While Wagnerians from all over the world traipse up to Festspielhaus theatre built to the composer’s own designs on the town’s Green Hill, children and opera novices can get a taste for his music in slimmed-down arrangements of two of his greatest masterpieces.
The Bayreuth Festival’s highly successful “Wagner for kids” series is staging a 90-minute version of “Tristan and Isolde”.
And for those who haven’t the time or stamina to sit through the 16-hour, four-opera “Ring” cycle, there is a four-hour pocket “Ring in one evening” at a small fringe theatre in town.
“Wagner for kids” was initiated by Bayreuth Festival chief Katharina Wagner when she took over the reins along with her half-sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier in 2009.
The idea is to make Wagner’s works palatable for children and win and nurture future generations of opera audiences.
The series has turned into a runaway success, with tickets sold out within minutes as soon as they go online and even adults vying for a seat.
So far, the series has produced highly imaginative stagings of “The Flying Dutchman” in 2009, “Tannhaeuser” in 2010, the “Ring” in 2011 and “The Meistersinger of Nuremberg” in 2012.
For “Tristan and Isolde”, director Michael Höppner and designer Judith Philipp literally bring the audience on board by seating them on the deck of the ship with which Tristan is bringing Isolde to Cornwall to marry King Mark.
Wagner’s treatment of the medieval love epic is dark and sombre, immersed in the pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer.
But Höppner lightens the proceedings with touches of humourous slapstick and the singers – some of whom have starred in productions of the main stage of Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus – throw themselves into the staging.
The series is put on in one of rehearsal stages alongside the main theatre. And in the heatwave that hit Bayreuth in the opening days of the festival, the children eventually grew tired and fidgety.
But they nevertheless stamped enthusiastically at the end, cheering Swedish star soprano Irene Theorin as Isolde, German tenor Hans-Georg Priese as Tristan and German mezzo Simone Schroeder as Isolde’s maid Brangaene.
A pocket version of the “Ring” was put together by British conductor David Seaman in 1990.
French director Philippe Arlaud staged it a number years back in Bayreuth and his production is being revived this year for the Wagner bicentenary.
It is not intended as a parody, but as an introduction or appetizer for Wagner novices. And it tells the story straight, from the theft of the “Rhinegold” at the start through to Siegfried’s death in “Twilight of the Gods.”
Arlaud largely dispenses with elaborate scenery and props and he focuses on the human story in Wagner’s sprawling tetralogy and less on the gods, giants and dwarves.
The small cast of singers take on multiple roles. German tenor Tilmann Unger was Siegfried, Siegmund and Froh, Swedish soprano Magdalena Branland sang both Bruennhilde and Wellgunde, US baritone Gary Martin was a powerful Wotan and Gunther and French baritone Jean-Marc Salzmann stood out as Alberich and Fasolt.
The production is being staged six times at Bayreuth’s Youth Culture Centre until August 3rd.