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Classical Music

Calm after the storm as Bayreuth Festival opens

There's never a dull moment in the run-up to the 103rd Bayreuth Festival. This time, rather than members of the Wagner clan duelling in the press, stage director Frank Castorf is at the center of the storm.

Speaking with the German newsweekly "Der Spiegel" and threatening litigation, "Ring" stage director Frank Castorf compared the Bayreuth Festival to the onetime Communist regime in East Germany. His choice of lawyer raised eyebrows as well: Gregor Gysi, head of the German partly Die Linke (The Left).

"The storms have subsided; boredom prevails," said Castorf in description of this year's rehearsals - the worst possible outcome for a director who wears his creative freedom like a badge. "I see that all the anarchy my set designer Aleksandar Denic and I brought to the production last year is no longer desired," the director fumed, going on to describe the atmosphere at the Green Hill as one of "fear, caution and obsequious obedience."

Further, Castorf said, the festival directors had treated him "like an idiot" and were reducing his production to the level of a "minor city theater."

Stage director Frank Castorf

Petulant and provocative: Frank Castorf

Strong words

Dispensed a week before the opening, the vitriol surprised even those who are familiar with the controversial director and his penchant for provocation.

Called the enfant terrible of the German theater scene, Castorf likes to deconstruct the classics. But apart from the sets - depicting places as diverse as Route 66, Mount Rushmore, East Berlin and the New York Stock Exchange - and a general sense of irreverance, there was little drama or interpretation in Castorf's rendition of Wagner's music drama "The Ring of the Nibelung." His production earned a twenty-minute-long cascade of boos at the premiere last year.

The fresh controversy exploded just when it had seemed that this year's edition would be serenely uneventful. In 2013, Bayreuth had commemorated the 200th year after the birth of festival founder Richard Wagner with a new "Ring" production and a number of other events.

Martin Winkler Das Rheingold Bayreuth Festival

Martin Winkler, as Alberich, was not invited to return this year - one reason for Castorf's frustration

For budgetary reasons, there are no new productions in 2014. The fest begins on July 25 with "Tannhäuser," directed by Sebastian Baumgarten and conducted by Axel Kober. That production has remained unpopular since it was introduced in 2011 but has reportedly been given a minor facelift in this, its final year. The program also includes "The Flying Dutchman" (directed by Jan Philipp Gloger and conducted by Christian Thielemann), the Castorf "Ring" (with the celebrated conductor Kirill Petrenko) and the highly popular interpretation of "Lohengrin," staged by Hans Neuenfels and with Andris Nelsons in the pit.

Under construction

Meanwhile, the festival venue known as the Festspielhaus, designed by Richard Wagner expressly for the performance of his own works, is now partly obscured behind a textile façade replica: the World Cultural Heritage site has a leaky roof and crumbling exterior. The complete restoration at a cost of 30 million euros ($40.4 million) will be financed mostly by public funds. In return, the national government and the state of Bavaria are now majority shareholders in the enterprise and will have greater influence over decisions, including on the future directorship of the festival. Up to now in its entire history, the event has always featured Wagner family members at the helm.

Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner

Still a tandem, but not much longer: festival co-directors Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner

After the 2015 season, the Bayreuth Festival will have one, rather than two artistic directors. Earlier this year, Eva Wagner-Pasquier (69) announced her intention to resign, effective 2015, while Katharina Wagner (36) has seen her contract renewed for a five-year period ending in 2020. With business matters in the hands of a third party, the younger Wagner will continue to be in charge of marketing the festival and staging some productions, including "Tristan and Isolde" in 2015.

Down the hill and in the center of the mid-sized Bavarian city, Wagner's onetime residence Wahnfried is a construction site as well, currently being restored and expanded into a complex with museum, archives and a cafeteria. The work was supposed to be finished by 2013 but cost explosions and controversy over the plans caused a delay.

Missing chancellor

The Bayreuth Festival was first mounted in 1876 by Richard Wagner. 138 years later, it is one of Germany's foremost cultural and social events. Coming as something of a disappointment to onlookers, it was announced that for the first time in years, Chancellor Angela Merkel will not head the guest list on opening day. The devoted Wagnerite and her husband are scheduled to stay in Bayreuth later on in the season, however, to see and hear the complete "Ring" cycle. Bavarian politicians and show business personalities are expected to step down the red carpet on July 25.

Richard Wagner bust in Bayreuth

Keeping an eye on things - the master's bust in Bayreuth

Meanwhile, and despite the many productions of Wagner worldwide in the 2013 anniversary year, the festival remains sold out many times over, and the waiting period for a ticket can be years.

Plenty of Wagnerians are content to forget about the off-stage drama and come primarily to hear the music in the unique acoustic of the Festspielhaus. Their stance was summed up by German conductor Axel Kober, giving his Bayreuth debut on July 25: "For anyone who knows Wagner, Bayreuth is a mythical place."

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