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Wagner premiere: mangled Lohengrin kind of straight out of Wagner temple in Bayreuth

"Kinder!, macht Neues!, Neues!, und abermals Neues!" wrote Wagner to Franz Lizt. And after the very first Festival, he concluded that next year everything had to be different. Even an entirely new theatre he did not consider out of the question.

The Festspielhaus still stands. Largely made of wood and thus every fireman's nightmare in the somewhat dull German provincial town, which, despite a university and some high-end technology companies, owes its world fame to the genius megalomaniac who had the theatre built on a green hill for his operas. At state expense, courtesy of Ludwig II.

A theatre that, four generations later, although no longer owned by the Wagner family, is still tightly run by now the composer's great-granddaughters. Acoustics and invisible orchestra pit are still unsurpassed, and it still sounds purely Wagner.

Tickets? Forget it. It is a true place of pilgrimage, where every summer you can Angela Merkel besides say Michael Schumacher sees standing. Every performance is rigidly sold out from the first to the last seat. Prices are not too bad, but the waiting list is long. Those who register now will be able to make the pilgrimage to Bayreuth make.

Traditions wear out slowly, especially in Bayreuth. But behold: at the 100th edition of the festival a novelty. Radio has been there since time immemorial, cameras have also been humming for years for video and DVD productions, but live, on a public television channel? We had to wait for that until 14 August 2011. You'd think that chosen channel Arte would make a big splash, in the spirit of the master. The opera broadcast of the future, a true multimedia Gesammtkunstwerk. But nothing of the sort. A short introduction, and hup, the opera live. Or wait, no, precisely not that.

After all, live turned out not to be really live. In Bayreuth, every performance since time immemorial has started punctually at four o'clock. That early start time has a reason. You have long operas, very long operas and then you have Wagner. In Bayreuth, therefore, they really take their time with breaks during which you can have a three-course dinner. Breaks that Arte could have filled perfectly well with background information, a previously recorded conversation with the director, cosy chatter from the green hill or, if necessary, a nice cooking programme. After all, the viewer has to eat too. However, the channel chose to broadcast the first two acts on a 15-minute delay, only to actually broadcast the last part live.

The moment the Festspielhaus is already almost empty for the first intermission, we hear the first notes. We see Lohengrin, we see the Brabant nobles, in the staging of Hans Neuenfels rats in a failed laboratory experiment, and the emergence of Elsa, and then... total darkness. There follows some advertising for the channel, then footage of Jonas Kaufmann heartbreakingly singing an aria. Wonderful, but Kaufmann sang the title role last year, and besides, we really do hear Mozart. After a few minutes, we read that there are technical problems with the connection to Bayreuth. Some more Kaufmann follows, and then we abruptly switch back to Bayreuth, obviously still not live.

In order to do so eventually, the breaks become even shorter. Aftercare is similarly lacking. The applause is brutally cut short and we immediately roll into a documentary about Rienzi, the very Wagner opera that is never performed in Bayreuth by order of the master. A nice documentary, though. But next year, everything must change.

Henri Drost

Henri Drost (1970) studied Dutch and American Studies in Utrecht. Sold CDs and books for years, then became a communications consultant. Writes for among others GPD magazines, Metro, LOS!, De Roskam, 8weekly, Mania, hetiskoers and Cultureel Persbureau/De Dodo about everything, but if possible about music (theatre) and sports. Other specialisms: figures, the United States and healthcare. Listens to Waits and Webern, Wagner and Dylan and pretty much everything in between.View Author posts

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