The handwritten opening page of Tristan und Isolde photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
The handwritten opening page of Tristan und Isolde photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

The 104th edition of the Bayreuth Festival has just kicked off with Christian Thielemann conducting Tristan und Isolde. Thielemann was recently appointed as the very first music director of the Bayreuther Festspiele.  The opening night saw the usual procession of German celebrities, high nobility and politicians making their way up the Green Hill towards the literally crumbling  Festspielhaus (the theatre is being renovated). A  Bayreuth festival opening wouldn’t  be complete without the presence of the self-confessed Wagnerian, Angela Merkel, who was accompanied by her husband. I wasn’t there for the premiere (the invite was still in the post), but rumour has it that the German Chancellor slipped off her chair in the restaurant during the first interval of Tristan. Was this a subtle way of commenting on the production or had some Greek waiter perchance sabotaged her chair?
Instead of a review of  Richard’s great-granddaughter Katharina Wagner’s new production of Tristan (which in general was received very well), I can tell you about  the new Wagner museum complex that  opened in time for the festival. The three-pronged museum approach to Wagner consists of the revamped Villa Wahnfried, the ground floor of Siegfried Haus and a completely new concrete-and-glass construction that has sprung up in the garden of the Wagner property. This brand new museum more than doubles the previous exhibition space.

Villa Wahnfried was largely destroyed during the war and much was lost. Siegfried’s son Wieland , who tried his best to give the Bayreuther Festspiele a good reputation, simply moved into the ruins of the building. It wasn’t until 1976 that Wahnfried was reconstructed,  but no attempt was made to fully restore the bourgeois interiors.

After a major rethink and three years of restoration,  a new concept for Villa Wahnfried has emerged.
Some people, who remember the ‘old’ Wahnfried, will complain about the fact that many objects have been removed.  The interiors now give the impression that Richard and Cosima have left the building for an extended sojourn in Venice and draped white dust covers (similar to those found in IKEA!) over most of the furniture and pictures on the wall.  A few choice objects (see photograph below) and pieces of furniture remain on display.

Museum director Sven Friedrich at Villa Wahnfried with Liszt and Wagner portraits. Photo: Ehrnrooth
Museum director Sven Friedrich at Villa Wahnfried with Liszt and Wagner portraits. Photo: Ehrnrooth

The objects that you can actually see, explains Sven Friedrich, the director of the three Wagner museums, are the only ones that are original. The new thinking is ‘no more fakes’.  The covered furniture and pictures represent all the objects that were lost in the war.  Friedrich tells me that by studying old photographs they could establish how the interiors of the rooms on the lower floor appeared when Richard and Cosima were residing here. To me it looks more like a conceptual art exhibition and a momentary solution, until the ‘real’ furniture is delivered.

On the other hand I do like the fact that in some of the rooms the previously white walls have partly been replaced by an impression of what the original wallpaper must have looked like. So, while some  objects have been covered by white cloth at the same time colour has been added to the walls of some rooms.  Downstairs there are few texts but the whole upper floor of Haus Wahnfried is now completely devoted to the composer’s career, family life  and his works.

The good news is that there has been a complete rethink about how to present not only the composer and his wife Cosima, but also their descendants and their relationship with Adolf Hitler in the 1920s, the 1930s, during the war and up until the death of Winifred Wagner in 1980. It was  high time that the family’s enthusiastic support for Hitler was confronted head on. The self-exonerating and insensitive claims that Wagner was misused by the Nazis doesn’t wash any longer, even if you can’t blame the composer for the concentration camps.

The Siegfried Haus now gives you an idea of Richard’s abhorrent anti-semitic writings and how ‘the master race’ used Wagner’s  ideology for their own purposes.  It never ceases to surprise me to hear how easily  the Nazis  (with the help of Cosima and her son-in-law Houston Stewart Chamberlain) turned Wagner’s music, his concept of a total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk), as well as  his anti-semitic ideology into effective tools for totalitarianism. The texts, photos and films are displayed on block monitors and each room on the lower floor “talks to you”.

Sven Friedrich took me on a personal tour and explained why it was decided that Siegfried Haus should be opened to the general public.  “The former exhibition (only) dealt with Wagner’s works and life and the history of the Bayreuth festival. In the concept of the new museum it was very important to also deal with the very complicated history of Wagner’s effects and the connections between his aesthetics and artificial ideology with the folkish (Völkisch) movement and the history of the Third Reich.”

It is well known that Hitler was a passionate Wagnerian and he made his first pilgrimage to Bayreuth in October 1923. Hitler’s racist ideas were strongly influenced by the English-born author Houston Stewart Chamberlain who was a great admirer of Wagner’s music and was married to the composer’s stepdaughter Eva.

Hitler landed in jail after the failed Munich beer-hall putsch but the composer’s son Siegfried and the rest of the family decided to openly show their support for him when, for the first time since the war, the Bayreuth festival reopened in 1924. Hitler had already become a close friend of Winifred (Siegfried’s wife) and in an infamous interview filmed in 1976 she made no attempt to dissociate herself from “Wolf” (as the family called him) and continued to express her admiration for him long after the second world  war. Siegfried Haus remained unscathed during the war despite being located next to Wahnfried. Winifred occupied the house until her death in 1980.

“Hitler lived here during his Bayreuth stays between 1936-1940 and it is absolutely impossible to deny this part of the history”,  says Friedrich.

The dining room looks exactly as dark and joyless as it would have in the 1930’s and nothing has been added or replaced. It feels quite eerie when you realise that the Führer sat here and chatted (perhaps even flirted) with Winifred and the rest of the Bayreuth circle over a vegetarian meal. There are not many places in Germany where you can see such an authentic 1930s interior that can be linked closely with Hitler. One can only hope that Siegfried House doesn’t attract the kind of people who secretly worship Hitler.

Sven Friedrich’s predecessor already organised an exhibition about Wagner and the Jews in the 1980s and there have been conferences on the same theme, but this is the first permanent and extensive display about this subject matter at the Wagner property.

Verstummte Stimmen (Silent Voices) photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
Verstummte Stimmen (Silent Voices) photo: Albert Ehrnrooth

Two years ago the very moving  Verstummte Stimmen ( Silent voices) exhibition was installed in the park beneath the Festspielhaus. Panels show pictures of singers, conductors and musicians (mainly) from a Jewish background that performed at the Bayreuther Festspiele. A short biography explains when and in what role(s) they appeared in Bayreuth. The fact that many of these performers had been very successful at Bayreuth made no difference. If they were Jewish, they were at some point not rehired.

Long before the Nazi era Cosima Wagner took exception to some Jewish singers and three years after her death (in 1930) a production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg became the first Jew-free production in Germany.  Many Jewish musicians and people married to Jews went into exile during the 1930s, but unfortunately most of them stayed in Germany and ended up in concentration camps.

The large bust of Richard Wagner in the park is nowadays permanently  surrounded by Jewish musicians who once performed the Master’s works at the Festspielhaus. But instead of being covered in glory, they are now mostly remembered for having perished in concentration camps.





ROBERTO DEVEREUX by GAETANO DONIZETTI  Libretto: Salvatore Cammarano

Bayerische Staatsoper, seen at the Nationaltheater in Munich, 15th of July 2015

BQueen Elizabeth I salutes her rival the Duchess of Nottingham
Queen Elizabeth I salutes her rival the Duchess of Nottingham © Wilfried Hösl

Age is no hindrance, when you are singing. Placido Domingo is 74 years old and has during the last decade gone from tenor roles, to transposing passages down a note or two, to baritone roles that don’t quite suit his voice.

The coloratura legend Edita Gruberova is 69 years old but she makes no compromises. She still goes hell for leather in major roles in operas by Bellini and Donizetti. As a matter of fact, according to Gruberova’s website, she is booked well into 2017 to appear in the major opera houses of Vienna, Tokyo and Munich in productions of Anna Bolena Norma and Lucrezia Borgia.

At the Bavarian State Opera in Munich she now and then makes a very welcome appearance as Elisabetta (Queen Elizabeth I) in Donizetti’s ‘tragedia lirica’ Roberto Devereux. It is clearly one of Gruberova’s signature roles and after seeing her in action I can understand why she is still at it.

Christof Loy’s staging from 2004 depicts the corridors of power in Westminister as a pretty shabby place in need of some freshening up. Sara’s private apartments are no more luxurious. The Duchess of Nottingham lives behind plexiglass screens that are scratchier than a London Underground train. Yes, this is reminiscent of the London I knew in the early 80s, before the property boom.

When Elisabetta (Gruberova) is about to show some steel and sentence her young favourite Deveruex to death, she appears dressed as the Iron Lady in turquoise skirt and jacket with matching beige handbag.

Whenever the choir makes an entrance in the Palace (of Westminster) there is also that distinct whiff of the 80s with the men and women dressed as your typical civil servants, butlers and domestic servants. But here is a missed opportunity, as Roberto Devereux (or the Earl of Essex) is not dressed as your stereotypical ‘Essex or even Mondeo man’. It is a small, perhaps irrelevant detail that probably would only have been picked up by a British audience

But most importantly there is some excellent singing.

There is only one disappointment. The Siberian tenor Alexey Dolgov as Devereux sounded rather dull, made no impression in the cabalettas, but acted his pants off. You can see and hear why Sonia Ganassi continues to be hired as Deveruex’s secret lover Sara  by many of the world’s best opera houses. She can be both intensely passionate and love-torn tender. Equally impressive is her husband, the jealous and spiteful Duke of Nottingham (Franco Vassallo). Vassallo is another one, I must admit, of these wonderful Italian baritones that I haven’t encountered before on my operatic travels. Vassallo portrays his character with gusto and his deeply rounded voice makes full use of the open and clear cut vowels that his mother tongue provides.

The odd thing about this opera is that there are many duets but only rarely do the protagonists sing together.

The Slovak soprano Edita Gruberova thrives on her own and is, despite her age, still a force to be reckoned with.  Gruberova was for many years the reigning Queen of the Night and perhaps after Beverly Sills the finest Tudor Queen in Donizetti’s trilogy Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux.

Elisabetta (Edita Gruberova) manages a hair raising situation
Elisabetta (Edita Gruberova) manages a hair raising situation © Wilfried Hösl

But whereas Mrs Sills declared that taking on Elisabetta in Roberto Deveruex had shortened her career by at least four years, the same role has probably lengthened Gruberova’s life on stage.

Her voice has now lost lustre on the top notes, but she makes up for some of that by totally inhabiting the role from start to finish. It is all there: first the affection she shows Devereux, then the anger, the cold hearted death sentence, followed by doubt, the realisation that she has made a mistake, the blame she puts on the Nottinghams and finally the grief – Gruberova makes it all seem very believable. I guess she could manage the notoriously difficult final scene purely on technique, but this singer has no intention of coasting. She gives the aria ‘Quel sangue versato’ the full whack, and some. The very final Bs and the high D don’t come off and turn into a kind of wail. But it doesn’t matter because Elisabetta has gone mad with sorrow and on her knees hands the power to her nephew, King James VI of Scotland.

Edita Gruberova received a standing ovation and much credit should also go to the conductor Friedrich Haider. He actually re-discovered the score of Roberto Devereux. Although hardly a masterpiece, this is a perfectly dramatic opera, provided all the main roles are sang convincingly.

This production of Roberto Devereux remains on the repertoire and if you value strong acting, you have to see Edita Gruberova as Elisabetta before she passes on her coloratura crown.


ARABELLA by R. Strauss/H. von Hofmannsthal

Seen at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich 14/07/2015

Arabella (Anja Harteros) and her sister in breeches (Hanna-Elisabeth Müller)  photo:Wilfried Hösl
Arabella (Anja Harteros) and her sister in breeches (Hanna-Elisabeth Müller) photo:Wilfried Hösl

I have been racking my brain for a couple of days now, but I am pretty sure it is called an ‘archaic smile’. Anja Harteros’s lips are turned up only slightly, but enough to suggest a smile. You can see the same rather flat, but ambivalent expression in Greek stone figures of young naked youths from the 6th century BCE, the so called kouroi. Little did I know, until I wrote this piece, that Anja Harteros, actually is half-Greek.

Not only does Anja Harteros do the non-committal expression rather well, she sings the title role of Arabella effortlessly in a production that is superb all around.

Arabella knows the score photo: Wilfried Hösl
Arabella knows the score photo: Wilfried Hösl

The Bavarian State Opera’s new production of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Arabella is musically almost as sound as it gets. Very strong singing and acting from virtually all the main characters. As a singer you could hardly wish for a better orchestra in the pit and a more attentive conductor than the Swiss maestro Philippe Jordan. Act one is dramatically weak, probably due to the fact that von Hofmannsthal died 4 years before the premiere and didn’t have the opportunity to fine-tune the libretto. Particularly acts two and three are staged very effectively by director Andreas Dresen, helped by the most dramatic and symbolic staircase(s) you will ever have seen on stage (reminiscent of the’ stairways to heaven’ in classic Hollywood musicals). The set is designed by Mathias Fischer-Dieskau whose father was a much-praised Mandryka half a century ago. The orgy after the Coachman’s ball that takes place on the stairs and in the stairwell is not irrelevant but perhaps a bit distracting. I literally nearly lost the plot, I was so busy looking at the half-naked goings-on in the background.

Sinful and symbolic stairs photo: Wilfried Hösl
Sinful and symbolic stairs photo: Wilfried Hösl

But seriously, I think the director has managed to find the right socio-political balance throughout. To set the action during the time that Strauss premiered the opera (in 1933) is a logical move. In the early years of the Nazi Party’s rule Strauss was quite happy to support their culturally restrictive and anti-Semitic directives. Yes, Richard Strauss must have recognised himself in the opportunist that Arabella so clearly is.

Arabella’s aristocratic family counts on her to help them out of their financial dire straits by simply marrying the wealthiest of her many suitors. She is perfectly confident to wait until the right man comes along. She shows very little empathy for her little sister Zdenka who runs her errands and has to dress in men’s clothing because their pathetic father, Count Waldner, can’t afford to buy her the kind of clothes that a woman of her status should wear.

Before Arabella then decides to fall in love with Mandryka (Thomas J. Mayer) she makes sure that he is wealthy enough to support the family. She is not at all concerned about the fact that he seems to have picked her mainly for her looks. Neither does it seem to bother her that he is boorish and jealous. His determined (over-my-dead-body) mentality is quite typical of the new master race that will terrorize the world during the following 12 years.

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Mandryka and Fiakermillli do some serious exercising Photo: Wilfried Hösl

Surely Strauss’s frequent use of waltzes is meant ironically. And yes, there are many things about this opera that are reminiscent of Der Rosenkavalier, but it certainly isn’t second rate ‘The Knight of the Rose, part II’. No, this opera, unlike Rosenkavalier is all about money,  money and how to get it. Arabella quickly forgives Mandryka’s resentful and brusque behaviour, when she remembers how rich he is. Arabella also heartlessly fails to defend her sister Zdenka when she is in a spot of bother at the very end. Arabella is just concerned with catching the man who can pay for the lifestyle that she thinks she deserves.

Don’t be fooled by the musically lightweight passages with waltzes and sentimental flair. Scratch the surface and you will find some very fine orchestral scoring. Strauss cleverly intertwines the various ‘leitmotifs’ that accompany both Mandryka and Arabella.’ Und du wirst mein Gebieter sein’ says it all and Harteros and Mayer manage to take romanticism to the hilt. Anaja Harteros seems to just float up to the top notes.

Arabella wonders if this is the man for her? Photo:  Wilfried Hösl
Arabella wonders if this is the man for her? Photo: Wilfried Hösl


Towards the end, after Mandryka has shown himself to be an irascible hot head, Harteros almost convinces us that Arabella has chosen love over money. But there is a giveaway at the very end when Arabella offers Mandryka (Thomas Mayer) a glass of water as a symbol of betrothal (according to his Croatian custom). Harteros approaches Mayer with her archaic smile and you expect a loving embrace, but instead she flicks the water in his face.

The plot is fairly basic and von Hofmannsthal would surely have wanted to improve some scenes, had he lived a bit longer. That said, some of the libretto’s entanglements and intricacies Strauss’s favourite composer Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte would have been proud of.

Count Waldner (Kurt Rydl) is skint but funny. Photo: Wilfried Hösl
Count Waldner (Kurt Rydl) is skint but funny. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

The ‘mega bass’ Kurt Rydl is excellent as Count Waldner, whose middle name seems to be failure. Von Hofmannsthal wanted to create a commedia dell’arte figure and Rydl achieves that in every sense. Hanna-Elisabeth Müller is totally convincing in the breeches role and actually quite delectable as Zdenka. Mandryka does have to win our hearts as well. Not easy, considering that he is blunt, pathologically jealous and threatens to get very physical with both sexes. He disturbs bears, openly flirts with the Fiakermilli, and dresses like a Nazi. On top of that the stage director seems to suggest that his helpers are members of the Gestapo. The baritone Thomas J Mayer’s looks are ideally suited to the role, he is a solid actor and his voice is strong and dark, as required. Despite the character’s unpleasant traits Mayer manages to make Mandryka quite likeable.

The libretto and some of the staging is genuinely amusing and the man sat next to me was chuckling throughout the performance. His wife (or perhaps his lover?) would every now and then squeeze his hand and waltz with it on the arm rest.

Arabella was premiered at this year’s Munich Opera Festival but will remain on the repertoire next season. It is well worthwhile to make a detour to Munich’s Nationaltheater to see this production.



Seen at Grange Park Opera June 24, 2015

Samson et Dalila -Samson (Carl Tanner) Dalila (Sara Fulgoni) © Robert Workman
Samson (Carl Tanner)  and Dalila (Sara Fulgoni) contemplating what haircut to get © Robert Workman

The story, taken from the Book of Judges, about a classic haircut is well-known. We are all familiar with that sinking feeling and loss of potency after a horrific hair makeover. But in the face of defeat Samson, just like the composer Camille Saint-Saëns, found strength and ultimately victory. Come to think of it, Samson is one of history’s first suicide bombers and his self-destructive act appeared to have God’s blessing. What the Lord made of Saint-Saëns’s opera on the subject is not known, but its success lay for a long time in the balance.

Grange Park Opera’s new production of Samson et Delila contains some powerful singing and a very good orchestra to boot.

Why did Camille Saint-Saëns devote so much time to creating this work? Many of his most famous compositions seem effortlessness: the 4th and the 5th piano concertos, the Carnival of the Animals, the Danse Macabre and the Organ Symphony also show off his versatility.
Samson et Dalila started out as an oratorio and was performed at a number of private concerts. In the 19th century the use of a biblical subject for an opera was frowned upon in France, Great Britain and probably in most other European countries. After the humiliating Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 Saint-Saëns for some reason decided that he had to rework the oratorio and ignore the censors and the self-appointed gatekeepers of the Christian faith.
But when Samson and Delilah was finally ready to be performed in 1877 nobody in France was willing to stage it. With the help of Franz Liszt it was therefore first seen in Weimar. Then it took 13 years before anyone in France showed interest and another 4 years before the country’s foremost company, Opéra de Paris, staged the work!
Certainly not an easy ride for an already very well respected pianist, organist and composer. In the end Saint-Saëns had reason to feel vindictive because the opera became a resounding success and in Paris alone it was performed 500 times during the next 30 years.

Samson (Carl Tanner) Grange Park Opera © Robert Workman
Samson (Carl Tanner) Grange Park Opera © Robert Workman

Samson et Dalila is now the only one of Saint-Saëns’s 12 operas that is performed on a fairly regular basis, but I had never before seen a production. I cherish my recording with Placido Domingo and Elena Obraztsova singing the title roles and Daniel Barenboim conducting. I made my mind up that I was not going to be unfair and expect the production at Grange Park Opera to musically reach those heights.
I needn’t have worried about the music, because all the musicians are equal to the task. But I want to take issue with the director of this production. Setting the opera in Vichy France during the German occupation doesn’t add anything to the action other than the most obvious. In the ballet scene it turns out that Delilah is a film star and instead of dancing we see the singers reacting to the action in the (oriental sounding) film that they are supposedly watching. I would still have preferred an orgiastic (bacchanale) ballet, but this solution is acceptable, because it is quite a sensible cost saving. But if the director wants to make a modern or even contemporary parallel why not portray the Philistines as Arabs, Palestinians (like Opera Flanders did) or ISIL. That last option could truly have been controversial and more relevant. I could do without swastikas and nazi saluting chorus members in opera production for a little while.

But the positives prevail over some poor directorial decisions. In the end the music comes first and overall the singers deliver  the goods. Ex-bounty hunter Carl Tanner may not have the dashing looks but he has the CV to claim the part and certainly displays both the ‘helden’ tenor voice and the firm ease required in the love duet.
Sara Fulgoni sounds darkly seductive and at the same time possesses the regal air of the film star she is meant to be. She builds up the tension and expectations very well with long phrasing,  before pulling out all the lyrical stops in the famous aria and subsequent duet  ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix’.
The youthful High Priest (Michel de Souza) is a man without a conscience and Christophoris Stamboglis as the Old Hebrew is as rock solid as the Masada fortress.
There are still clear elements of the original oratorio (Bach and Händel come to mind) in the first act and some of the rather static scenes can be blamed on the composer’s and the librettist Ferdinand Lemaire’s shortcomings. There are two choirs (Hebrews and Philistines) and the (mainly) young singers in the chorus get a marvellous opportunity to gain acting and singing experience.

Gianluca Marciano conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with restraint but certainly doesn’t underplay the Wagnerian mellifluence and pomp. Grange Park Opera is very lucky to have such a fine orchestra as its house band.

View the 2015 programme


Grange Park Opera  photo: Albert Ehrnrooth
Grange Park Opera photo: Albert Ehrnrooth


It is a perilous business running an opera company (even if it is only during the summer season) and perhaps even more so if you are dependent on incredibly generous, private donors. But Wasfi Kani clearly knows how to make the wealthy depart with their money for something as ephemeral as an opera performance. Grange Park Opera was founded in 1998 by Wasfi Kani and she remains the lynchpin. The location certainly plays a big part in the success of the whole operation

English Heritage’s property The Grange at Northington is surrounded by a landscaped garden and lush Hampshire countryside. An excellent setting for some heavy duty opera and a light picnic. The house has a Greek revival facade which could double as a backdrop for quite a few productions. The partly stripped and distressed Georgian interior are brought back to life every year when the bar and the restaurant are opened for the season.