The star conductor Ádám Fischer dreamed up “Wagner Days” in 2006 to bring the composer’s works from the Rhine to the Danube. Engaging top-flight soloists and performing in the acoustically perfect Béla Bartók National Concert Hall in Budapest’s Palace of the Arts, it is the closest one can come to experiencing Wagner in Bayreuth. Mimicking Bayreuth’s peculiar performance conventions, the longer operas start at 4 PM. Intermissions last nearly an hour, extending performances into the summer’s late-hour twilight. Each act is announced by brass fanfares, scored by Wagner himself specifically for that purpose in performances at Bayreuth. More mercifully than Wagner’s heirs, and in a happy Habsburg compromise, Budapest’s festival organizers provide supertitles in German and Hungarian.
Over the years, with some time off due to political differences with Hungary’s right-wing government, Fischer has led all of Wagner’s mature works in various stagings, ranging from bare-bones concert performances to sophisticated full productions that would not be out of place at any European opera house. His recent trend is toward full productions. This year saw three—The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Tristan und Isolde.
Based on Wagner’s own difficult sea journey across the Baltic and North Seas to England (to escape debt collectors and, he hoped, launch a Paris-based European career), The Flying Dutchman tells the harrowing, Faustian tale of its title character, a sea captain who lost a bet with the Devil and is condemned to sail eternally. Every seven years, he has a shot at redemption—provided he can find true love on land. With so much at stake after such long intervals, he is doomed always to fail. Suffering a facile misunderstanding with Senta, a young lady already devoted to his legend and to his salvation, he rejects her and drives her to suicide. Redemptive music plays as their tortured souls float up to heaven.
In postmodern times, romantic love seems to fall short of the experiences of spiritually bereft European creatives. The director Balázs Kovalik thought it best to reframe the story not as that of a condemned sailor, but of a washed-up opera singer. During the opera’s descriptive overture, he emerges in white tie to take a bow before plunging into loneliness and misery. Senta is a devoted fan, who swoons to his records, lost in her own world thanks to her stereo headphones. In the anticlimactic conclusion, the Dutchman simply storms off while Senta plunges back into the fantasy world of recorded sound—the musical redemption theme is exasperatingly cut from the score.
High stakes are, of course, precisely what make opera exciting, and this production fell almost comically short. Fortunately, the casting made up for what was lost in drama. The stentorian bass-baritone John Lundgren, an admirable Wotan in Wagner’s Ring operas, delivered the Dutchman’s part with such verve that one could imagine him vocally fighting against the production’s evisceration of the character he portrayed. Elisabet Strid sang well as Senta, though her voice thinned considerably in the upper register. Still, the dramatic portrayal rose brilliantly at crucial moments. The talented bass Liang Li cavernously embraced the role of Senta’s greedy father Daland, here a harried executive board chairman. The tenor Ric Furman’s Erik portends a future move to heavier Wagner parts. Michael Boder’s conducting commanded a rousing reading of the score from the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Maestro Fischer took the podium for the next two operas, starting with Tristan und Isolde. In this searing tale, fate condemns the lead characters to passion as irresistible as it is illicit—a fate Wagner himself suffered and badly needed his art to cleanse. Cesare Lievi’s production looks strikingly medieval in props and costumes, but it suffers from sets dominated by a vast purple sofa that recalls the questionable aesthetics of Seventies interior design. Its only purpose is to offer rather transparent commentary on the action: in Act I, the sofa is stable and upright as passions largely simmer beneath the surface. Once the affair is consummated, in Act II, it is tipped to one side. When everything falls to pieces in the third act, the sofa is shorn of its plush cushions and reduced to a broken frame. Throughout the opera, a large video installation recalling Bill Viola’s collaboration with Peter Sellars (originally done for the Paris Opera but toured since) adopts a maritime metaphor for the opera’s progression. Correspondingly, Act I shows the swelling ocean surface. The second-act love affair, a profound descent into the subconscious, draws us beneath that surface. It is a worthy image, if marred by psychedelic jellyfish and stingrays swimming distractingly across the expanse. The Act III nadir occurs, fittingly, if rather predictably, at the bottom of the sea. At the finale, when Tristan and Isolde are at last united in death, the video projection morphs into a marble block bearing their embossed names.
Lievi’s imagination might not be the most daring, but again, fine vocal relief saved the evening. After many years of singing Tristan, Peter Seiffert has never sounded better in the part. Raging passion and roaring agony resounded from the first moment to the last, with no sign of exhaustion. Allison Oakes is young and sounded young, but the technique in evidence might yet allow her voice to grow firmly into the part. The veteran bass Matti Salminen is seventy-two, but he still captured the pathos of the betrayed King Marke with unquestioned authority. In around twenty-five viewings of the opera, I have never experienced his scene of sorrow so magnificently braced by understanding. Fischer presided over the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra with style and subtlety, and yet he never shied before the challenge of the opera’s most revealing moments.
Tannhäuser emerged as the best of the three productions—imaginative without falling too deeply into cliche, sleek without distracting from the action. Another Faustian bargain tears the angst-ridden title character between the heavenly realm of propriety—dominated by the selfless love of Elisabeth and the heights of the Wartburg Castle—and the sensual corruption of Venus and her underworld. The Minnesinger Tannhäuser is sent to seek salvation from the Pope, who refuses him but is then proved wrong by the power of Elisabeth’s piety. Matthias Oldag updates this conflict to the contemporary battle between innocence and celebrity. As the raging overture and bacchanale battle each other musically to capture the work’s soul, we are treated to visual images depicting a wrestling between the bucolic surroundings of the actual Wartburg Castle as it still looms over the countryside of central Germany and the coarse urban modernity of paparazzi. Venus’s realm, where the opera opens, is a bedroom film set in which the goddess appears as a prostitute. When Tannhäuser leaves in his quest for holy purity, he tears down part of the white background canvas enclosing the set. When Venus mockingly encourages him, she tears down the rest. Back in the pure surroundings of Wartburg, Tannhäuser enters the song contest to win Elisabeth’s hand, which looks rather like a reality television show. The guests of the ruler, Landgraf Hermann, are an energized studio audience gawking over the fellow Minnesingers—the troubadours who are Tannhäuser’s competition. Our flawed hero’s passions betray him, and his return from Rome takes place in a cemetery, where he soothes his hopeless pain with heroin injections before we learn, too late, that he has been saved. Oldag’s update to the setting strikes a chord, so to speak, but it was hard to see how the amoral world of modern celebrity could create a true drive to salvation. Surely this Tannhäuser would have ended up doing yoga or listening attentively at some cartoonish “mindfulness” seminar given by one of the more sensitive Minnesingers.
Despite the cognitive dissonance induced by the production, another stellar cast moved the opera forward. The American tenor Stephen Gould delivered the title role rapturously in some of his best singing, in a performance that reminds us that he should be sorely missed on the other side of the Atlantic. The Hungarian soprano Tünde Szabóki is raspier of voice, but she sang an affecting Elisabeth. Sophie Koch’s Venus continues to place her at the top of the list of Wagnerian mezzos. Markus Eiche’s lyric baritone admirably delivered the intercessive role of Wolfram von Eschenbach, who announces Tannhäuser’s salvation after pleading with the women in his life. Eiche also added some clever characterization of vulnerability and even failure. Gábor Bretz was an authoritative Hermann. Fischer once again scored with the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Visuals notwithstanding, these three glorious musical evenings presage the return, in June 2019, of a brilliantly cast Ring Cycle to the Palace of the Arts.