Saturday, June 1, 2013

Wagner 200th Birthday Concert: Bayreuth, May 22, 2013

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a recent program from European TV, the concert at Bayreuth, Germany on May 22, 2013, commemorating the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth. It was held in the fabled Festspielhaus, but with the orchestra seated on stage because it was a concert rather than an opera performance, even though it began with the complete first act of Die Walküre (a favorite of concert promoters doing Wagner with singers because it only involves three vocal soloists and no chorus). That was the first set; the second set was the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde (with Eva-Maria Westbroek, the singer who had played Sieglinde in the Walküre act, blessedly returning as Isolde), followed by three purely orchestral selections: the Rhine Journey and Funeral March from Götterdämmerung and the prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger. The version we were watching had been recorded from French television, and therefore we got the selections in the original German with French subtitles and, during the intermission and the outro, an on-screen German announcer with a voiceover translator barking out French as she spoke in German — creating a cacophony of two languages we didn’t understand.

The singers in the Walküre Act I were Westbroek as Sieglinde, South African tenor Johan Botha as Siegmund (I noted the irony that Westbroek is Dutch and Botha, as a white South African with an Afrikaner name, is therefore also of Dutch ancestry) and Korean bass Kwangchul Youn as Hunding. The conductor was Bayreuth’s current musical director, Christian Thielemann, who’s become controversial for some bizarre quasi-racist statements he’s made to the effect that German music can only be played well by German conductors — it’s the sort of thing that was considered unexceptional in Wagner’s time (indeed, Wagner said similar things himself — at the heart of his attempt to rationalize his own anti-Jewish prejudices Wagner wrote that because of the diaspora, the Jews had no national culture of their own and were therefore forced to appropriate the culture of whatever country they ended up in, but though they could learn to mimic the culture of their countries of residence they could never truly be a part of it) but now seems altogether creepy, especially now that Hitler and the Nazis have given racism in general, and German racism in particular, such a bad name. The odd thing is that Thielemann talks good performances but all too often delivers competent run-throughs; I found myself thinking of him as an Erich Leinsdorf of our time — his performances are always tight and well organized but almost never emotionally driven, compelling renditions of the music. This makes him an odd choice indeed to be music director at Bayreuth, a festival devoted to the music of perhaps the most “out-there” Romantic in the history of composition; Wagner’s music demands passion, commitment and drive, and from Thielemann it gets polite accuracy.

Westbroek is a singer I have a particular affection for; I first saw her in the video of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole and was amazed at her tour de force performance in the title role, a piece that requires her to be onstage almost the entire length of the opera, to make two wrenching physical changes in the brief interludes she isn’t onstage, to sing in believable Texas-accented English and to deliver a surprisingly multifaceted look at a character who in real life was basically written off as a tabloid queen — all of which Westbroek delivered handsomely. Indeed, after seeing her in Anna Nicole I wondered if she would be able to adjust her approach to standard repertory — which she did, brilliantly, when she sang Sieglinde at the Met. Alas, at the Met she had a better Siegmund (Jonas Kaufmann) than Botha, whom I’d heard before only in a Met broadcast of Aïda that led me to think he might make a good Tannhäuser, Lohengrin or Walther von Stolzing but did not lead me to believe he’d be able to cope with Siegmund, Siegfried or Tristan. It didn’t help that he was up against Westbroek, who (like Maria Callas in her surviving concert films) didn’t let the fact that she wasn’t doing a stage performance stop her from acting the role both visually and musically. Botha has a decent lyric-dramatic tenor — a bit too small for Siegmund — but he does surprisingly little with it; not only is the wrenching vocal power Melchior brought to this role totally beyond him, but Melchior, though often condemned as a singer who let the sheer size of his voice do his acting for him, is far better at portraying the character’s exhaustion, desperation, heartache and finally (temporary) bliss in the company of his sister/girlfriend. Youn was uneven, sometimes delivering his lines matter-of-factly and sometimes going melodramatically over the top — but then Hunding is a small, pretty thankless role and not that many people do it better. (By chance I’d just listened to another version of this music — Helen Traubel’s recording from 1945, with better conducting from Artur Rodzinski than I remembered from first hearing this in the 1970’s but an even lamer Siegmund, Met character tenor Emery Darcy — which also featured a Sieglinde who both musically and dramatically overpowered her Siegmund. Fortunately Traubel also recorded it in 1941 with a Siegmund, Melchior, and a conductor, Toscanini, fully worthy of her!)

The orchestral selections were similarly competent but uninspiring — to the extent they were inspiring it was because Wagner’s genius overcame Thielemann’s professionally accurate but dramatically only passable conducting; generally he was better the faster and more obviously “stirring” the music got. Westbroek was a bit wobbly in the Liebestod but still her presence was welcome (instrumental-only versions of the Liebestod annoy me and I sometimes find myself humming the missing soprano line when I hear one), and the final Meistersinger prelude was perhaps Thielemann’s best performance of the night: one in which his technical assurance and ability to keep all the contrapuntal lines together served the music and the score didn’t require much more from him than that. The concert was directed for video in the modern manner that concentrates on extreme close-ups of the orchestra members most of the time (and it was nice to see a good number of women in the Bayreuth orchestra — it doesn’t suffer from the hard-core sexism of the Vienna Philharmonic), which had the interesting effect of picking Wagner’s scores to pieces (I mean that as a compliment, actually) and showing how Wagner got some of his orchestral effects instead of just letting them congeal into a massive wall of sound. (At least two of the earliest rock ’n’ roll impresarios were inspired by Wagner; Alan Freed named one of his daughters Sieglinde and Phil Spector said his famous “wall of sound” production style was an attempt to duplicate Wagner in the pop idiom.)