Ritual is everywhere in Wagner’s operas and music dramas. He even has his way of transforming crucial events in his stories into quasi-rituals through symbolism. Ritual is even more pervasive in his final work, his Bühnenweihfestspiel, Parsifal, which is in itself a ritual. The highly ritualized routines of the Grail knights connect their lives and the events of the drama with the continuum of the Grail’s history, back to the Last Supper. Their actions are highly deliberate, replete with the significance of faith and tradition. This creates a quasi-monastic environment in which life unfolds slowly, largely ceremonially, on the structure of a time-honored schedule, in which history and precedent are always present. The narrative unfolds with notable simplicity in terms of what occurs on stage, while beneath it, the backstory related in monologues seethes with incident, conflict, and misfortune. In addition to this dramatic foreground purified of trivialities, there is the pure transparency of Wagner’s score, consisting of simple thematic material set with surpassing clarity, delicacy, and harmonic subtlety. In this way Parsifal lives up to what we have been conditioned to expect from the late work of a great artist, and this is what we see and hear on the stage, if Wagner’s stage directions are observed.
I was no less fascinated than any writer by the troops of rats Hans Neuenfels mustered for his production of Lohengrin, which premiered last year (2010). It isn’t fair or even intelligent to focus on the most obvious twist in his Neuenfels’ vision of Wagner’s first grail opera, but Neuenfels turned the rodents loose on us as bait, and in the world of theater, it is only right to jump on it with all the alacrity of one of the rats, when he or she sniffs some appetizingly ripe garbage—or bacon, as Herr Neuenfels has said. And I don’t mention this to demean the rats, Neuenfels clearly did not intend them as red herrings, but as an intellectually nutritious and tasty Vorspeise.
As much as I might enjoy the paradox in seeking out real situations that recall a work which is for many the ultimate in escapism, I admired Tankred Dorst’s efforts to bring Wagner’s mythology into our own world. Dorst recognizes that mythology and the divine are present everywhere, largely because of the consistency of human behavior.
I won’t even say that I wish that, in beginning with Katharina Wagner’s production of Die Meistersinger, I was starting on a cheerful note. Nothing of the kind. Katharina has studiously avoided her great grandfather’s romanticized Nürnberg, where great artistic, literary, and musical achievement lurked around every corner, where the citizens dressed colorfully, where the men engaged in witty exchanges, while the girls joyfully gave themselves over the dancing, if not to their young men, at every opportunity. She has, rather, chosen to focus on the repressive nature of this conservative society, as embodied in the guild system, the obsessive power of routine in daily life, its neuroses, and, yes, its nightmares. Having a certain penchant for black humor and oddity, I entered with pleasure into my five-hour visit to this frightening and pitiable world, and I laughed, quite a bit, which, I should hope, is the desired result of any Meistersinger production. If my laughter was a trifle sour at times, it’s not entirely alien from the sarcastic wit of Wagner’s libretto. Hence, I am pleased to say that Katharina Wagner won her war, buoyed up by a splendid vocal, orchestral, and comedic performance, which had its own vigorous life, no matter how strange the goings-on on stage. And, if one is open-minded enough not to resist these, one can expect to gain a fair bit of insight into human nature, history, and Richard Wagner’s comic masterpiece.
I had originally planned this commentary simply to let you, our readers, know about the changes in our usual coverage for the remainder of the summer: Larry Wallach, Seth Lachterman, and Keith Kibler will bravely continue their coverage of summer festivals in the Berkshires and Hudson Valley, while I visit Bayreuth, to review the entire 2010 season: Tankred Dorst’s production of the Ring, along with the controversial productions of Parsifal (Stefan Herheim, 2008), Die Meistersinger (Katharina Wagner, 2007), and Lohengrin (Hans Neuenfels, 2010). I left my rat-catching gear at home, not wishing to incur overweight charges and thinking it might be cheaper simply to purchase the necessaries here, but all the ratting supply stores in Bayreuth are sold out of equipment, and I realize that I simply have to remain unrattled, while the rodents run free.