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 Recording of the Week  Bayreuther Festspiele

I know I’m going to make a few people envious this week but I’m still on cloud nine following my first visit to Bayreuth last Wednesday, so can’t resist the urge to tell you a little bit about it today. The city of Bayreuth in northern Bavaria (Southeast Germany) is world famous for its annual Festival at which only the operas of Richard Wagner are performed. The Festspielhaus was designed specifically for this annual festival with the composer’s monumental Ring cycle the main impetus. Paid for principally by Wagner’s devoted patron Ludwig II of Bavaria, it took four years to build and opened in 1876 with the complete four-opera cycle of the Ring.

Bayreuth Festspielhaus
Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Today, tickets are like gold dust (I’m told there were over six requests for each available seat this year, and people often wait five or ten years to secure a ticket) so I was over the moon when the DVD (and Blu-ray) label Opus Arte invited me to the dress rehearsal of Tannhäuser last week. Opus Arte have an agreement with the Festival where they release one production a year. Last year it was Die Walküre, and previously they have put out Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger, as well as a complete CD recording of the 2008 Thielemann Ring cycle.

We flew to Nuremberg and made the one-hour journey up to Bayreuth by train through some beautiful countryside. The Festspielhaus is north of the town centre and the local skyline is dominated by the high fly loft above the stage (which lifts staging, scenery and sometime people quickly off or onto the stage). I found myself itching with excitement as we walked towards the theatre that afternoon (in the rain) and had to pinch myself that I was really there.

The inside of the theatre is relatively plain with everything designed to make the audience concentrate on the stage. The orchestra is completely out of view and the floor and sidewalls are made almost entirely of wood. I knew the acoustics in the hall were much admired and that the recessed orchestral pit dramatically helped the singers to be heard against an orchestra of up to 120 players, but nothing had prepared me for the astonishing beauty of the orchestral sound.

The front of the orchestra pit is covered by a hood which reflects the sound up onto the stage. The amazing thing then is that it remains so clear and un-muddied. The strings are more prominent than one is used to hearing and you hear so much detail in the violas and cellos. I’d almost say that the balance was too far against the brass, and that the big climaxes were not so overwhelming as I was expecting, but you have to remember that this is the balance which Wagner wanted and specifically built this theatre to achieve, and it was tremendous to have the opportunity to hear it live for the first time. And the big advantage (which Camilla Nylund as Elisabeth used particularly well) is that the singers are able to sing some of the more tender passages at a genuine quiet dynamic even when accompanied by quite thick orchestration. Magic!

I won’t tell you much about the production, as I didn’t like it very much. It was set in what looked like a boiler room, and was full of some pretty trashy ideas (like people slithering around the stage dressed as what I can only assume were sperm – don’t go there!). There was some great singing though, and particular mention must go to Lars Cleveman who sang an excellent Tannhäuser. You’ll be able to judge for yourself in a couple of years though as Opus Arte are filming the revival of this production next year. Before that will be the release of Lohengrin from this year’s festival, which I’m told is also being broadcast live on television in Germany and Japan sometime in August. The DVD and Blu-ray versions will be available early 2012.

If you’d like to view all of Opus Arte’s Bayreuth recordings so far you can do so here. It only remains for me to say a huge thank you to Opus Arte for inviting me. I can honestly say it is an experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my days.