Wagner Festival 2013 Kicks Off in Bayreuth

Wagner Festival 2013 Kicks Off in Bayreuth
Richard Wagner's "Festspielhaus" on the green hill in Bayreuth
(AFP/Getty Images)

One of the most anticipated events of the German cultural summer every year, the Richard Wagner Festival kicks off this week in Bayreuth, featuring a special highlight in honor of the composer’s 200th anniversary: a new production of his “Ring” tetralogy.  

In an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, Frank Castorf, general manager of the Berlin Volksbühne theater who was chosen by the Wagner family to direct the 16-hour work, recently said that his production was not aiming at a “Ring of the Century” status, thus cleverly spiking all the more interest in the spectacle to come. Castorf enjoys a controversial reputation in the German-speaking theater community and is especially known for his deconstructivist approach and daring productions.  

Anticipation was furthered when first images of the “Ring”’s stage designs by Serbia’s Aleksander Denic were published by local media. Denic, who has worked on numerous films in the past, told German media that his stage, featuring a rundown “Rhinegold Motel” for the first part of the epic, would be constantly rotating to address the  “Ring”’s “cyclic structure.” From what Castorf and Denic have shared so far, this production’s prevalent theme will be oil, “the black gold” of the 21st century.

All four parts of the “Ring” will be conducted by Kirill Petrenko, who was previously head of the Komische Oper opera house in Berlin and will assume his new position as the general music director at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich later this year. Petrenko, who was born to Jewish parents in Russia and spent his youth in Austria, was the youngest person ever to be appointed general music director of a German stage in 1999, when he was 27. In 2000, he conducted the entire “Ring” series in the tiny German theater of Meiningen. 

Among the major roles, Canadian heldentenor Lance Ryan sings Siegfried, German bass-baritone Wolfgang Koch performs Wotan, German-born Italian soprano Anja Kempe plays Sieglinde, South African tenor Johan Botha sings Siegmund, and British soprano Catherine Foster performs Brünnhilde.

For the opening night of the festival, Wagner specialist Christian Thielemann will conduct Jan Phillips Gloger’s 2012 production of “The Flying Dutchman.” The program also features “Tannhäuser,” conducted by Axel Kober, and “Lohengrin,” under the baton of Boston Symphony Orchestra director Andris Nelsons (provided he recovers from a head injury that left him hospitalized this week).

Despite its controversial status — anti-Wagnerians oppose the celebration of the anti-Semitic composer, whose work was posthumously appropriated by the Nazi regime — the Wagner Festival has become a cultural highlight for the international community of Wagner lovers. It has also become an annual fashion highlight of sorts for the German public: the Bayreuth festival is the only event of the year to produce images of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in elaborate gowns, rather than her typical business attire.

The festival’s rigid ticketing policies have made it one of the most exclusive musical events in the world. Music lovers who wish to experience the typically four-hour long performances in the famous Bayreuth festival hall, which was designed especially for this purpose by the composer himself, have to wait for years or even decades to get in. While the hall is famous for its acoustics — thanks to its sunken and covered orchestra pit — it is also infamous for its lack of comfort: the audience is seated on hard wooden chairs with little leg space, and there is no air conditioning. If you are one of the chosen few this year, don’t forget your fan.