(I was delighted to be invited to speak in late November at the Internationaal Wagner Congres Amsterdam 2013. Below is the text of my paper. A considerably longer, fully-referenced version will be published as an essay in a 2014 issue of the German journal, wagnerspectrum. However, it will not have the pretty pictures...)
In the beginning was Bayreuth. Except, of course, for Wagner, it was not the beginning: it was the end, at least an end, and in many respects a misleading one. Bayreuth, or perhaps better, the idea and ideal which have come down to us, mostly from the period following Wagner’s death, presents a gathered congregation as opposed to the freer assembly apparently envisaged by the younger Wagner. That leads us to ask: can one, should one, do more than smile at the utopian idea of a wooden theatre to be torn down at the same time as the score of Siegfried went up in flames, after but three performances – ‘Entrée: gratis!’ – given within the course of a week? Was the ‘artwork of the future’, outward looking, ‘universal’ as opposed to merely ‘national’, just as much a progressive pipe-dream, then, as the ‘springtime of peoples’ of the 1848-9 revolutions? As AJP Taylor’s ‘turning point’ whose ‘fateful essence’ was that Germany ‘failed to turn,’ or, still worse, Sir Lewis Namier’s sneering epitaph, the ‘revolution of the intellectuals’? Wagner’s part in the Dresden uprising is well known. It is nevertheless worth reiterating that, whatever the disillusionment of the 1850s and beyond, revolutionary hopes found themselves instantiated both in the subsequent course of much of European politics – liberals and sometimes even socialists found that they could accomplish a great deal by cooperation with a reinstated old order, whose reaction was in any case more military than aristocratic – and in Wagner’s later musico-dramatic deeds. The ‘artwork of the future’ remained, endured, even strengthened itself, for all the transformations, both pragmatic and principled, required by what we might call, in dubious homage to the former people’s democracies, the ‘actually existing Bayreuth Festival’.
For the conservative caricature of modern Regietheater, which in certain cases has an element of truth to it, a caricature in which, for the sake of argument, Monsalvat is arbitrarily relocated to a multi-storey car-park in Essen, and references to the automobile industry become determining features, bears no relation to the exploration of music, words, reception, and so much more offered by Herheim and other probing directors. Still less does it respond to Wagner’s strenuous challenge. Interestingly, Peter Konwitschny has, for very similar reasons, avowedly dissociated himself from the Regietheater label, it perhaps being no coincidence that Konwitschny, the son of a celebrated conductor, Felix, is himself a musician:
I do not consider myself a representative of the Regietheater. Often, these directors present one single idea, such as for example staging Rigoletto in an empty swimming pool or in a slaughterhouse. These ideas are not consequentially followed through and explored, and in most cases, the singers stand next to each other on stage just as unconnected as in conventional productions.
My stagings, on the other hand, aim to return to the roots: to get to the core of the pieces, through the jungle of interpretative traditions, which, in most cases, have distorted the pieces. The accusation that this is ‘too intellectual for the average viewer’ is absurd and exposes the enemies of such theatre as opposing new insights.
Indeed, the pernicious anti-intellectualism of such attacks as such, as opposed to perfectly justified criticisms of particular productions, reveals itself to be a strange sort of intellectual condescension. No one reading Hegel or listening to Wagner for the first time expects to ‘understand’ everything; nor does he mind when he ‘fails’ to do so. Were there a final, achievable, destination, we should then give up, having ‘mastered’ Parsifal or the Phänomenologie des Geistes, and then move on to something else. Re-enactment of the sort envisaged by the decriers of interpretation makes no more sense here than it does in performance. Ritual is in Parsifal and through Parsifal dynamically, dialectically challenged from within as well as from without; that indeed is the very stuff of Wagner’s drama.
If anything, politics stand still more starkly at the heart of the final scene. Amfortas’s trial – in every sense – takes us from post-war Nuremberg to the present-day Bundestag. The problematical nature of charismatic leadership is here for all to see. Parsifal is not one of the trio seen at the close, presumably hastening us to an uncertain future; instead, we find ourselves in the hands of Gurnemanz, Kundry – she does not expire – and a young boy. Or is he Parsifal, and has the whole drama been a dream or, rather, the ultimate nightmare? Friedrich Meinecke’s ‘German catastrophe’, the purported Sonderweg of German history? There is certainly no solace to be had from the bickering politicians of the Bundestag, the flag of the Federal Republic draping Titurel’s coffin, yet Parsifal seems to have offered at best a dead-end, a touch of snake oil: a modern politician? Amfortas, like Siegfried, seems to have gained in dignity through death. Nihilism, as Nietzsche would doubtless have had it? Or Wagner’s lifelong anarchism? Again, questions are dramatically suggested rather than dogmatically answered.