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Music: Bayreuth Revived

3 minute read

For the first time since Hitler, opera fans are trooping once again into the big red brick Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, the Bavarian shrine Richard Wagner built to honor his own music.

For many, the 7 5-year-old festival is like old times: the same uncomfortable wicker seats, the same kind of program, as heavy and nourishing as Sauerbraten. The opener this week was Beethoven’s hour-long choral Symphony No. 9,* be followed by Parsifal, Die Meistersinger and the four operas of the Ring cycle.

But in contrast to the days when Hitler, Göring, Goebbels, Ribbentrop and Himmler were among the festival bigwigs, this year’s list of honored guests is heavy with Americans, Britons and Frenchmen. Among them: Allied High Commissioners John J. McCloy, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick, André François-Poncet. All festival tickets were gone a month ago (best seats: $11.90 a performance).

To revive Bayreuth, Wagner’s grandsons Wolfgang, 32, and Wieland, 34, collected about $400,000 from the Bavarian government, radio networks and festival devotees. They cleaned up the Festspielhaus, hired musicians, replaced costumes and sets destroyed by playfully masquerading American G.I.s quartered in the building at the end of the war. The Wagners also designed some imaginative props. Example: Fafner, the dragon in Siegfried, is a 30-foot, steam-snorting monster with bloody ten-foot jaws, and teeth a foot long. Mused Wolfgang: “Grandfather, in the sky, probably would not like what we are doing. But on second thought, he was such a revolutionary himself, he would probably go along.”

In honor of grandfather, the grandsons engaged Veteran Bayreuth Conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler to lead the soaring Beethoven choral symphony on opening night. The critics found the performance ragged and erratic—as if an orchestra fed on Wagner during six weeks of rehearsals could hardly keep its mind on Beethoven. Even so, the glossy first-night crowd gave the performance an ovation.

From now on, for the remainder of the three-week season, Bayreuth will be pure Wagner, with a good many newcomers among the performers. Unlike Furtwängler, neither of the Wagner conductors, Hans Knappertsbusch and Herbert von Karajan, has ever held the festival podium before. Amongthe new singers: Met Soprano Astrid Varnay (Brünhilde) and U.S. Bass-Baritone George London (Amfortas in Parsifal), who has been a postwar star of the Vienna State Opera (TIME, Jan. 9, 1950).

* Which Wagner himself conducted at the laying of the cornerstone for the Festspielhaus in 1872.

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