Bayreuth 2: Catch ‘em Young! Bayreuth Introduces Wagner to Children

GermanyGermany Bayreuth Festival 2013 [2] Richard Wagner für KinderTristan und Isolde: Soloists and musicians of the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt (Oder). Conductor: Boris Schäfer. Probebühne IV, Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 6.8.2013. (JPr) 

8-9-2013 10-56-12 PM
Richard Wagner für Kinder – Tristan und Isolde
(c)  Jörge Schulze

Concept and text: Daniel Weber
Musical reduction: Marko Zdralek
Conductor: Boris Schäfer
Director: Michael Höppner
Set and costumes: Judith Philipp

Tristan: Hans-Georg Priese
Isolde: Iréne Theorin
Kurwenal: Jukka Rasilainen
Brangäne: Simone Schröder
König Marke: Martin Snell
Young Seaman/ Melot: Stefan Heibach

Richard Wagner für Kinder began in 2009 with, I believe, an hour-long version of Der fliegende Holländer and is now an annual event at the Bayreuth Festival. Aimed at children between 8 and 12 years of age it aims to introduce Wagner’s ‘fairy-tales’ to them in a non-threatening way in the hope it might spark a later deeper interest in the ‘real thing’. Following reduced versions of Tannhäuser, the Ring and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in the subsequent years it was now Tristan und Isolde’s turn.

Naturally this is totally critic-proof because who could complain about the good intentions of this attempt to demythologise Wagner? Worse still, for far too long he has been demonised just for being a German with dubious morals and beliefs that he has supposedly weaved subliminally into his operas, which are considered by many to involve endless hours of unsingeable grandiloquence. Basically his operas are just love stories or fairytales with some rehashed German philosophy and just a hint of a political message relevant to the historical period in which they were written: I suspect Wagner did not intend this to have the same relevance for future generations.

These ‘For Children’ operas take place in one of the vast rehearsal stages up on the Green Hill and are performed virtually ‘in-the-round’. It was the first time I had been at the Festival at the same time as these performances and what great fun it all was for the little ones around me … and for me who is somewhat bigger and older! The wooden set was a ship (I think I heard it referred to by name as the ‘Tristani’). The musical reduction is for an orchestra of 30 and there is some added spoken dialogue to move the plot along. In the UK we call this ‘pantomime’ though the music and singing was of a much higher standard than we usually expect from these annual Christmas events! How is the score treated? Well, sometimes the music just stops in mid-phrase with too few of the opera’s highlights remaining intact. So we hear the bloodiest of ‘Bleeding Chunks’ and a bit of everything that anyone familiar with Tristan und Isolde could expect. For me, I would have liked the music to tell its own tale a bit more so that the children could experience proper Wagner moments linked by the dialogue than what we actually heard: it was rather like a ‘best of’ CD having its tracks skipped across.

Undoubtedly, much fun was had by all from an experienced cast, many of whom appear on the main Festspielhaus stage. They threw themselves into this, the 10th and last performance, as if it was their first. There is lots of entertaining interaction with the audience and lots for the small children to look at if they are a little bored during the music and singing. There is some fishing over the side of the ship and at one point Kurwenal ‘catches’ a bra. Tristan and Isolde have their first date across plates of spaghetti smothered in McDonald’s Tomato Ketchup that the boy next to me was proud to say he has a bottle of at home. Kurwenal doubles for the Shepherd’s mournful piping by ‘playing’ a banana he is eating and during Tristan’s ravings he appears to be confused, with Isolde giving an amusing slant to the old retainer’s relationship with his master. Towards the end Melot brandishes a lightsaber from Star Wars. To prevent the youngsters having too many nightmares Kurwenal is stopped from killing himself but of course there is no happy ending even in this version and Tristan still dies with Isolde out of her mind. King Mark however recounts what is the moral of the tale that it is impossible to halt the path of true love and he would have given Isolde to Tristan if only he had not arrived too late in the end.

Jukka Rasilainen looked as if he was having the most fun as a big, full-bearded, ogre of man with contact lenses making him look glassy-eyed. Stefan Heibach’s Seaman had a tiny deckchair attached to him (I hope you can understand by now what type of show this was?) but as the ever-vigilant Melot had a Cyclops-like eye on his forehead and others on his hands. In contrast to this Tristan (Hans-Georg Priese), Isolde (Iréne Theorin) and Simone Schröder (Brangäne) could pass for ‘normal’ today in any staging of this opera. So could King Mark (Martin Snell) because I have seen his cut-out cardboard crown many times before including the previous night in Lohengrin. Kurwenal, Brangäne and Mark suffer the biggest cuts to their music but they were always busying themselves. Apart from Hans-Georg Priese’s rather nervy Tristan everyone seemed at ease with having the excitable children in such close proximity and together they did their very best to keep us entertained for the 90 minutes of Tristan und Isolde that remained.

Sadly Priese struggled a little vocally too but – I repeat – this is not something I need be exceptionally critical about. Iréne Theorin brought us an Isolde with even more petulance and neuroses that her admirable performances in the role in Christopher Marthaler’s production that ended in the Festspielhaus last year (review) and that is available on DVD (review). She ended with a world-class Liebestod and this was completely indicative of the high musical standards of these ‘Wagner für Kinder’ events. This was underlined by the excellent playing from the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt (Oder) under their young conductor Boris Schäfer from Oslo’s Den Norske Opera.

Perhaps you see from what I have written how some of this was clearly aimed at ‘big kids’ and not just 8 to 12-year-olds; these of course could be their parents or others young-at-heart. If you have the opportunity to be at one of these performances somehow in the future do go because you will definitely enjoy it as much as I did.

Jim Pritchard

Two more reviews from the 2013 Bayreuth Festival will follow over coming days as well as an interview with Petra Lang.

For more about the Bayreuth Festival click here.