Friday, 27 June 2014

Wagner's Mysterious Monument in the Woods

Not far from the "Lohengrinhaus" where I've been staying recently and where Wagner sketched out his opera "Lohengrin", there is a monument to the composer - a "Denkmal" as the Germans call it. I suppose that translates as ''thought time".  I needed some Wagner 'thought time". I'd been in the house for a couple of weeks and had not yet connected with the great man in any noticeable way.  I'd imagined myself communing with his spirit in some mystical way. I'd thought, when I walked up the stone steps to the first floor where he stayed,  that I'd have a strong sense of him and Minna  walking up those steps - they'd be weary after a day's hike - ready perhaps for a beer or the fine Saxon wines that he favoured.  Perhaps at night, his ghost would even wander up to my apartment under the eaves for a friendly chat. My German is lousy but I kept a phrase book by my bed just in case he popped in.

But any Wagnerian spirit had failed to show and I was signally failing to commune.  I did hear one lone horn outside the window one warm evening but that was after Germany hammered Portugal 4-0 in the World Cup.  If Wagner approved of that result, he certainly wasn't telling me.

Action was needed. I decided to trace the composer's steps on some of the hikes that he undertook. Time, construction and modern transport have rendered some of his adventures quite banal but there was one that intrigued me. About 45 minutes from the Lohengrinhaus was the Liebethaler Grund -  a "narrow, deeply incised valley of the Wesenitz river" according to its Wikipedia entry.  Since 1933, the biggest Wagner monument in the world was constructed in this dark, dramatic valley that marks the beginning of that remarkable, surreally mountainous region of Saxony known as "Saxische Schweiz" or "Saxon Switzerland". I'd tried once before  to find the monument but I was travelling by car with a German friend and we got nothing but shrugs or dead-end directions. I had, however, seen a signpost pointing to a "Liebethaler Grund" trail so I set out one Saturday afternoon. I walked past the Schloss and past pretty half-timbered houses their English-style gardens opulent with delphiniums, poppies, lupins and loose-strife. I crossed a busy highway and walked along an unpaved road, passing a few more fairly banal modern houses when suddenly, dramatically, the landscape changed.

Massive, craggy brown rocks rose up on either side of the road. Older, wearier looking houses huddled against them. A loud, powerful stream
carved its way through the hamlet. A little bridge led into deep woods. Without thinking I crossed it, headed towards the woods but thought to check with an old man who was passing.  "Sie sind falsch," he replied and my long-forgotten 'o' level German told me I'd gone the wrong way. He pointed back to the main road. I managed to ask if there were a pub or caf in the area. "Not in the east," I understood him to reply. And then I think he added, "They're all dead here." And off he went.

He was right - the little village that had managed to squeeze into the ravine between the rocks had only a few houses. I walked on, asked a fisherman unloading his van and he pointed to another path into the woods, explaining that it was a good 25 minute walk but very beautiful. Then he frowned, thought for a minute and added something else that my German was not fluent enough to understand.


This path followed that same turbulent stream. The rocks rose higher and closer. The forest was thicker. I'd heard a few things about this monument, hidden deep in these woods.  An American Wagnerian had told me he found it 'creepy' because of its scale. It's the biggest Wagner monument in the world, standing 12.5 metres and, as he emphasized, was brought to this secretive spot in 1933. However, as Christian Muehne, the curator of the Lohengrinhaus pointed out, it had been planned to stand in Dresden but run into the usual city council conflicts. And even if it was installed when the Nazis were coming to power, they had not, he emphasized, paid a penny towards it.

Now I was drawing closer. I did not yet know if the monument was 'creepy' but the forest certainly was despite its beauty. I was alone in this dark chasm - the fisherman had followed at a safe distance but he was no longer visible so it was just me and the birds and the high dense trees and those immense rocks.

Wagner came here long before he wrote any of "The Ring" and it's tempting to think that when he walked here, those lofty rock summits inspired his "Walküre". His Siegfried would have found forest birds galore here although the busiest, most visible bird on my walk was a dipper, bobbing across rocks on the stream and diving down into the coppery depths.

I'd come to what looked like the end of the path. A small boardwalk with a rail, curved away from me and I increased my pace quite sure that I would turn this corner and confront 36 foot of difficult, complex, German genius.  But instead I was faced with a delapidated bridge across what was now a rushing river - and a locked gate with a sign that I now realized said more or less what the frowning fisherman had tried to tell me an hour earlier. T
he bridge was unsafe and crossing was forbidden . So there he was, the colossal  genius in stone - so near and yet so far.

Later that evening when I returned home and translated the rest of the sign, I understood that there had, in fact, been an easier route by driving further along the main road and taking a short walk and crossing another, safe bridge.  Oh well, Wagner always did make you work for his rewards. And, in one way or another, it is always worth it.


Saturday, 14 June 2014

Last-minute Walküre in Bayreuth

On a hot summer's evening in Paris in 1988, two French friends phoned me from a Bed and Breakfast in Bayreuth, Germany. Marc and Pierre were  preparing to go to the opera. Nothing new - Marc and Pierre spent their lives preparing to go to the opera. Or in the case of Pierre, the more emotional of the two, recovering from going to the opera. Pierre lived his "vie lyrique" as he described the abiding passion of his life, at a very intense level.  Joan Sutherland's final "Lucia" left him too moved to speak for 24 hours.  "Parsifal" in virtually any production would leave him in a week-long state swoon. And that evening, there they both were, Pierre, the emoter,  and Marc, the organizer in a Bed and Breakfast just a few yards from the Festspielhaus. The following day would see the beginning of "Der Ring des Nibelungen." This Ring cycle would also mark the debut of a respected but not particularly well-known British bass, John Tomlinson, in the role of Wotan.

I did know Tomlinson's work. I had seen him sing to his coat as Colline in La Boheme at the ROH, and in the much more spectacular role of Baron Ochs in Strauss's Rosenkavalier at ENO. I knew that this was a Titan of a man onstage. Tomlinson, as  Wagner's flawed and troubled god,  could it seemed, move the character away from the gloomy, stately old man of some earlier productions and bring his volcanic energy to a much younger incarnation. I'd told my French friends as much. Thanks to Marc, the organizer, they had applied for Bayreuth tickets a couple of centuries in advance and were headed for a local bierstüberl in happy anticipation of an early sausage supper and a great evening of opera.

I, on the other hand, seem to lack the bit of the brain that plans. I had no ticket to Bayreuth but, as an Air France employee, I did have free air travel. Two minutes into my conversation with Pierre and I knew that I had to jump on a plane to Nuremberg and ride a train to Bayreuth where I would take my chances at getting a last minute ticket for the following day's Walküre..

Next day, there I was, walking for the first time in my life up the green hill to the Festspielhaus. I would like to say that I was moved and excited but, in truth, I was frazzled by the travel and anxious that this was a barmy undertaking that would leave me locked outside the theatre.  A small part of me hung on to a hope that I would get a returned ticket. Looking at the stately opera-goers headed up the hill was heartening. Many of them were quite old, some a tad infirm. Surely somebody would keel over before Die Walküre started?

Mark and Pierre were happily anticipating their evening. So, I saw at the top of the hill, were scores of hopeful, would-be opera-goers. Ticket hunters were everywhere and all more organized and alluring than I could ever hope to be. There were women and a few men dressed as Brünnhilde. There were several Wotans and  even a couple of Hundings. Some people had drawn cartoons on posters explaining their need for a ticket. Others held up simple banners. I had nothing.

The trumpeters came out onto the Bayreuth balcony to summon the audience. Marc and Pierre wished me luck and disappeared inside. So did most of those resourceful hopefuls. Soon, the bustling little square in front of the theatre was empty -except for me and the Bayreuth fire engine, oh and an English couple with their teenage son who had drawn lots: one act per family member.

I lost heart and drifted back down the hill to have a cup of tea on a patio next to the  more ornate old Margrave theatre. In all my years of opera-going, I had never failed to get in at the last minute. I would always declare airily that: "Wagner (or Puccini or Verdi or Strauss) knows I love him and will look after me." They always had but now, in his spiritual home, Wagner had abandoned  me.  Forlorn and disappointed I wandered back up to the theatre. I even walked round it a couple of times, thinking that I might be able to hear something, anything but all I could hear was birdsong and the distant hum of traffic. The audience spilled out. Pierre and Marc were in a state of high excitement. "Tomlinson est epoustouflant!" cried Pierre. "C'est un Wotan volcanique! Titanique!" Well yes, I knew that. "C'est la plus grand soirée de ma vie lyrique!" added Pierre never a paragon of tact.  And back they all went inside - all except me. I wandered around the lovely gardens on the hill, admired the flower beds and tried to take consolation, as did all my great composers, in nature.  But roses and beech trees and blackbirds brought no comfort that evening. I debated returning to the B and B but I couldn't resist returning to the Festspielhaus one more time. The audience flooded out into the gardens again. Pierre was in near-swoon again when, Marc, ever calm, logical and organized said, "Now that you are here, why don't we see if you can, perhaps, just look inside the theatre?" He led me towards the door and up the stairs. Nobody stopped me. I was walking up the stairs inside the Bayreuth theatre! Soon I was in the box that Marc and Pierre were sharing with two other people. The auditorium was empty during the long meal-length interval. I could gaze at the theatre and imagine all that I was missing. I had settled for doing just that when I heard Marc asking a passing usherette if "Madam could, perhaps, just stand at the back of the box for the last act?" "Why would she do that?" asked the usherette, "when the other people went home and she can sit down?"

I was in! And I was in for  Wotan's great farewell, what I consider, the most moving and beautiful passage in the whole Ring Cycle if not in the whole of western music.  The lights dimmed, I took my seat. I did not, of course, see Barenboim making his way to the podium. This was, after all, Bayreuth where he was probably in blue jeans and t-shirt under the roof that Wagner himself had decreed should be installed over the orchestra pit. So in the absolute darkness that is Bayreuth, I waited for the arrival of the Valkyries, and, later for Wotan/Tomlinson himself.  I would like to say that I sat thrilled and moved beyond description. I would like to say that, as for Pierre, it was the greatest evening of "ma vie lyrique." However, the shock of my sudden arrival overwhelmed the performance itself. Throughout the Valkyries ride and the first entrance of Wotan, I was too stunned to take in much of the action onstage. And when I did...when I finally did.....

Well, the Kupfer production was thrilling in its energy and drive but visually his use of geometric, laser-lit shapes was disappointing and unexciting. As for Tomlinson, well he played Wotan as he would continue to play him for most of his career - as a raging,  foaming at the mouth, mad-dog of a god.  Alas, and how heartfelt is that 'alas', I never quite agreed with that interpretation. Vocally, back then, the man was stupendous and  tireless. Neither he nor any of the other singers were served by a production that, while exploding with energy, still lacked visual excitement. Dark, dark sets and dreary laser cubes of light replacing Wagner's flames. For me Sir John found his Wagnerian calling when he went on to pour  that unflagging drive and energy into Hans Sachs in Graham Vick's gorgeous production at Covent Garden. There we had one of the greatest performances of the 20th century.

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