ERL 2008 Il Ring (di Hank Neugarten)

Diario di viaggio

Hank Neugarten* – Suddenly last summer


Where it is and how to get there?

In Austria and it is quite far, say roughly 1000 km from Amsterdam. It is a small village between Munich and Salzburg, just across the Austrian border. There you’ll find the Passionsspielhaus which is appr. thirty meters high and has the outside form of a pan flute. There is no stage-craft whatsoever. Since the Passionsspiele are held every six years only (they originate since 1613) the building has been idle most of the time. Celibidache discovered that the building has splendid acoustics and -to make a long story short- since the last ten years the Tiroler Festspiele are being held right here!

In 1998, Das Rheingold started, in 2003, the first complete Ring was performed; also in 2004. Then in 2005 a 24 hours Ring and a normal one. In 2006 premières of Tristan and Parsifal and now in 2007 all six works in one (1) week. The motto for 2007 was “Wagners Ring hat sieben Teile” (Wagner’s Ring has seven parts). How so? Within one week they present these works in chronological order. After Das Rheingold and Die Walküre we get the first two acts of Siegfried; then a text-reading of the first Meistersinger act (as there is a pause of twelve years before the composition of the third Siegfried act). The next day Tristan und Isolde, followed the day after by Siegfried’s third act preceded by a text reading of the second and third act Meistersinger. The day after that Götterdämmerung and finally on the seventh day Parsifal.

This gigantic adventure was opened with a reading of the Wahnmolologue and Bruckner’s third symphony. To be complete, the first week ended with Brahms’ first and second symphonies whereas after the second cycle his third and fourth were performed.

Who is this guy who makes all this possible??? The great initiator of all that beautiful stuff is Gustav Kuhn, born in 1945, thus 62 years old. This phenomenal person owns a singers training institute named the Academia de Montegral in Italy. Under each and every show you will find: “Light, direction and conductor Gustav Kuhn”.

The Passionsspielhaus -constructed in 1959- stands in the middle of a large meadow; the cows that were grazing here four years ago (when we saw the Ring here the first time) are now in their stables, is cheaper! But a fine touch of country idyll has been sacrificed. The cows however are still on the brochures, the caps and the DVDs. The building has approximately 1500 seats, is amphitheatrical, there are no pillars so the sightlines are OK from every angle.  The entrance square is large but when it pours (and it did the entire week) in the whole recreation area there is hardly space for the complete audience. Moreover –and worse- there are no chairs at all!

However, there are some sweet, lovely ponies in the meadow during Die Walküre and a blacksmith (very appropriately named Neuschmid) is forging “müssigen Tand” and Nothungs during Siegfried.

Beforehand the whole affair was not entirely sold out, probably because of those readings and the resultant necessary discontinuance of the Siegfried.

Monika Brüggeller of the Austrian Kronen Zeitung took photographs of Henriette and me with Ulla Fuerlinger, Press manager of the Tiroler Festspiele, while review copies of the Erl Tristan and Parsifal DVD’s were presented.

The official opening which would have been performed by Gérard Mortier did not take place as he missed his plane; his speech was read by someone else. Bundespräsident Heinz Fischer however was present!

There is always more than one singer for one role. That is because there are three performances of each opera and of course because of the many singers from the Academy that get their first chance here.

As these singers are virtually unknown Gustav Kuhn very cunningly adds well-known names to his cast. These are however mostly at the end -or nearing the end- of their careers. So there is a happy mix of young inexperienced singers with the older ones who know the Wagner stage from beginning to end. Since the Passionsspielhaus is no opera building the large 126 piece orchestra is placed amfitheatrcally ON the stage. That makes for a fantastic view and adds -believe it or not- an extra dimension! You can follow the different instrument groups faultlessly with your eyes.

The mainly young players of many nationalities are excellent instrumentalists (smoke themselves to death during the intermissions), play their hearts out for their great inspirator, conductor Gustav Kuhn (who when asked if he didn’t pile too much work on his shoulders answered that the conducting is actually the least of his problems as he loves it so much!) Because the orchestra is on the stage, an extremely small and narrow strip remains to act on and it is an absolute miracle to see how much is done in such a limited space and with such limited means.

With each of the six performed works Herr Kuhn proves over and over again how ingeniously he knows to create the atmosphere he needs.

In Das Rheingold we are immediately confronted with the aspect of globalisation as all three Rheintöchter turned out to be oriental. They climb up and down those three-cornered pyramid-like high contraptions that are a wee bit similar to the ones used during the first Festspiele in 1876 in Bayreuth. They are being moved in all directions by masked stage-hands. Virtually all kids from the village of Erl participate as little Nibelungs, sweet! While the stage is pitch dark, they arrive left and right up the stairs using little miners’ lamps on their tiny heads and tap on small anvils that are strategically placed along the stairs, conducted by a man onstage who beats time on a similar anvil.

Not everyone was happy with Robert Hale (I was), Many thought him much too low, more bass than baritone. So what? His sonorous sound and excellent timing make him still an outstanding Wotan. Martina Tomcic -whose Fricka we had heard already four years ago- had had a baby in the meantime. This has given her a rounder, more matron-like figure. She wants to show us her sumptuous bosom with much pleasure and sings her Fricka with awesome passionate expression!

The brothers (Donner – Michael Kupfer and Froh – Stephan Zelck) and the giants (Fafner – Markus Hollop, Fasolt – Liang Li) are dressed up like idiots. They wear mixed sports clothes, e.g. riding pants with a golf polo and a baseball bat to go with it. Alberich’s Tarnhelm is a small Tiroler cap, and why not?

The hoard is a pitiful array of carton forms which -once assembled- were supposed to cover Freia. Unfortunately the head piece was missing. The singers as a whole were OK, (the Loge of Wolfgang Schwaninger could have been a wee bit more villainous); but nothing wrong with it, nothing spectacular either.

In Die Walküre we sit up straight for the first time. The lyric tenor Francisco Araiza sings his first Siegmund. That went very well, whatever schmelz he misses is compensated largely by his exemplary acting, stage routine and temperament. Next to him the splendid Sieglinde of Gertrud Ottenthal, who I liked immensely already four years hence. I have never before seen this role done so natural, with such self-evidence!. (Indeed, “doing what comes naturally” comes to mind). What’s more, she sings like a nightingale and looks superb.

She is an entirely acceptable blonde middle-aged woman -worn down by her miserable life- who is torn to pieces when she is confronted with her brother so suddenly and unexpectedly after such a long time.

Her “hehrstes Wunder” later on in the third act was outstanding!

Absolutely incredibly that one doesn’t hear about her more often!

It needs a bit of imagination to believe that the lightly coloured Siegmund with his jet-black hair and the blond Sieglinde are brother and sister.

Phillip Joll was a completely different Wotan than the much more composed Robert Hale the night before. He is much rougher, attacks his task fiercely and proves once more how many interpretations are possible.

Violent discussions during intermission who was “better” (you know what I mean).

The capricious, sexy Martina Tomcic again made a feast of her Fricka.

No longer dressed as risky as four years ago she nevertheless threw in her shapely  hips, her lovely smile, her cold shoulder, her well-formed and ample bossom, together with her well-used creamy voice to make Wotan change his mind.

“Mächtiges Volumen im Brustbereich” was the short, sweet and to-the-point comment of some friends. And that’s the way it was!

We also had the same Brünnhilde as four years ago, the slim Italian Elena ComottiD’Adda jumped around on the wooden hollow cases as never before. That was OK for her but when the heavily built Phillip Joll tried to chase her sweat broke out in the audience.

Elena was no longer the Brünnhilde of yesteryear, when she gave a strong performance albeit with quite a thin voice. This year she was constantly a fraction below pitch.

But we witnessed a strong example of modern “Regie-theater”, a real find of director Gustav Kuhn NOT conceived by Wagner, but nevertheless…In this production Siegmund’s wound is in his leg, therefore he limps. At the end of the Todesverkündigung -when Brünnhilde tells Siegmund she will support him during the coming fight and victory will be his- Siegmund tears off the bandage Sieglinde has put on his wound during the first act and… lo and behold! he walks normally!!! Beautiful!!!

Wotan’s monologue was sung nicely enough; so was the Todesverkündigung. Sometimes -unfortunately not frequently enough- there is a spark of genius and we are happy!

During the fight a couple of things go wrong; Siegmund’s sword doesn’t break so he angrily -but very alertly- throws it away.

The Walküres are still exquisite on their racing-bikes, the more so considering the narrow space on which they have to perform their thing.

Unfortunately no tears in our eyes during the emotional last half hour. Brünnhilde’s voice gave up and consequently so did Wotan’s. I will not go into the much too intricate, superfluous and unsuccessful ending. Pity!

The six harpists garbed in crimson red evening gowns -three to each side of the lovemaking Wälsungen pair- playing their suberb, delicious arpeggios would have been more than enough, it was magic! The enormous applause was mainly for the Wälsungen couple and the six harpists, the phenomenal orchestra and their beloved conductor Gustav Kuhn.

This guy shows up 20 minutes before curtain on his Honda motor-bike (like an easy rider) on the platform in front of the Passionsspielhaus, goes through some kind of photo-session with quite a few good looking, well groomed, well dressed female admirers, disappears into the building and goes “ans Werk”.

It is indeed a bit different from Bayreuth!

The next day Siegfried with Jürgen Müller – whom we remembered as a striking Siegfried in Meiningen some years ago– and so he was here! In his Tiroler outfit he gave a splendid interpretation of this most difficult role. He has a pure, fresh tenor that he uses skill-and masterfully; one can understand his every word.

With much liveliness and enthusiasm he throws himself into the shimmering first act, he looks young, sounds youthful and fresh, he is reckless and desperate; it is an absolute pleasure. His timing is perfect and he plays the game with his Mime (ChristianBrüggemann) to finesse!

The two Schmiedelieder were like a clarion-call sung with the kind of bravoura you seldom come across. Here too, how come we don’t see/hear this guy more often???

As Wanderer we were confronted with the -to me- completely unknown Alexander Trauner. That was an extremely pleasant surprise to the extent that we completely forgot both Robert Hale and Phillip Joll. (Although of course some people grumbled and regretted that Duccio Del Monte wasn’t there anymore).

But guys like Ducio del Monte and Rainer Zaun (our Alberich of four years ago)  are moving on and make their careers now elsewhere. Zaun actually was Konrad Nachtigal in the new Meistersinger in Bayreuth.

This Wanderer (Trauner) was of majestic appearance in his foot-long coat and flabby hat; with his sonorous, balmy, solemn voice and his natural legato he became the wonderful, withdrawn Wanderer of your dreams. Watch him, he’ll move on fast!

A splendid, kitschy dragon “was excellently occupied” by Liang Li. The Alberich of Thomas Gazheli, rather inconspicuous in Das Rheingold, made quite a show while hanging in the air in some gruesome contraption where he nevertheless sang excellently. With his melodious tenor he was an excellent foil to his former hangman!

The horn solo was a disaster just like four years ago.

And then after the second act we were supposed to listen to the reading of the first act of Die Meistersinger.

We left it for what is was worth and enjoyed an early supper.

In the third act -two days later- we got Robert Hale back as Wanderer. He did not in the least make us forget Alexander Trauner.

Jürgen Müller was irresistible again.

Forty small kids with torches came into the auditorium and formed a circle of fire around Brünnhilde, the result being that Siegfried literally had to break through it to get to his bride-to-be. Bettine Kampp –again a lyric soprano- as Brünnhilde was OK although a certain bite in her high notes was unmistakable.

The love scene –which we would have liked to see, who wouldn’t?- was taken away from us as the kids playing with their bears and dolls making a circle around the couple and as such taking away our view. Pity!!!

The Erda by Svetlana Siderova di Sanghi (formerly Svetlana Siderova) in a unique outfit was another nice surprise! Can it be that Gustav Kuhn is on to something, trying out lyrical voices wherever he can? Like Lucy Peacock four years ago, Bettine Kampp and Francisco Araiza this year??? And why not??? Think of Gösta Winberg +, who after years of Mozart became a formidabele Wagner interpreter. (Stolzing!).

As you can’t get rid of your car –parking facilities are a shambles- we were more or less obliged to attend the reading of Die Meistersinger acts two and three.

The excellent actor Franz Winter read the rather complicated texts with a pleasant sounding voice and with much liveliness. Here and there he was interrupted by a horrible sounding organ, which was used exclusively to make sure the audience wasn’t falling asleep! The large auditorium was poorly occupied, 200 people at the most, which makes the whole undertaking a bit squeezy! Anyway, the experiment failed miserably!  No wonder, the whole thing lasts much too long! Each part of the Prügelscène and the quintet were read separately, that doesn’t work; it is rather annoying but of course it kills time. Herr Kuhn came in to look around and saw that it was no good!

To say –as the press (and quite a few visitors) did- that Bayreuth would be “fertig” after the excellent Tristan that followed is of course grossly exaggerated. Could have been a reaction to the news that Bayreuth was to revitalize the much criticized Marthaler production in 2008.

Erl is in comparison with festivals such as Aix, Glyndebourne and Bayreuth a small player on the festival podium, but with a Tristan of this class plus the Ring and a more than splendid, orginal Parsifal thrown in only the highest praise is in order.

To get to the heart of the matter at once, Richard Decker played, sung a Tristan such as I never have experienced before (and you know that I hate to use the cliché). We’ve known him for years already (he did a Parsifal for the Dutch Travel Opera Company quite a few years ago when he was very young), now in his prime he gives a performance which –as far as I know- does not have its equal. It was a chilling experience!

Already in the first act U feel something special is in the air. During the second and especially in the third you don’t believe U are –of all places- in tiny Erl.

His anger attacks, his perplexity, his death-desire, his intensity, it grabs U you know where!-if not your soul! He trembles, he shivers, his movements, his whole body language, this guy is a natural! He lives through the complete scale of emotions and sings at the same time with his splendid -a bit baritonal- voice his texts as if it were a song from the top 100 charts.

At a certain moment approximately at “Wie sie selig, hehr und milde wandelt durch des Meers Gefilde” Isolde “wie im Traum” enters the stage from the left side and walks majestically to the right. With his eyes the lunatic Tristan follows her and just when he sings “Ach, Isolde, Isolde! Wie schön bist du!” she disappears. A breathtaking experience and shivers down your spine!

You suffer with him and at the same time you hope all goes well and that he holds out till the end!

And all the while Gustav Kuhn –at every appropriate moment- speeds up the tempi with the result that this third act is over in an amazing hour and ten minutes.  It was some sensation and the audience went haywire!

The stage of Ina Reuter – sober like everything else here- works just fine. Sober is the key word here also in the operas themselves. For instance what is so important of twenty people around Marke when he enters the stage for just a second at the end of act one? Here in Erl he entered  all by himself and it was very impressive!

Three white sails for the first act were transformed into a canopy. It was sufficient.

The costumes by Lenka Radecki were in Biedermeier style, elegant, beautiful colours, a feast for the eye. (And outside it rains continually!).

The (to me) completely unknown Michela Sburlati did an Isolde to die for.

She was not a notch less than Richard Decker, with the result that all during the following day we were still discussing the awe-inspiring Liebesnacht.

Her smooth and well-conducted soprano together with a sound middle register mixed wonderfully with Richard’s voice.

The Brangäne of Monika Waeckerle was also impressive! They had placed her high up left far at the back of the orchestra ON the stage like a real look-out which made her “Einsam wachend in der Nacht” unreal, eerie, ghastly and ghostly.

The shivers crawl -once again – up and down your back!

The althobo (which in Germany is known as English Horn) solo by Adrian Buzac – which he renders walking along the very quiet auditorium for minutes at end (or better without end) makes for just another of so many wonderful new experiences.

The Kurwenal of Michael Kupfer is OK. Kurt Rydl with large volume portrays Marke ideally. But unmistakenly age and therefore little cracks creep into the voice although we would love to overhear –and hate to admit- it!

Nevertheless it remains a world class performance!

All smaller roles were were satisfactorally covered.

The stunning beauty of this music was mastered by Gustav Kuhn with much feeling and understanding; it was clear to all of us that he loves this piece.

After this astonishing show we had –exhausted as we were already- another surprise coming.

Next day’s  Götterdämmerung. The Rheintöchter and the Norns OK, same with Michael Kupfer’s Gunther, Gertrud Ottenthal’s Gutrune and Thomas Gazheli’s Alberich. And of course Jürgen Müller who again portrayed an awesome Siegfried. An absolute top shelf performance of Hagen by Andrea Silvestrelli with exagerrated fat lower lip, large, gross, threatening, debauched. In the second act a male chorus of sixty odd singers! Still we were disappointed. The otherwise amazing Gustav Kuhn must have had an off-day as he seemed to have no grip at all on this mammoth of a music drama.

He finished the intricate score in record time. An hour and 50 minutes for the first, 55 minutes for the second and an hour 05 for the third act. Is this possible?  yes, but….he went so incredibly fast that the singers had to skip syllables to keep up with him.

The assistant director sitting next to me disappeared in panic after the first act never to return.

Siegfrieds arrival at the Gibichungen remains a sensation; from the highest end of the auditorium a large barge is being carried –ever so slowly- down the steps by members of the local fire department in ancient uniforms. In it Siegfried with his horse and all other attributes. Another fascinating moment!

The Brünnhilde Brigitte Wohlfahrt had been abandoned completely by the director. I remember her as a splendid Sieglinde in Meiningen some years ago.

Here she was to sing her first Brünnhilde and she was paralyzed with nerves. She was unable to move, act and had the charisma of a dried plum!

She just stood there as if she was waiting for the last train to Innsbruck and looked like what the Germans call a “Klotz mit Augen”.

She wasn’t even singing badly but opera needs so much more of which she should be well aware.

To make matters worse there was no spark, no action at all between her and her Waltraute Monika Waeckerle, who was such an amazing Brangäne only yesterday.

Incredible, but on top of this all we were treated here and there to an additional organ input to strengthen certain accents. Dreadful!!!

With an unmoving, unattractive and incomprehensible ending this was not the best of the six.

And then as a desert as if it were nothing we were still expecting Parsifal.

This was a splendour of a show. All’s well that ends well! True the Ring tends to be a wee-bit oldfashioned, whereas the two new additions Tristan and Parsifal –both from 2006- have some freshness around them which gives them a more modern impression.

With very few resources and a virtually unknown cast (of course some names we had come across during the preceeding six days) this is a Parsifal we will not forget for a long time.

No wonder that Bayreuth keeps an eye on Erl. In Bayreuth they are in 2007 still stuck –albeit for the last year- with the ill-received Schlingensief (but in 2008 right away a new production!), whereas here in Erl the acclamations, the applaus goes on for minutes at end. The new “Bayreuth at the Inn” is what people are talking about.

The bright-yellow Klingsor (Michael Kupfer) catapults his sinister dealings at the audience while hanging suspended rather gruesomely against a steep ladder.

Here we have no nagging and annoying Gurnemanz but a man (Manfred Hemm) who with his sonorous and healthy bass soberly assesses and comments on matters at hand.

Martine Tomcic was the -to be expected- seductive Kundry, the pitiful Amfortas of Thomas Gazheli, singers that we have heard before but who are now showing their prowess in completely different roles.

A huge male chorus and finally a director who dares to colour his stage green during Karfreitagzauber, a not unimportant detail we have to miss in so may productions nowadays!

The large surprise however in this amazing Parsifal was the swan!

As in the third act director Gustav Kuhn revives the swan by means of a very gracious female dancer by the name of Claudia Czys, we witness a mini ballet.  This real and original find is delicious, it disturbs matters at hand not for a moment and as it is interwoven into the story it gives the heavy third act a welcome lightness. No wonder that this lovely and graceful young lady was pronounced the star of the evening. Although also in this Parsifal Herr Kuhn again uses “zügige” tempi, the roles were reversed as the singers quasi dictated the conductor.

After the final note the stage was too small to hold the cast, the large male chorus; the boys of the Wiltener Sängerknaben and at least thirty Blumenmädchen, all attired in beautiful pastelcoloured evening gowns. When the whole orchestra descended to join the fun, mayhem broke loose from the overenthousiastic spectators and the applause reached hurricane force. The success was enormous.

This week was outstanding not only because of the special event (imagine again 6 (SIX!!!) Wagner operas in 7 days), but also by means of the excellent singing and acting of some individuals such as Francisco Araiza, Gertrud Ottenthal, Martina Tomcic, Alexander Trauner, Richard Decker, Jürgen Müller in particular! That is LARGELY sufficient!

Finally, there were 24 “Veranstaltungen” between 5 and 28 July 2007. The ticket office received  euro 768.000.- from approximately 24.000 visitors (55% from Austria). The Götterdämmerungs, Parsifals and Tristans had been sold out! The organisation has a staff of approximately 350 persons, ± 120 orchestra, 90 chorus, 68 soloists (all of them came onstage because of the rotating system), 8 music assistants, 44 stage technicians, 14 administrators, press, ticket-office etc. The artists were –including rehearsals- busy for 65 days to get this enterprise on stage; they sleep in and around Erl where 20,000 beds had been booked.

For 2008 –when the Passionsspiele are taking place-  another venue is being looked for (and probably found by now); for 2009 a new Meistersinger and a revival of Elektra are in consideration.

The Wagner Society of the Netherlands thanks and compliment the Tiroler Festspiele with these splendid Wagnerperformances and wish them lots of success for the future!.

Amstelveen, january 2008

* Hank Neugarten, Chairman of the Wagner Society of the Netherlands


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