(A. Dasch, como Elsa, em Lohengrin, Salzburgo 2010)
«Lab rats, a dead horse and bridesmaids with long, pert rodent tails and hybrid dahlias on their heads hardly feature in the original of Wagner's Lohengrin. Nor does a fat, cloned baby which crawls out of its placenta and severs its own umbilical cord, tossing it to the people of Brabant like a string of raw Bavarian sausages: a doubtful new era begins.
Hans Neuenfels's alarming but laser-etched new production opened the 99th Bayreuth festival last Sunday amid mayoral pomp, red-carpet splendour and a roar of boos when the director, making his Bayreuth debut at the age of 69, took his bow. Wagner was a revolutionary, unlike his often unimaginative fans.
This was the start of the festival's own uncertain new era, the first without the composer's grandson, Wolfgang Wagner, who died in March having run the festival for more than half a century. Now his daughters, half-sisters Eva (65) and Katharina (32), are at the helm: anything could happen. By the end of the opening weekend, shy Eva had committed herself to hospital for observation, suffering from stress. Perhaps it was the only place to shun the public glare. Who can blame her?
The story of the medieval knight who won't reveal his name becomes, in Neuenfels's hands, a high-voltage examination of the morality of truth. What is it and what right have we to know it? The citizens of Brabant are part of a clinical experiment gone wrong. Identikit rats wearing numbers scurry in and out of cages and tomography chambers, part-human, part-rat pack – "Ratten-Slapstick" as one German newspaper labelled it, responding with a mix of approval and despair.
Reinhard von der Thannen's designs look crisp and spectacular. Rich with visual reference, from Petipa's Swan Lake and spooky Max Ernst to Saatchi-favoured contemporaries such as Katharina Fritsch (the rats) and Maurizio Cattalan (the horse), this is highly political theatre. It makes a brilliant contrast with the opulently imaginative Parsifal which was new here in 2008 and is also being staged this year. Many of these subtleties may have been lost on the glitzy first-night crowd, who sniffed and hooted in irritation as yet another pink rattus scampered on in its rubber flipper feet.
Neuenfels is best known for an Aida starring roast chickens, and an Idomeneo initially banned for inciting Muslim hatred with its depiction of Mohammed, saved only by the sensible intervention of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was also in this audience, clapping hard, with her shy scientist husband, fondly known as the Phantom of the Opera since it is one of the few places he voluntarily shows up.
When conservative Wagner-lovers boo, the floor reverberates, especially in the glorious acoustic of the composer's Festspielhaus, the all-wood, purpose-built theatre which opened in 1876 for the performance of his "music of the future", and his alone, and has maintained that tradition ever since. The cheers and foot stamps, almost as inevitable as the boos, were saved for the singers, led by the charismatic star tenor and local Munich boy Jonas Kaufmann, and his ardent Elsa, the Berlin-born soprano Annette Dasch, leading a mostly impressive cast.
The young Latvian, Andris Nelsons, turning heads in the UK as music director of the Birmingham's CBSO, made a persuasive conducting debut, drawing shimmering orchestral playing, expertly co-ordinating stage and pit and observing broad but never dragging tempi. If his cheers were not as loud as deserved, it was as if the first-night audience, preoccupied with saving their breath for anti-production clamour and diva-whoops, had scarcely realised how much this slight, boyish figure had achieved. Subsequent performances, minus the claque and the celebrities, will surely be more responsive.
This season, though mostly planned by Wolfgang and including a vigorously spruced-up return for playwright Tankred Dorst's Ring cycle, is being referred to as a "relaunch", the first since 1951 when he and his gifted brother Wieland attempted to reinvent the festival and rid it, not wholly successfully, of its recent Nazi associations. The hope is that with Eva – an experienced casting director who has worked in the world's great opera houses, notably the New York Met – vocal standards will improve and star names, alienated by the arcane, to say the least, methods of the Wolfgang years, will return. To have the dark-toned Kaufmann, who first sang the role of Lohengrin last summer in Richard Jones's equally controversial bricklayer production in Munich, and the lyrical, graceful Dasch is a coup by any operatic standard. The Ring, too, has a fresh cast, including Canadian Lance Ryan as Siegfried.
Bayreuth has always been a magnet of international high society. Kaiser Wilhelm, Nietzsche, Tchaikovsky and the king of Brazil were among the first august visitors in 1876, when the festival began amid threats of bankruptcy. The Nazi years are all too well chronicled. Now, still, the elite of German society turn out for the gala opening, with the townsfolk of Bayreuth jostling to ogle them as the VIP cavalcade winds its way up the Green Hill, crowned with a meticulous civic flower bed in front of the famous theatre shrine itself.
Last Sunday, under the blazing afternoon sun, politicians and celebrities arrived, perma-tanned, with big hairdos and dressed to the nines in formal evening wear which had as much gleam, infrastructure and upholstery as the big, black limos they travelled in. The year's sartorial tip? The man's bow-tie must match his wife's dress. If you want to see a dirndl worn without irony, come to Bayreuth.
"It's no different from when Hitler came," observed a politically conscientious young German, somewhat harshly but with reason. Bayreuthers love the glamour, and if you lived in this humdrum conurbation (with a population of 73,000, about the same size as Brentwood), you would too. Last week the chief action apart from the festival was the recobbling of the main street. Drab shops struggle to survive. Even Sex-Exclusive had slashed its wares to half price.
"It's the Queen!" shouted one onlooker, when a Rolls-Royce broke the pattern of Volkswagens and BMWs. "No it's not. But there's Gloria!" Who is Gloria? I asked my neighbour, as we stood wedged between beefy rubber-neckers up for the day from Nuremberg. "Gloria? She's just Gloria! Prinzessin TNT". Gloria von Thurn und Taxis was a 1980s socialite punk icon, now a Catholic convert and intimate of the Pope, and, evidently, a keen Wagnerian.
If Bayreuth itself has the feel of a place of pilgrimage, that is what Wagner intended. His wife Cosima, as Oliver Hilmes's new biography reminds us, wrote down her husband's words as gospel. The audience perforce are the congregation, whether they like it or not, and mostly, having struggled for years to code-break the box-office enigma (408,000 requests this year for 54,000 available tickets), they do.
Why? The fabled amphitheatre-inspired opera house in which the large orchestra, distributed on four descending tiers beneath the stage with low brass and timpani, heroically and no doubt claustrophobically, at the bottom, remains the best acoustic in the world. The key point is that you can hear the singers with, and not drowned out by, the grand panoply of orchestral sound which Wagner's scoring demands. Even the "Ride of the Valkyries", usually so bombastic, takes on a different quality, ethereal and airborne.
When the festival ends, silence falls in Bayreuth for another year. Will this illustrious highpoint in the musical calendar – always run by the Wagner family, and still the most talked about event of its kind in the world – survive? Outsiders are ready to give it another five years or so, presuming that the relationship between the sisters, depicted as one of open war, will come to grief. "Eva wants a quiet life and Katharina wants Rolex watches and jet setting," says one well-informed outsider, writing off the partnership.
Why did they always fight, asked a German journalist at the press conference, where the emphasis was almost wholly on the off- rather than onstage drama. "How could we fight? We never saw each other until now," Katharina answered. "It's all going well, we are working together," replied Eva. The room rippled with scepticism.
Yet it is more complicated than it appears. The sisters really were kept apart until very recently and hardly know each other. Eva was close to her father until he married his young secretary, Gudrun Mack, who soon gave birth to Katharina. That's the short version. Eva, in painful circumstances, was cast out. She has compared her paternal rejection to that of Brünnhilde, Wotan's beloved daughter in the Ring.
If the wayward novice Katharina can learn wisdom from Eva, the festival is potentially secured for another half century. It could have been otherwise. Gudrun, who died suddenly in 2007, was expected to take over. She held the reins, and was not always popular. Responding to a caller who wanted to speak to her elderly husband she is said to have replied: "I am my husband."
Diplomacy, unity and openness, never part of the Wagner family style, are now vital. Details will be announced shortly of a high-profile new Ring cycle in 2013, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, to mark the composers bicentenary year. And though the festival has no intention of breaking the Wagner exclusivity, the tightly sealed bell-jar atmosphere of old is slowly disappearing.
Thanks chiefly to the efforts of Katharina, Bayreuth has entered the online age with a live webstream transmission of Die Walküre on 21 August, available on demand for a fortnight after (see siemens.com/festivalnight) and, for the third year running, a big-screen relay of the same performance, giving access to tens of thousands of people. With Christian Thielemann conducting with almighty force and Johan Botha and Edith Haller in superb voice as Siegmund and Sieglinde, this is one to see.
In addition, there is a Wagner für Kinder scheme, in which one opera – this year Tannhäuser – is given a shortened makeover for children. The 2,000 seats sold out online in January within 30 minutes of going on sale, and after some 200,000 hits. Dedicated parents will already have read the cartoon "Green Hill Toons" versions of the operas as bedtime stories, no doubt. I saw a few crumpled faces at the door, as small figures barely out of toddlerhood had to abandon half-licked ice lollies and submit themselves to their first Wagner. But there were no tears.
A full orchestra and professional singers sang bleeding chunks, which is the way most people start on Wagner, with skateboards, silly monsters and a pillow fight added for good measure. At the end, these small folk stamped and cheered with authentic bravura, led on by a few Teutonically enthusiastic mums and dads. Catch them young. Train them early. Rats notwithstanding, Wagner is the biggest Pied Piper of them all.»