Wolfgang Wagner died yesterday in Bayreuth, age 90.
Being Richard Wagner´s grandson, his tenure as leader of the Bayreuth Festival virtually lasted more than a lifetime, beginning with the re-opening of the New Bayreuth after World War Two in 1951, jointly leading the Festival with his brother Wieland until his death in 1966 and from then on alone until retirement in 2008.
While Wolfgang Wagner may not primarily be remembered for his achievements as a stage director, where he remained firmly rooted in the camp of Wieland Wagner´s New Bayreuth style, he has proved a succesful leader of the Bayreuth Festival. Mainly through his courage to engage innovative and experimental stage directors as well as his belief in young talents, shaping some of the most distinguished Wagnerian performers of our generation.
At the moment, unfortunately, the quality of both singers and conductors at the Bayreuth Festival has reached an unprecedented low point, and the biggest challenge for the new management (his two daughters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier) will be to recreate the high musical quality, ultimately essential for the Bayreuth Festival to be anything but a museum.
Unfortunately Wolfgang Wagner never once and for all faced up to his past during the Nazi-infested Bayreuth of the 1930´s and 40´s including the opening of remaining archives from that period. Had he done so, it would, in my opinion, surpass any of his other achievements.
Selected moments 1951-2008:
Eight years before opening the New Bayreuth Festival, Wolfgang Wagner received Hitler in Bayreuth 1940 (visible in the background):
In the 1950´s and 60´s, regular singers in Bayreuth included Astrid Varnay, Hans Hotter, Birgit Nilsson and Leonie Rysanek. Among the conductors, Hans Knappertsbusch was a virtually constant presence, below seen conducting Parsifal in Bayreuth 1959 - performances, which will most likely never be surpassed or even equalled:
During his entire tenure Wolfgang Wagner staged several productions of his grandfathers works, starting with Lohengrin in 1953.
Below his staging of the Ring 1974:
In one of the best decision of his career, Wolfgang Wagner decided to follow the advice of Pierre Boulez and hire the young French director Patrice Chéreau to stage The Centenary Ring in 1976, one of the few Wagner stagings which truly deserves the label "legendary".
Below Jeannine Altmeyer and Peter Hoffman in a Walküre Act 1 that is yet to be surpassed on DVD:
Among the directors Wolfang Wagner introduced in Bayreuth, where initially scandalous performances were later acknowledged by many as ground-breaking Wagnerian theater, was Götz Friedrich with Tannhäuser in 1972 (released on DVD) and Harry Kupfer with the Flying Dutchman (1978 - also available on DVD).
Also in these years, some of the foremost Wagnerians of our time began their international careers in Bayreuth, such as Daniel Barenboim (debut and international breakthrough as Wagner conductor with the Ponnelle-directed Tristan in 1981), Waltraud Meier (debut and major breakthrough as a 27-year old Kundry in 1983) and Siegfried Jerusalem (debut as Froh 1976).
Waltraud Meier as Isolde with Daniel Barenboim conducting from Heiner Müllers 1993 Bayreuth production, now available on DVD:
Poul Elming, a Danish tenor, also had his major breakthrough in Bayreuth and is here seen as Parsifal in one of Wolfgang Wagner´s better productions from 1989. Sinopoli conducts:
Wolfgang Wagner´s last staging in Bayreuth was Meistersinger in 1996 (featuring Renée Fleming as Eva), filmed in 1999 and released on DVD.
Daniel Barenboim conducts the ouverture in his last season on the Green Hill in 1999:
In later years Wolfgang Wagner also brought directors such as Claus Guth, Keith Warner, Jürgen Flimm, Stefan Herheim and Christoph Schlingensief to Bayreuth.
Musically, the highlight of recent years has been the conducting of Christian Thielemann. No matter how innovative and inventive the staging approaches are, if the quality of the singers and conductors is not raised, it will all amount to nothing.
An example: Wolfgang Wagner´s daughter Katharina with her 2007 Bayreuth Meistersinger - an interesting staging, but a musically mediocre performance:
Until then, the main reason for visiting the Bayreuth Festival is the unique environment on the Green Hill.
Below Wolfgang Wagner on the stage in the Bayreuth Festival House explaining the world-famous acoustics of the place: