East Europeans at Bayreuth

The Bayreuth Festival opened last Sunday with a performance of The Flying Dutchman (Der Fliegende Holländer). The first thing that meets the eye is the roster of the artists who created this production. Most of the key names are Eastern European.

Oksana Lyniv, the conductor, grew up and studied music in Lviv, Ukraine. Asmik Grigorian, the Senta, is the daughter of a Lithuanian soprano and an Armenian tenor (a leading tenor at the Mariinsky in the 1990s). Dmitri Tcherniakov, the stage director, grew up in Moscow. I could add Marina Prudenskaya, the Mary, who studied singing in St. Petersburg and sang in Moscow before moving to Germany.

It’s probably worth noting that Paul von Joukowsky, the son of the major Russian poet Vassily Zhukovsky, created the stage set for the first production of Parsifal, in Bayreuth, in 1882. One could also claim, as Bernard Shaw did, that Wagner’s Ring owes its existence to the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. At any rate, he was a major influence on Wagner, and they both took an active part in the Dresden uprising in 1849. The Eastern connection has been there from the start, one is tempted to say.

All the reviews I’ve seen are raving about Asmik Gasparian. According to Shirley Apthorp at the FT,

It is worth going alone for her performance, petulant teenager and woman-child, febrile, nuanced, intense.

Here’s Neil Fisher in The Times (of London):

…Asmik Grigorian’s Senta is a sensation. Histrionically it’s overegged – the baggy clothes, sulky faces and blonde-streaked hair suggest a Wagnerian tribute act for Billie Eilish – but the Lithuanian sings with such a febrile quality that her voice gets under your skin and into your bloodstream.

Clive Paget in Limelight:

Her physicality is so in touch with the vocal line that you’ll learn as much by watching her as you will by listening to what she says… Vocally she’s the real deal… This may be the most exciting Bayreuth debut since the young Anja Silja launched her career in the same role back in 1960.

It warms my heart to read this. When I saw and heard Grigorian in Claus Guth’s 2021 Salome, I was somewhat underwhelmed. But Salome is a devilishly difficult part. Besides, Grigorian had been described as “astonishing” three year earlier for her performance in the Salzburg Salome, staged by Castellucci and conducted by Welser-Möst.

Oksana Lyniv’s conducting The Flying Dutchman has been praised, too, but less ecstatically than Asmik Grigorian’s singing. It is understandable: assessing a conductor’s performance takes more than an emotional response, and some reviewers don’t quite realize how crucial good conducting to the performing Wagner’s works. A different question is how, and whether, conductors should adjust to the dramatic action on the stage when it departs significantly from the original script.

As for Tcherniakov, most critics I’ve read recognize his mastery at refashioning Wagner’s story but not all agree it needed such brutal retelling. One German critic has quoted the concluding sentence from the Flying Dutchman episode in Heine’s rump novel, The Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski. As is well known, it provided Wagner with the plot for this opera, although Wagner scrubbed the tale of the Dutchman’s misadventures of Heine’s irony. Now Tcherniakov has taken over from Wagner with even greater zeal, doing away with (what he probably sees as ) suicidal, world-denying self-sacrifice.

Joshua Barone at the NYT summarizes the plot according to Tcherniakov. Jim Pritchard at Seen and Heard International explains it in more detail, adding perceptive remarks. Shirley Apthorp comments:

His story is fastidiously worked out and grippingly told. But it leaves Senta as much of a victim as Wagner does…

Neil Fischer admits:

And yet there’s an impressive swirl of gothic gloom around the whole affair, as whole streets and houses swoosh around the mist.

Clive Paget agrees with both:

Tcherniakov is very much in demand these days, a rare talent combining visual acuity with a mean line in storytelling…

There’s a well-built atmosphere of mystery and suspense.

I have only seen and heard about 5% of the performance, including the juiciest parts, of course – the overture, Senta’s ballad and the finale. I don’t think I’m ever going to accept Tcherniakov’s emotional manipulation but the bits of action I’ve seen so far were pretty good theater. Plus, there’s something reviewers have so far ignored: it was Tcherniakov’s vision that enabled Asmik Grigorian to create her extraordinary Senta.

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