The Bayreuth Festival, founded by Richard Wagner in 1876, is an annual mecca for devotees of his music. With programming restricted to the composer’s ten “mature” operas, along with the occasional concert, it unfolds in the provincial Franconian town in a barracks-like festival theater. To preserve the acoustics, there is no plush along the wooden seat backs, which only rise about halfway up one’s back (outside cushions are now prohibited for security reasons). During performances, heavy curtains are drawn over the doors. A central avenue adjacent to the theater is closed to traffic. It is said that flight paths over Bayreuth are diverted during festival time. There are no supertitles in any language. Experiencing Wagner there is unlike hearing it anywhere else. The waitlist for tickets has been known to run for as long as ten years, though some recent measures have widened access and availability.
Because of its long traditions and great prestige among classical music festivals, Bayreuth exudes an atmosphere of sanctity for audiences and performers alike. Rituals pervade. Each act is announced not by a traditional bell, but by a live brass fanfare scored to an opera’s signature leitmotifs. A palpable “Bayreuth hush” takes over the theater in the seconds before the music starts. Furious booing of outlandish productions often competes with ecstatic applause for the performers.
All these traditions were in place for this performance of the first of Wagner’s mature works, Der Fliegende Holländer, a blazingly Romantic adaptation of the myth of the Flying Dutchman. Having lost a bet with the devil, the title character and his crew are condemned to sail the high seas until Judgment Day. Once every seven years, he is allowed to go ashore to seek redemption through a woman’s true love. As the action begins, he encounters the sea captain Daland, whose daughter Senta is conveniently obsessed with the Dutchman’s legend. After pledging eternal fidelity to Senta, the Dutchman overhears an exchange between her and her jilted admirer Erik, overreacts out of cynicism, and sails off into a storm. Senta then demonstrates her true love for the Dutchman through suicide, thereby redeeming him.
The opera’s subject was inspired by an adventure of Wagner’s own. After two years leading the opera theater of Riga, at the time a Baltic port of the Russian Empire, he boarded a ship to escape unpayable debts and start afresh in Paris, where he hoped for greater success. Along the way, bad weather drove his ship into a Norwegian fjord with such ferocity that an opera was born in Wagner’s mind, bearing what the composer called “a distinctive, strange coloring that only my sea adventures could have given it.”
Bayreuth’s current production, by Dmitri Tcherniakov, premiered last summer, when the festival returned to limited live performance in the lull between COVID-19 variants. This year’s revival saw the production staged normally to a full house, with no public mask or vaccination requirements.
No one expected anything conventional from Tcherniakov, as opera’s oldest enfant terrible, including even the suggestion of any sort of ship. Some directors successfully liberate themselves from traditional Wagnerian trappings, but Tcherniakov took a turn toward the bland. The town the Dutchman visits is a collection of insipid beige brick buildings. These can be rearranged into different configurations, but they never cease to resemble that sort of charmless northern European architecture that announces that what stood before was probably destroyed in World War II.
Tcherniakov gives the town’s modern working-class inhabitants little more than a newly invented backstory that unfolds during the opera’s descriptively stormy overture. Here the Dutchman suffers from no diabolic encounter or supernatural fate but is rather an illegitimately born native son who was shunned along with his single mother. At a climactic moment in the overture, she hangs herself out of shame and desperation. In this production, the Dutchman’s purpose is not to seek the redemptive feminine adoration that will save his cursed soul, but rather to take horrific revenge on the community responsible for his earthly plight. In the opera’s conclusion, he and his “crew” (their connection to the sea in this revival is unclear) turn violent. He guns down three townspeople at a not-so-merry feast, while his men torch the town’s buildings. There is no sacrifice or redemption. Mary, usually Senta’s governess but described in the program as Daland’s “life partner,” blasts the Dutchman in the back with a double-barreled shotgun. Senta ends the opera by comforting Mary as she quivers in nervous exhaustion while the forlorn Erik stares into space.
Not all productions must be traditional, but to an unfortunate degree this rewriting of Wagner’s story overwhelms the opera’s musical language and central plot. In Tcherniakov’s rendition, love and the possibility of redemption are merely unexpected and unexplored distractions from the imagined revenge quest. The quest itself has no basis in the original’s story, music, or legend, nor in the depths of the human psyche that the opera reflects and seeks to explore. Even as a piece of so-called Regietheater—a style of production that imposes the director’s vision over the work—it is weak and limited, boring and dull.
As is often the case in Bayreuth, the musical performance was far more satisfying. Thomas J. Mayer’s sturdy baritone could get a bit wooly in the upper range, but he delivered a solid, stentorian performance of the title role. The real revelation was Senta, the young Norwegian soprano Elisabeth Teige, who is making her Bayreuth debut this summer, singing that role as well as the goddess Freia in Das Rheingold, part of a new production of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Teige’s expansive voice lavished a blooming, beautiful middle range with gorgeous ascents. Had the production been more suitable for the work, she would have left an impression of standing with the role’s very best exponents back to Leonie Rysanek. Georg Zeppenfeld’s resonant bass was well suited to Daland’s low-toned persistence. The mezzo-soprano Nadine Weissmann brought superb low notes to Mary’s chidings and admonitions. The American tenor Eric Cutler’s uneven singing actually contributed to Erik’s callow character.
The Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv, newly appointed as the music director of Bologna’s Teatro Comunale, debuted here with the production last summer, making her the first woman to conduct at Bayreuth. Huzzah. Her superb musicianship delivered a reading of Wagner’s score that leaned toward a frenetic energy. At times, she slowed down the action but quickly recovered her brisk general tempo without racing over the meaningful moments. The Bayreuth chorus, under the redoubtable Eberhard Friedrich, was a glory to hear. Featuring the best choristers chosen from Germany’s leading opera houses, it delivers the most riveting Wagnerian choral performances that can be found today.