Wagner Society of New York

New York, NY

Wagner Society of New York

New York, NY

Wagner Notes

Review Archive - 2020-2022

Where Have All the Wagnerians Gone?

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Returns to the Metropolitan Opera

P. Appelby. L. Davidsen, M. Gantner, J. M. Kränzle, C. Mahnke, A. Tsymbalyuk, K. F. Vogt, M. Volle, G. Zeppenfeld, A. Pappano, cond., O. Schenk, dir. Performance of Nov. 4, 2021.

Wagner’s only mature comic opera returned to the Met this season, in a six-performance revival of the Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen gorgeous storybook production, which premiered here in 1993. Pre-pandemic rumors held that it was due for replacement by a more abstract European production favored by management. But with much of the rest of the company’s Wagner repertoire now dubiously entrusted to François Girard, and a prospective new Ring Cycle by Richard Jones now unfolding at London’s English National Opera, already described as “bleak,” we can be grateful for whatever budget cuts allowed this Meistersinger to survive.

Hans Sachs (Michael Volle) and Eva (Lise Davidsen), Act II

The production has aged well, and its vibrant return after a seven-year absence was a landmark revival and one of the highlights of the Met’s new season. Musically, it met the mark. The energy on stage, in this as in other productions earlier this season, has been palpable, as the company roster and soloists returned to full employment for the first time in 18 months. Despite dire predictions of mass departures and serious labor disruptions (the Met’s orchestra lost 11 of its 96 full-time members), the company reached what appear to be durable deals with its nineteen unions. The revival featured the glorious Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen in only her second role with the company, with much more coming her way. Later this season, she will sing the title role in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Chrysothemis in his Elektra. The revival also featured the long overdue return to the podium of Sir Antonio Pappano, music director of the Royal Opera House, who had only conducted one production at the Met, Robert Carsen’s austere Eugene Onegin, way back in 1997.

Pappano’s return also marked the first time since 1985 that someone other than the Met’s late music director James Levine conducted Meistersinger. Comparisons are inevitable. Levine’s approach was invitingly meditative without sacrificing an authoritative orchestral line that evoked the finest traditions of Wagnerian conducting. Pappano’s reading of the score was more buoyant – dare one say upbeat? – and only enhanced the opera’s color and powerful sense of movement. In some ways it drew out the work’s humor and irony with greater aplomb than a more classic approach might offer. The orchestra and the 149-strong chorus, under Met Chorus Master Donald Palumbo, delivered a performance reaching the company’s highest standards. The Act III “Wach’ auf” chorus, which introduces the song contest at the opera’s heart, resonated with a clarion nobility.

Davidsen’s Eva, the prize of the opera’s song contest who desperately hopes to be won by the knight Walther von Stolzing, had an appealingly gentle quality, but her powerful technique lost nothing as the evening, which began at 6:00 pm, soldiered on toward midnight. Her strongest singing built on triumphs scored earlier in the evening. At just 34, her alluring middle register resounded with a solidity that portends a stratospheric future.

She was well matched with the German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt, whose voice may once have sat a bit too high for the sturdier Wagner parts. Long the Lohengrin of choice for many, Vogt’s instrument has darkened and thickened in ways that have led him to several other Wagner roles.

Michael Volle reigns internationally in the role of Hans Sachs and brought a rough and ready characterization to the historic poet. This is a man who knows the world, its problems, and its hurts, and Volle resisted the temptation to reduce the part to a dreamy wizard. Volle’s performance held firm nearly until the end, when understandable exhaustion in this longest of all baritone parts caused him to flag on the opera’s ending declamation glorifying die heilige deutsche Kunst.

Luxuriously cast supporting roles sustained the momentum. Johannes Martin Kränzle sang a full voiced but suitably nerdy Beckmesser, delivering his irritating qualities without taking the part into earlier and uglier interpretations. The stentorian bass Georg Zeppenfeld sang a noble Pogner, Eva’s duty-bound father. David and Magdalena, whose romance is a foil to the central one uniting Walther and Eva, can seem superfluous if left to lesser talents, but the able American tenor Paul Appleby and the impressive German mezzo Claudia Mahnke brought them into focus. Alexander Tsymbalyuk, who has sung Boris Godunov on European stages, made a solid impression as the Nightwatchman who imposes order on Nuremberg, or tries to. Mark Delavan, a past Wotan with other companies and a frequent Verdi baritone here at the Met, was notably present in the smaller part of Konrad Nachtigall, Sachs’s fellow mastersinger, as was the fine German baritone Martin Gantner in the role of Fritz Kothner.

The only disappointment was in the audience size. The revival’s first performance reportedly filled just 57% of the seats. The situation had not much improved by the third performance, which I attended, with row after row of empty places. Everyone seems to have an explanation. Some operagoers might not care to sit through six hours of Wagner mandatorily en masque as the pandemic continues (all persons entering the Met must also show proof of full vaccination). For most of the run, travel restrictions barred foreign visitors, who used to flock to New York to go to Wagner productions staged in a traditional idiom, but who may not be eager to return for a while, as the pandemic continues. Critics of the Met’s management continue to find the company’s marketing uninspired, its prices too high, and its atmosphere stale and lugubrious. Many New Yorkers, especially among the older demographic that largely supplies the Met’s traditional hometown audience, remain virus-shy. And, it needs to be said, due to certain political, social, and economic realities, significant numbers of that traditional hometown audience are no longer New Yorkers. (It was reported that 20% of the Met audience is composed of foreign travelers.)

While the evening’s artistic achievement was magnificent, I left the theater close to the stroke of midnight wondering for the first time in my life how many more evenings like this can realistically be had.

Paul Du Quenoy
Paul du Quenoy is President and Publisher of Academica Press.

© Wagner Notes, December 2021, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

Bayreuth’s Holländer à la Tcherniakov

G. Zeppenfeld, A. Grigorian, E. Cutler, M. Prudenskaya, A. Glaser, J. Lundgren. O. Lyniv, cond., D. Tcherniakov, dir. Performance of August 20, 2021.

A gloomy town center surrounded by orderly but claustrophobic buildings. Violence seething under the surface of respectability. A boy whose mother committed suicide after being abused by a town’s businessman returning years later to seek revenge. Ensuing chaos as the avenger named “H” (for Hollander) and his men unleash violence on town folks, leading to a shocking conclusion as Senta’s mother shoots “H” to protect her daughter. Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov creates a story of a troubled town where the traumatized boy “H” witnesses his mother’s suicide during the prelude. There is no sea or boat in this Dutchman. The director explains his retelling of the Dutchman’s story as being focused on his psychological being, but the story does not quite come together despite its many fascinating details.

A teenaged Senta (Asmik Gregorian) singing her Ballad,
with dramatic exaggeration. Photo: Enrico Nawrath.

There was much publicity and excitement about two women making Bayreuth debuts in this new production: a young Ukrainian, Oksana Lyniv, the first female conductor in Bayreuth (noted by Chancellor Angela Merkel), and a Lithuanian soprano, Asmik Grigorian, singing Senta. Lyniv’s conducting brought out the energy and power in Wagner’s early work, with the superb Bayreuth Festival Orchestra in full throttle from the first note. What we did not see on stage in the prelude was felt in the hard-edged strings, the dynamic winds and brass, and the commanding percussion. One wished for more nuance, color, and variety in dynamics in Lyniv’s reading, but it was an honest and straightforward interpretation, at odds with the sinister and perverse story of “H”’s revenge depicted on stage. As the performance went on, I became frustrated by the disconnect between the two.

Asmik Grigorian does not have the most distinct and beautiful voice, but she throws herself into her role with 100+ percent commitment and fierce determination, and she can submerge herself in the character she portrays. Her Senta was sung and acted with passion and abandon, supported by her solid technique and on-pitch singing, capped by thrilling top notes. Here, she is a rebellious teenager being pushed by her father into a marriage with a stranger. In this production, it is not easy to see if there is a sense of destiny in the union of “H” and Senta. Here, Mary is Senta’s mother and Daland’s wife; much of the duet between “H” and Senta takes place during the family dinner, with Daland proposing a toast and Mary fussing over the food.

John Lundgren is an experienced Wagner singer, known for his Dutchman and Wotan/Wanderer. Here, his voice sounded a bit dry, and he sometimes failed to project over the orchestra. The tenor Eric Cutler, in his Bayreuth debut, was a sturdy and well-grounded Eric with imposing stage presence. As Mary, Marina Prudenskaya made a strong impression in her brief scenes with her warm and plush voice. Tenor Attilio Glaser was a standout Steersman, with an incisive and ringing voice.

The best vocal performance for me came from Georg Zeppenfeld as Daland; he is blessed with a deep, sonorous, and enveloping bass voice. He can be a bit stiff on stage, but with a meticulous director such as Tcherniakov, his Daland became a three-dimensional character: a happily married family man who nevertheless has an affair with a vulnerable woman and discards her, driving her to suicide. If I were the director, however, I would have had “H” kill Daland towards the end, and not some random people on stage. Daland escapes from the mayhem, leaving Senta and Mary trembling at the violence on stage. One is left with an interesting stage drama and intriguing characters without consistency.

Ako Imamura
Ako Imamura is a Society member and reviewer for Bachtrack, she has continued her Wagner-oriented travel throughout European cities.

© Wagner Notes, October 2021, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

Bayreuth in 2021

Forty years after reporting on my first visit to Bayreuth (see Wagner Notes Vol. IV No. 5, November 1981), this city in the time of Covid is, in many respects, eerie. Familiar shops and restaurants have gone out of business as a result of the cancellation of last year’s Festival, and the reduction of this year’s attendees by half meant an unsettling lack of queues. From the yellowing paper in the window of the closed wine store Süsse Quelle on the Maximilianstrasse, it was evident that there is little demand for commercial rentals. I was able to get an Airbnb flat as late as June. The Weihenstephan on Bahnhofstrasse offered no after-performance dinner.

Left to right: Amfortas (Michael Volle; Kundry (Petra Lang); and Parsifal (Stephen Gould).
Photos: Enrico Nawrath

In the famed auditorium, velvet black coverings were fitted on every other seat, giving a morbid effect. But once the house lights dimmed and the invisible orchestra tuned, that unique anticipatory audience silence took hold, and we knew the Festival magic was back. I attended the new production of Holländer as well as a concert performance of Parsifal, the final season of Barrie Kosky’s Meistersinger, and the second season of the 2019 production of Tannhäuser with Stephen Gould, Lisa Davidsen, and Günther Groissböck. Hollander will be reviewed in the next issue. In brief, despite a riveting performance of Senta by Asmik Grigorian, director Dmitri Tcherniakov presented the story of a little boy who witnessed his mother’s suicide and returned to destroy the town responsible — an interesting story, but not Wagner’s.

Parsifal was led by Maestro Christian Thielemann and was deeply moving. The singers were on a bare stage (though needlessly far back) and the unmediated power of the score was overwhelmingly affecting. Gould as Parsifal, Petra Lang as Kundry, and Michael Volle as an Amfortas in deep pain, headed a superb cast. The audience allowed silence after each act before starting applause, making this extraordinary music all the more telling in concert.

Meistersinger featured many of the principals from the 2017 premiere including Volle as Sachs and Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther, but with a new Eva in Camilla Nylund and Martin Gantner replacing the scheduled Johannes Martin Kränzle as Beckmesser. Kosky’s production remains a mixed experience. Much of the comedy is tasteless and distracting, but upon third viewing it was uncommonly timely. White Americans are being reminded that their familiar historical narratives are, in many cases, neither shared nor even true; economic advances of the late 19th Century didn’t happen if you were Black. So with Nürnberg: Wagner may have chosen it as an idyllic Paradise from the mythic German past, with jolly guildsmen and civic minded citizens; but it was no Paradise if you were a Jew. Nor was it in 1865 when Wagner was writing Meistersinger with one hand and preparing to reprint Judaism in Music with the other.

Time has not been as kind to Tobias Kratzer’s 2019 production of Tannhäuser. Its narrative – of an anarchic crew of a White dwarf, a Black transvestite and a sequined whore interrupting the very performance that we are watching – is puerile and unconvincing. The use of film at a scale equal to the entire proscenium opening is unwise and distracting. However, Gould and Davidsen ripped the place up with thrilling music-making.  And Axel Kober was a welcome reprieve from the messy conducting of Valery Gergiev in 2019. Still, these diversions are disappointing in a theater of such achievement.

F. Peter Phillips
F. Peter Phillips, a WSNY Board Member and WSNY Secretary, is a 40-year Bayreuth Festival attendeed. He manages The Wagner Blog.

© Wagner Notes, August 2021, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

Exclusive Review: Twilight: Gods

C. Goerke, S. Panikkar, M. Robinson; Ryan Opera Center Ensemble members; Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra members; Y. Sharon, dir; avery r. young, narrator. Millennium Park Parking Garage, April 26, 2021 (preview of final dress rehearsal). A collaboration between Lyric Opera of Chicago and Michigan Opera Theatre. A film of the performance will be released and streamed during Summer 2021.

Left to right:
Siegfried (Sean Panniker), avery r. young, poet and performaing artist.
Photos: Kyle Flugacker

In 1967, the French composer Pierre Boulez crowned his early career as a modernist provocateur by publishing an essay entitled “Blow up the Opera Houses.” Eleven years later, he conducted Patrice Chéreau’s infamous centennial version of Wagner’s Ring which had premiered at the Bayreuth Festival House in 1876. The now famous milestone of progressive Wagner stagings almost caused a riot for its brazen Regietheater style, dressing the gods as capitalists at war with the Nibelung proletariat, with Wotan costumed as a banker in a frock coat.

Twilight: Gods, created by Yuval Sharon, the Illinois-born and Los Angeles-based opera and theater director who won a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2017, does something more radical and more serious, making Boulez’s dream of detonating opera look like fancy fireworks and Chéreau’s Brechtian didactics like a school play. Sharon blows up opera and an opera into bits and pieces: not a production of Götterdämmerung but its destruction.

Twilight offers a powerful response to the explosive combination of a global pandemic and the worldwide protest against anti-Black state violence which erupted after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer on May 25, 2020. In the months that followed, audiences and venues of classical music woke up to an uncomfortable reckoning: among the arts, notated concert music and opera were seen and heard as the last bastions of white privilege. Almost overnight, symphony orchestras and opera houses found themselves having to confront their own cultural bias, issuing statements about anti-racism and struggling to respond to mounting pressures for change.

Twilight is a genuine attempt to meet this challenge. Premiered first by the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit in the fall of 2020, Chicago’s version followed in April. Both took place in a parking garage; and both used local BIPOC artists to connect themes of Wagner’s Germanic mythology with current concerns. In a good hour, audience members drove through half a dozen stations where star singers—including Christine Goerke (Brünnhilde), Sean Panikkar (Siegfried), and Morris Robinson (Hagen)—performed installation-like fragments of Götterdämmerung accompanied by a handful of members of the orchestra.

While the ascending levels of the Detroit parking structure created a sense of release and overcoming, Chicago’s all-underground Millennium Park Garage confined drivers to a claustrophobic labyrinth of darkness with blinding stage lights spotlighting operatic debris strewn about. As if salvaged after a cataclysmic event, the remains of Götterdämmerung—a decimated cast, scattered props, portions of the score—appeared unsure of their post-apocalyptic survival. Meanwhile, audience members, seemingly shielded from radioactive waste, watched the splintered scenes from the safety of their cars while tuning to different FM frequencies live broadcasting each scenario.

Sharon’s bizarre experiment offered a double perspective. Not unlike Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 Django Unchained, which sports Christoph Waltz’s character as a 1848-er emigree from Central Europe bounty-hunting in the rural South, Twilight puts Götterdämmerung in touch with Wagner’s revolutionary dreams of destruction—the demise of the ruling class of Gods heralded by Erda in Das Rheingold—while heeding the composer’s later change from the Ring’s optimistic Feuerbachian rebirth to a pessimistic Schopenhauerian ending: “I saw the world end.” At the same time, Twilight also destroys the pinnacle of the Ring as a paragon of cultural distinction and an epitome of racial supremacy. Although Sharon kept his directorial reins, he handed the powers of creating meaning to Black poets who took ownership over Götterdämmerung’s remains.

The outcome is perhaps most unsettling with avery r. young, a poet and performing artist from Chicago’s South Side, who not only interweaves the leftovers of Wagner’s myth into a patchwork of allusions, but also seizes the stage twice, first channeling the Norns and later delivering a eulogy for Siegfried. For a BIPOC poet, few words resonate as strongly as the word “rope.”  As a result, the association between Siegfried’s mythical murder and the killing of Black Americans comes as a jolt when avery r. young speaks for the third Norn: “siegfried know(s) a river, like him know rope, like him know tree, like him know how much of dead make a bough break.”

What kind of knowledge is this? This is not just about drawing dutiful connections between a mythological past and a historical present; not a gimmick of Regietheater; and surely not a case of operatic outreach to underrepresented groups. What matters is how Siegfried’s murder— back-stabbed by a treacherous Hagen—might matter to a demographic without access to opera, let alone access to Twilight. By decolonizing the Ring, avery r. young seizes on the killing of Siegfried to draw attention to actual cases of anti-black violence and police brutality: Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and most recently George Floyd. Perhaps the most memorable experience of Twilight comes when spectators follow the hearse carrying Siegfried’s body through a sea of candles that illuminate the parking structure in a manner both surreal and haunting. Drivers no longer watch a processional but become part of it. This immersive act prepares them for the eulogy Siegfried never received: the riveting sermon of a Baptist preacher channeled by avery r. young mourning the death of a good friend, having watched the breath exit his body at the corner of North Avenue and Central. The message of this most intense and gripping moment of Twilight is stark and simple: in today’s America, violent death for Black citizens remains real and can never bend to aesthetic sublimation.

Not surprisingly, the vestiges of the immolation scene saved for the concluding tableau pale by comparison. As Brünnhilde rode off in a red convertible, I lowered my windows to hear Goerke’s piercing soprano drown out my radio, the unsettling acoustic interference unmasking the utterly crazy artifice of a drive-by and drive-through production. Perhaps better than Boulez imagined, Twilight succeeds at undoing opera’s vicious cycle of self-replicating cultural capital: by yielding to a Black vernacular no longer singing about others but envoicing themselves.

Berthold Hoeckner
Berthold Hoeckner is a Professor of Music and Chair of the Department of Music at rhe University of Chicago. His most recent book, Film, Music, Memory, was published in 2019 by the University of Chicago Press.

© Wagner Notes, June 2021, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

Book Review: Saga of the Paris Ring

The announcement of a new production of the Ring cycle at Opéra National de Paris was greeted with much excitement in early 2019. Tickets went on sale shortly afterwards, and Wagnerians worldwide rushed to secure their seats at the Bastille for one of the two cycles planned for November/December 2020. Some were apprehensive of the director Calixto Bieito, but most chose to focus on the occasion as their music director Philippe Jordan’s last major assignment before he assumes the same position at Vienna State Opera. (He conducted the Met’s 2019 Ring cycles.) The cast featured many of today’s reigning Wagner singers, including veterans from Bayreuth and elsewhere. What better excuse to spend a week in Paris?

Then the pandemic hit the world in 2020. Rumors of cancellations began to circulate, but a surprising announcement was made in July: a concert performance of the Ring would take place as scheduled. Apparently the idea of cancellation was contested by Jordan himself, who insisted that the Ring be performed. In the meantime, the corona crisis showed little sign of abatement as many Europeans took their annual summer holidays. An email came in early October stating that, while the concert performance of the Ring would still take place as scheduled, given the limited number of audience members who could be admitted, it was necessary to refund the existing tickets before one could repurchase (a smaller number of) tickets. Many of us from outside France had abandoned the trip to Paris by that time, but it was bittersweet to receive a refund. This alternative arrangement also came to naught, as Paris Opéra announced at the end of October that due to the government’s decision to close down theaters and other public establishments to combat the pandemic, even concert performances were not possible. But soon after, a new decision was made: to record the Ring without audience, and broadcast it a month later via internet radio. There were a couple of last minute cast cancellations in November, namely the Wälsung twins, but worthy replacements were soon found, and the recording of the Ring proceeded under the most challenging of circumstances.

As the world hunkered down to a solitary holiday season, the broadcast of the Paris Ring took place in four installments: December 26, 28, 30, 2020, and January 2, 2021. I do not believe I was the only one whose heart was warmed by what it was yearning for during all these months of isolation without live music. Jordan’s conducting was fresh, lithe, and transparent. He was keen to bring out fine textures and colors in the score, with each instrument weaving leitmotifs in a continuous stream of music. Jordan’s tempi seemed very fast, especially early on: he finished Das Rheingold in less than two and a half hours, and the first act of Die Walküre took just about sixty minutes. However, he knew when to take a long pause and where to caress long lines of music. The orchestral endings of Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung were splendid. As Martina Serafin, who sang Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, said eloquently in an excellent companion documentary, “Une odeseé du Ring,” the ending of Götterdämmerung was “full of hope.” Instead of the usual heavy brass proclaiming the demise of the gods and their Valhalla, we heard the glorious flowing of the river Rhein, the theme earlier heard in the splendid singing of Lise Davidsen’s Sieglinde in Die Walküre, Act III, played with delicate beauty.

The documentary (in French) followed the recording process with excerpts of music interspersed with interviews with musicians and singers. It was clear that, despite the fear of COVID infections, everyone involved was there because he/she wanted to make music together. Jordan showed consideration for everyone involved, including the backstage crew who moved equipment. He thanked the musicians for their hard work and dedication and was presented with a bouquet of flowers by the concertmaster as a farewell gift.  There was also an informative interview of Jordan by the new director of Opéra de Paris, Alexander Neef, in which Jordan explained his apprenticeship with many Wagner conductors, and his professional coming of age in Zurich. He explained his fast tempi, stating that he feels that the Ring should be performed as a series of “dialogues.”  One may agree or disagree with this interpretation, but the attempt to reach out to the audience, through this interview as well as the documentary, was commendable.  The Opéra house and its staff went out of their way to embrace the audience worldwide.

It is not easy to comment on individual singers, as the balance and mix of sound were not always optimal.  Suffice it to say that all of the singers, including the chorus (who sang facing the stage during Hagen’s call scene in Götterdämmerung as they were scattered in the auditorium for social distancing), did a superb job of making Wagner’s music come alive, with clear German diction as well as vocal color and nuance.  Iain Paterson as Wotan/Wanderer exceeded expectations with his committed and heroic singing.  Ekaterina Gubanova’s Fricka was well schooled and sung, but I would have preferred more variety of color and phrasing to express Fricka’s frustration and manipulation. Stuart Skelton, a late replacement for Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund, showed his vast experience with the tragic hero and with memorable highlights including “Wälse, Wälse!” and the high note concluding Die Walküre, Act I.

Other notable male singers included Jochen Schmeckenbecher, who sang Alberich as a noble soul led astray by greed for power, Norbert Ernst as a veteran Loge, and the two giants: Wilhelm Schwinghammer’s yearning Fasolt and Dimitry Ivashchenko, a versatile singer luxury cast as Fafner. Günther Groissböck’s Hunding was another star turn, his deep and velvety voice making us regret that the role was so short. It is a shame that the world must wait for his Wotan/Wanderer for several more months, as his role debut in Bayreuth in 2020 had to be postponed. Gerhard Siegel’s splendid tenor makes every hearing of his Mime a special and pleasurable occasion. Ain Anger as Hagen showed off his marvelous bass (perhaps another possible Wotan/Wanderer) as he dominated his scenes with malevolent snarls. Johannes Martin Kränzle as Gunther added gravitas to this often overlooked but sympathetic character with his nuanced singing.

Andreas Schafer, one of a handful of tenors who can assay the role of Siegfried today (another such tenor, Stephen Gould, said Siegfried is far more challenging than Tristan), excelled in tender moments: in Siegfried, Act II and in Siegfried’s farewell to Brünnhilde in Götterdämmerung, Act III when his tendency to sing forte was held in check. Two sopranos split the role of Brünnhilde. Martina Serafin in Die Walküre brought warmth and sympathy to the role with her rich middle register, although she sometimes sounded stressed in her high notes. Ricarda Merbeth as Brünnhilde in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung sounded shrill at times, but she sang on pitch with power and understanding of the character. Her immolation scene was deeply moving.

Two female singers were absolute revelations, adding excitement to the already strong cast of singers. Wiebke Lehmkuhl as Erda in Das Rheingold has a dark yet clear and profound voice:  everything you would ever want for this mysterious earth goddess. The Wanderer/Erda scene in Siegfried, Act III was a masterpiece. The young Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen replaced Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde. While Davidsen had made a role debut as Sieglinde at Deutsche Oper Berlin in the fall, only a few lucky German audience members could experience her Sieglinde live, under restricted conditions. Already hailed as the next great Wagnerian soprano, her luxurious voice poured forth with ease and power, and with the overwhelming immediacy of a young woman’s perplexity and sincerity. Sieglinde’s most important phrase, “O hehrstes Wunder!” rang out with “hope” that is to come at the end of the cycle.  And we salute and join all the musicians and singers who dare to hope for a brighter future, as Richard Wagner promised almost 150 years ago.

Ako Imamura
Ako Imamura is a Society member, is a frequent traveler (under normal circumstances) and reviewer for Bachtrack.

Photo: Philippe Jordan at the Paris Opéra Bastille, January 2019, taken by Ako Imamura.

© Wagner Notes, January 2021, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

Book Review: Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music

New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020, x + 769 p. List price: $40.00; WSNY Price: $29.99 (click here to order)

This is a remarkable book. Alex Ross has written what is arguably the most wide-ranging, intellectually comprehensive, entertaining, and thoroughly useful volumes ever produced on Wagner. Let us dispense at once, then, with its main problem: the title. This is not a history of “Wagnerism,” if that word means, as it does perhaps to most of us, a distinct body (or bodies) of thought that propagates the ideas of Wagner, drawn both from his writings and his music dramas. What it is is a panoramic survey, with multiple critical analyses, of the impact, for good or ill, that Wagner has had on European and North American culture over the last 150 years. The subtitle is also questionable. “Shadow” suggests that Wagner’s music has served in part as a penumbra that restrains or even limits artistic freedom or political action, whereas Ross offers ample evidence that Wagner has served as an empowering agency for artists from all walks of life. Indeed, in the balance, he has been more a vital impulse than an affliction on modern culture.

Alex Ross in conversation at virtual launch event, Sept. 14, 2020. Photo: Neil Friedman (screen shot). WSNY co-presented the Sept. 14 virtual launch event for Alex Ross’ Wagnerism: Art and  Politics in the Shadow of Music. On November 19, WSNY will present Alex Ross in Conversation with with Professor Heath Lees. Click here to register!

There are multiple dangers when dealing with the reception of a universal artist such as Wagner. He can mean all things to all people, and, because he can, writers can all too easily lose themselves in admiration of the boundless scope of the work so that any possibility of a palpable grasp of the subject dissolves. Ross, however, brilliantly avoids this problem. Narrative is one of his great strengths; he is a born story-teller who narrates his tales succinctly and compellingly. Chapters are centered around topics, but arranged in roughly chronological order, with considerable temporal overlap. The advantage of this approach is that discussion of major figures in the reception history of Wagner is often spread over several chapters. For example, Thomas Mann’s lifelong critique of Wagner surfaces throughout the book, covering not only the early ‘Wagnerian’ short stories, Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain, and the ‘Sorrows and Grandeur’ lecture, but even Doctor Faustus. It would be difficult to imagine a more unWagnerian character than Adrian Leverkühn, the fictional composer in this work. He embodies a total rejection of Wagnerian romanticism, which Mann, by the 1940s, had come to sense as a demonic aspect of German society. And yet, by the end of the novel, Leverkühn’s modernism has not been offered as a solution to Germany’s problems; on the contrary, Ross even hints that the fate of Leverkühn indicates that Mann might have been moving back to an acceptance of Wagner as a humanistic force in society. It is this sort of extended argument that gives contour to Wagner’s reputation as well as a complexity and continuity to the whole volume. It also allows readers to draw their own conclusions as to the limitations and individuality, as well as universality, of Wagner’s work. Throughout, we see his impact on the modern world through both individual responses to his work and through public events. This leads to neither a hagio­graphy nor a denunciation of Wagner. Rather, it is a balanced and precise history.

Hardly a single major artistic figure from the fin-de siècle to the mid-20th century seems to have been able to avoid Wagner, either as a benign influence, a hostile antagonist, or both. It is perhaps ‘both’ that defines his unique power and becomes the dominant theme in the volume. The world has consistently felt exceptional ambivalence toward Wagner, arising from conflict between intense admiration for the seductive power of his music dramas and frequently acute discomfort at how overwhelming their impact can be. Many of Wagner’s more trenchant critics note the way in which his music leads one toward philosophies and ecstatic or utopian visions that are profoundly suspect, as the political and military conflicts of the early 20th century suggest. In this regard, it is appropriate that the opening chapter of the volume should be devoted to Nietzsche’s tormented and unresolved conflict with Wagner and his work, as it anticipates the wracking ambivalence that artists and writers, political theorists and revolutionary activists, individuals and collectives, have experienced with Wagner. Their struggles may have had triumphant outcomes, often in the realm of creative art — artists as various as Baudelaire, Shaw, Yeats, Willa Cather, Joyce, Woolf, Eisenstein, and Terence Malick, not to mention modern stage directors, have found Wagner to be primarily a liberating, if sometimes dangerous, influence — but when the struggles are collective and incorporate Wagner more as propagandist than artist, disaster can result. Ross focuses especially on the dilemma of racial minorities, especially Black and Jewish, many of whom have found liberation and self-fulfillment in the music dramas, but are cruelly disappointed by social responses, based on Wagner, that exclude, even erase them. The discussion of Wagnerite W.E.B. Dubois’ experience of racial intolerance, told in his story ‘On the Coming of John,’ is notably powerful in its anticipation of the destruction of minority culture, partly in Wagner’s name, that was to follow later in the century.

The dark side of Wagner, his appeal to nationalist and, above all, Nazi propagandists, is prominent in Ross’s book. Hitler’s sojourns in Bayreuth are described with discomforting detail, and yet Ross does not omit to notice that the bulk of the Nazi party had very little interest in Wagner and were not above resisting Hitler’s demands that they attend the Festspielhaus. When one balances this against abundant evidence offered elsewhere in the book that Wagner appealed to a wide range of political biases, especially left-wing revolutionaries, who, from George Bernard Shaw via Vsevolod Meyerhold to Frank Castorf, have stoked the flames of revolutionary impulse embedded in the works, one recognizes how truly universal Wagner’s appeal has been. Ross’ achievement has been not to beat the drum for a particular way of interpreting Wagner, but to show how many drums have been beaten.

Wagner has survived, Ross demonstrates, not only due to the power of his work, but by its constant ability to adapt to a changing world. It was threatened by the anti-heroic leanings of modernism, but survived as the modernists, in stripping the works of their Victorian trappings, found in them an elemental understanding of humanity as asocial, even mystical beings that had so far eluded readings of Wagner. It was threatened too by the cultural reaction to the two World Wars, and in our own time by our growing awareness of the Holocaust and Wagner’s problematic association with it. However, this cannot hide either Wagner’s intensely intelligent political understanding or the overwhelming sense of humanity that lies within his work. Often he can serve as a bulwark against forces that threaten our society. Indeed, it is notable that as the narrative moves into our own pitiless times, Parsifal frequently appears in discussion, not only from an antisemitic point of view, but as a work of extraordinary compassion.

Perhaps the most exhilarating parts of the book are those where the positive, life-giving attributes of Wagner’s influence come to the fore. Ross provides a succinct account of his influence on French symbolism and contributes an especially valuable summary of the Revue wagnérienne, which is followed a chapter or two later by a section outlining the maturing influence of Wagner’s ideas on Yeats and the Celtic twilight. The keystone chapter to the entire book is on Willa Cather, whose life was divided between the wild landscapes of the American West and the city; she never felt the countryside as a culturally deprived wasteland, as her experience of Wagner’s works had instilled the landscapes of her Nebraska home with an enormous beauty and consequent sense of meaning. There are some unexpected but very welcome sallies into distinctly unWagnerian territory, with telling passages on Theodore Fontane’s stories of the disastrous impact of Wagnerian ideals on lovers, and Frank Wedekind, who found the operas both ‘irritating and engrossing’, violently attacked the influence of Wagner on contemporary culture. Even Brecht, an anti-Wagnerian if there ever was one, is measured against Wagner in a comparison that could do with further development.
Ignore the inaccurate title. This is a noteworthy book, with breathtaking range and scope, by an author who is as good a literary critic as he is a musicologist. Ross does not lard his prose with jargon or, for that matter, with Wagnerian grandeur. He writes, first and foremost, because he loves to tell stories and there can be no grander reason for writing than that. Above all else, this book is a true pleasure to read.

Simon Williams
Simon Williams is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Theater and Dance, University of California at Santa Barbara.He lectures and publishes widely on theater and opera. He was the Society’s Bayreuth lecturer from 1998 to 2000.

© Wagner Notes, October 2020, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

Shipwrecked: The Met’s New Dutchman Falls Victim

Der fliegende Holländer. A. Kampe, M. Fujimura, E. Nikitin, S. Skorokhodov, F.-J. Selig, D. Portillo; Metropolitan Opera; V. Gergiev, cond., F. Girard, dir. Performance (premiere) of March 2, 2020.

Despite the Covid-19 crisis, which caused the cancellation of the last two months of the Met’s 2019-2020 season, the company did manage to pull off three of eight scheduled performances of its latest new production. Der fliegende Holländer, the composer’s first mature work, has not had a fresh look at the Met since August Everding’s spectral industrial-age production appeared in 1989. That effort aged poorly over its three decades. In a barometer of decline, the snow storm that blasted through its finale withered over successive revivals from the original blinding blizzard to the light flurry we saw at its last outing in 2017. Strong casts, however, generally made it worthwhile. [The new production streamed on July 5, following WSNY’s June 29 and July 1 Seminar/Webinar, which included an interview with two cast members: Daland (Franz-Josef Selig) and the Steersman (David Portillo).]

Director François Girard made a (bloody) splash with a Parsifal that opened to general approval here in 2013. I never saw much in it. The Act II bloodbath looked gimmicky, and the rest said little of interest about the work. Girard’s Dutchman, his second Met production, did not fare much better. The overture is one of Wagner’s most evocative and can stand well on its own as a kind of short dramatic tone poem. Here it was cluttered with a showy and inconsequential lightshow projecting shapes that come to resemble a ship breaking up in the waves. As Mariusz Trelinski did with his own misstep in the prelude of Tristan und Isolde in his new production of that opera in 2016, the busy nautical projections were a pointless distraction. Girard made his worse by adding a superfluous dancer whose weird undulations were bereft of any connection to the unfolding plot that follows. John Macfarlane’s uninspired sets were bland and basic. The cursed Dutchman does not even get a ship and is left to wander around awkwardly on foot. Daland’s ship, which has some visual merits, is heaved on and off stage as necessary, but its presence merely announces the other ship’s absence.

The spinning chorus that gives rise to Senta’s ballad, the opera’s focal point, heaves on vertically suspended ropes that recall an adolescent’s gym class. This could have poked fun at Senta’s raging passions, but the effect did not seem intended to be humorous. Her portrait of the Dutchman appears only as a huge eye that looked like it was repurposed from a failed Ring Cycle. There was no hint of legend, mystery, or attraction – just an empty gesture toward obsession that made one think of later Wagnerian characters and wonder what they were doing here. Dutchman’s finale has been tricky for the last generation or two of directors. The music movingly proclaims the doomed couple’s redemption through love, but our alienated creative caste is too uncomfortable with both of those concepts to give them any credence. Girard has the traumatized townspeople look out over a crimson sunset in a moment that screams, “So what?”

This new production was intended to mark the magnificent Welsh bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel’s return to the Met after an eight-year absence. A broken ankle, however, removed him from all stage performance even before Covid-19 shut down the performing arts worldwide. He was capably replaced by the Russian baritone Evgeny Nikitin, whom I first encountered in the role under conductor Valery Gergiev’s baton at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater some twenty years ago. Nikitin gave alluringly brasher performances in those days, when he was still under thirty. Later, in 2012, he suffered a career setback with Dutchman when he was summarily fired from a new Bayreuth Festival production after an old video surfaced of him sporting what looked like a swastika tattoo. Being “cancelled” avant la lettre may have tempered his engagement with Wagner, but his solid baritone, which has given the Met memorable Klingsors, Kurwenals, and Gunthers, has not really grown into the part. The lower range, which conveys the grave depths of the doomed mariner’s devilish predicament, proved elusive.

Soprano Anja Kampe, shown above*, made a big, bright, and long overdue house debut as Senta. Having mastered heavier Wagner parts elsewhere – her Berlin Isolde last year was enthralling – she brought a powerful effort that in many ways saved this drab production. Like Nikitin, she sounded tired by the end of the evening, but Met audiences should look forward to hearing more from her. Nikitin’s countryman Sergei Skorokhodov proved an ardent Erik, delivering a manlier effort than we usually see in this cloying tenor part. And mezzo Mihoko Fujimura, a Wagnerian stalwart who has enjoyed a long and well-deserved European career, made a fine Met debut as Senta’s watchful governess Mary.

Gergiev was back on the Met podium after an absence of five years. Rumors have long swirled that the Met orchestra chafes under his reportedly authoritarian manner, and he has appeared regularly enough at Carnegie Hall to suggest that he has not just been too busy or too disenchanted with DeBlasio’s New York to have stayed away from the Met. He ran a tight performance, with a finely balanced touch that lingered over the sensitive moments while delivering a tenacious drive in the stormier scenes.

* Photo: Senta (Anja Kampe) surrounded by the spinning chorus. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Paul du Quenoy
Paul du Quenoy is a private investor. He holds a PhD in History from Georgetown University.
© Wagner Notes, July 2020, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.