Wagner festival opens with glitzy gala
German maestro Christian Thielemann was given a tumultuous reception at the opening night of this year's legendary Bayreuth Festival, a performance of Richard Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman."
In a glitzy gala attended by Chancellor Angela Merkel and German President Joachim Gauck, it was Thielemann who earned the most applause at the end of the evening.
The German conductor is regarded by many as the festival's unofficial general music director and as currently one of the best Wagner interpreters around.
German soprano Ricarda Merbeth who sang Senta and Korean bass-baritone Samuel Youn in the title role were also rapturously received in the first revival of a staging that premiered last year by German director Jan Philipp Gloger.
Gloger has made a number of changes and tightened up his direction since last year, but he and his leading team were loudly booed at their curtain call.
The opera tells the story of a Dutch captain condemned to roam the seas for eternity unless he can find redemption in the love of a woman.
Gloger updates the story to the present time, casting the Dutchman as a wealthy businessman bored with everything that life can offer him.
Senta is the daughter of an entrepreneur who agrees to marry her off to the Dutchman in return for his limitless wealth.
The real-life rich and famous had sweated in the sweltering heat as they traipsed up Bayreuth's famous Green Hill in their tuxedos and ballgowns to the fabled Festspielhaus theatre.
But they were greeted by a unexpected downpour when they emerged two-and-a-half hours later.
While it was the "Dutchman" that opened this year's proceedings, the main attraction - and arguably the highpoint of the entire Wagner 200 celebrations - will be a hotly anticipated new production of the composer's four-opera "Ring" cycle by the enfant terrible of German theatre, Frank Castorf.
The 62-year-old iconoclast's anarchic reinterpretations of literary classics regularly outrage Germany's theatre-going public.
And although he is a relative newcomer to opera, Castorf has been invited to stage the Bicentenary Ring, the most eagerly awaited event this year for Wagner aficionados around the world.
Castorf has had only two years to plan and prepare the staging, an unusually short time for even the most experienced opera director, after German film director Wim Wenders pulled out.
At a news conference earlier on Thursday, festival chief Katharina Wagner, the composer's great-granddaughter, described the rehearsal period with Castorf as "extremely productive".
The director himself, who in a rare interview had earlier criticised the working conditions on Bayreuth's Green Hill, told journalists it was a "very special challenge" to work in the Festspielhaus.
Asked about his reputation of being difficult, Castorf conceded that he could be "short-fused" and "fierce".
But he also insisted that his time in Bayreuth had been pleasant.
"There is a lot of green forest, beer breweries, spas. It's almost like being on holiday," he joked.
The festival runs until August 28 and includes 30 performances in all of seven different operas - the four operas that make up the "Ring", as well as "The Flying Dutchman", "Tannhaeuser" and "Lohengrin".
For the first time, the opening night was broadcast live to some 200 selected cinemas around the world. In addition, it was scheduled to be broadcast on public television, also for the first time.
Most of Merkel's cabinet were on the guest list, including Economy Minister Philipp Roesler and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. Bavaria's regional premier Horst Seehofer also walked up the red carpet.