17 hours into the Ring, offering a final respite before (SPOILER ALERT) Siegfried’s murder (after which is the “Trauermarsch”) and Brünnhilde’s destructive suicide (“Immolation Scene”).

There are subtitles in this clip if you’re interested, but I otherwise won’t get into the plot’s labyrinthine intricacies. (Though if you’d like to engage on that, I’m more than happy to. 🙂 ) I’m posting this for the music. Also, I generally strive to avoid posting commercial material in the MTH-V posts due to copyright concerns, but am afraid that I’m going to here. This footage is of Bayreuth’s landmark centenary Ring cycle by conductor Pierre Boulez and director Patrice Chéreau. This production was particularly scandalous at the time with its 19th-century industrialist setting. As you’ll see, the Rhinemaidens are presented as hydroelectric dam workers instead of water nymphs.

NOTE: I don’t own the copyright to this production.

Boulez/Chéreau production:

FOR FUN: The three Rhinemaidens, with piano reduction, from Cosima Wagner‘s 1904 production!