Bayreuth




When the Bayreuth Festival Playhouse was at last completed, and
opened in 1876 with the first performance of The Ring, European
society was compelled to admit that Wagner was "a success."
Royal personages, detesting his music, sat out the performances
in the row of boxes set apart for princes. They all complimented
him on the astonishing "push" with which, in the teeth of all
obstacles, he had turned a fabulous and visionary project into a
concrete commercial reality, patronized by the public at a pound
a head. It is as well to know that these congratulations had no
other effect upon Wagner than to open his eyes to the fact that
the Bayreuth experiment, as an attempt to evade the ordinary
social and commercial conditions of theatrical enterprise, was a
failure. His own account of it contrasts the reality with his
intentions in a vein which would be bitter if it were not so
humorous. The precautions taken to keep the seats out of the
hands of the frivolous public and in the hands of earnest
disciples, banded together in little Wagner Societies throughout
Europe, had ended in their forestalling by ticket speculators and
their sale to just the sort of idle globe-trotting tourists
against whom the temple was to have been strictly closed. The
money, supposed to be contributed by the faithful, was begged by
energetic subscription-hunting ladies from people who must have
had the most grotesque misconceptions of the composer's aims--
among others, the Khedive of Egypt and the Sultan of Turkey!

The only change that has occurred since then is that
subscriptions are no longer needed; for the Festival Playhouse
apparently pays its own way now, and is commercially on the same
footing as any other theatre. The only qualification required
from the visitor is money. A Londoner spends twenty pounds on a
visit: a native Bayreuther spends one pound. In either case "the
Folk," on whose behalf Wagner turned out in 1849, are effectually
excluded; and the Festival Playhouse must therefore be classed as
infinitely less Wagnerian in its character than Hampton Court
Palace. Nobody knew this better than Wagner; and nothing can be
further off the mark than to chatter about Bayreuth as if it had
succeeded in escaping from the conditions of our modern
civilization any more than the Grand Opera in Paris or London.

Within these conditions, however, it effected a new departure in
that excellent German institution, the summer theatre. Unlike our
opera houses, which are constructed so that the audience may
present a splendid pageant to the delighted manager, it is
designed to secure an uninterrupted view of the stage, and an
undisturbed hearing of the music, to the audience. The dramatic
purpose of the performances is taken with entire and elaborate
seriousness as the sole purpose of them; and the management is
jealous for the reputation of Wagner. The commercial success
which has followed this policy shows that the public wants summer
theatres of the highest class. There is no reason why the
experiment should not be tried in England. If our enthusiasm for
Handel can support Handel Festivals, laughably dull, stupid and
anti-Handelian as these choral monstrosities are, as well as
annual provincial festivals on the same model, there is no
likelihood of a Wagner Festival failing. Suppose, for instance,
a Wagner theatre were built at Hampton Court or on Richmond Hill,
not to say Margate pier, so that we could have a delightful
summer evening holiday, Bayreuth fashion, passing the hours
between the acts in the park or on the river before sunset, is
it seriously contended that there would be any lack of visitors?
If a little of the money that is wasted on grand stands, Eiffel
towers, and dismal Halls by the Sea, all as much tied to brief
annual seasons as Bayreuth, were applied in this way, the profit
would be far more certain and the social utility prodigiously
greater. Any English enthusiasm for Bayreuth that does not take
the form of clamor for a Festival Playhouse in England may be set
aside as mere pilgrimage mania.

Those who go to Bayreuth never repent it, although the
performances there are often far from delectable. The singing is
sometimes tolerable, and sometimes abominable. Some of the
singers are mere animated beer casks, too lazy and conceited to
practise the self-control and physical training that is expected
as a matter of course from an acrobat, a jockey or a pugilist.
The women's dresses are prudish and absurd. It is true that
Kundry no longer wears an early Victorian ball dress with
"ruchings," and that Fresh has been provided with a quaintly
modish copy of the flowered gown of Spring in Botticelli's famous
picture; but the mailclad Brynhild still climbs the mountains
with her legs carefully hidden in a long white skirt, and looks
so exactly like Mrs. Leo Hunter as Minerva that it is quite
impossible to feel a ray of illusion whilst looking at her.
The ideal of womanly beauty aimed at reminds Englishmen of the
barmaids of the seventies, when the craze for golden hair was
at its worst. Further, whilst Wagner's stage directions are
sometimes disregarded as unintelligently as at Covent Garden,
an intolerably old-fashioned tradition of half rhetorical, half
historical-pictorial attitude and gesture prevails. The most
striking moments of the drama are conceived as tableaux vivants
with posed models, instead of as passages of action, motion and
life.

I need hardly add that the supernatural powers of control
attributed by credulous pilgrims to Madame Wagner do not exist.
Prima donnas and tenors are as unmanageable at Bayreuth as
anywhere else. Casts are capriciously changed; stage business is
insufficiently rehearsed; the public are compelled to listen to a
Brynhild or Siegfried of fifty when they have carefully arranged
to see one of twenty-five, much as in any ordinary opera house.
Even the conductors upset the arrangements occasionally. On the
other hand, if we leave the vagaries of the stars out of account,
we may safely expect always that in thoroughness of preparation
of the chief work of the season, in strenuous artistic
pretentiousness, in pious conviction that the work is of such
enormous importance as to be worth doing well at all costs, the
Bayreuth performances will deserve their reputation. The band is
placed out of sight of the audience, with the more formidable
instruments beneath the stage, so that the singers have not to
sing THROUGH the brass. The effect is quite perfect.

BAYREUTH IN ENGLAND

I purposely dwell on the faults of Bayreuth in order to show that
there is no reason in the world why as good and better
performances of The Ring should not be given in England. Wagner's
scores are now before the world; and neither his widow nor his
son can pretend to handle them with greater authority than any
artist who feels the impulse to interpret them. Nobody will ever
know what Wagner himself thought of the artists who established
the Bayreuth tradition: he was obviously not in a position to
criticize them. For instance, had Rubini survived to create
Siegmund, it is quite certain that we should not have had from
Wagner's pen so amusing and vivid a description as we have of his
Ottavio in the old Paris days. Wagner was under great obligations
to the heroes and heroines of 1876; and he naturally said nothing
to disparage their triumphs; but there is no reason to believe
that all or indeed any of them satisfied him as Schnorr of
Carolsfeld satisfied him as Tristan, or Schroder Devrient as
Fidelio. It is just as likely as not that the next Schnorr or
Schroder may arise in England. If that should actually happen,
neither of them will need any further authority than their own
genius and Wagner's scores for their guidance. Certainly the less
their spontaneous impulses are sophisticated by the very stagey
traditions which Bayreuth is handing down from the age of
Crummles, the better.

WAGNERIAN SINGERS

No nation need have much difficulty in producing a race of
Wagnerian singers. With the single exception of Handel, no
composer has written music so well calculated to make its singers
vocal athletes as Wagner. Abominably as the Germans sing, it is
astonishing how they thrive physically on his leading parts. His
secret is the Handelian secret. Instead of specializing his vocal
parts after the manner of Verdi and Gounod for high sopranos,
screaming tenors, and high baritones with an effective compass of
about a fifth at the extreme tiptop of their ranges, and for
contraltos with chest registers forced all over their compass in
the manner of music hall singers, he employs the entire range of
the human voice freely, demanding from everybody very nearly two
effective octaves, so that the voice is well exercised all over,
and one part of it relieves the other healthily and continually.
He uses extremely high notes very sparingly, and is especially
considerate in the matter of instrumental accompaniment. Even
when the singer appears to have all the thunders of the full
orchestra raging against him, a glance at the score will show
that he is well heard, not because of any exceptionally
stentorian power in his voice, but because Wagner meant him to
be heard and took the greatest care not to overwhelm him. Such
brutal opacities of accompaniment as we find in Rossini's Stabat
or Verdi's Trovatore, where the strings play a rum-tum
accompaniment whilst the entire wind band blares away,
fortissimo, in unison with the unfortunate singer, are never
to be found in Wagner's work. Even in an ordinary opera house,
with the orchestra ranged directly between the singers and the
audience, his instrumentation is more transparent to the human
voice than that of any other composer since Mozart. At the
Bayreuth Buhnenfestspielhaus, with the brass under the stage,
it is perfectly so.

On every point, then, a Wagner theatre and Wagner festivals
are much more generally practicable than the older and more
artificial forms of dramatic music. A presentable performance
of The Ring is a big undertaking only in the sense in which the
construction of a railway is a big undertaking: that is, it
requires plenty of work and plenty of professional skill; but
it does not, like the old operas and oratorios, require those
extraordinary vocal gifts which only a few individuals scattered
here and there throughout Europe are born with. Singers who could
never execute the roulades of Semiramis, Assur, and Arsaces in
Rossini's Semiramide, could sing the parts of Brynhild, Wotan and
Erda without missing a note. Any Englishman can understand this
if he considers for a moment the difference between a Cathedral
service and an Italian opera at Covent Garden. The service is a
much more serious matter than the opera. Yet provincial talent
is sufficient for it, if the requisite industry and devotion are
forthcoming. Let us admit that geniuses of European celebrity are
indispensable at the Opera (though I know better, having seen
lusty troopers and porters, without art or manners, accepted by
fashion as principal tenors at that institution during the long
interval between Mario and Jean de Reszke); but let us remember
that Bayreuth has recruited its Parsifals from the peasantry, and
that the artisans of a village in the Bavarian Alps are capable
of a famous and elaborate Passion Play, and then consider whether
England is so poor in talent that its amateurs must journey to
the centre of Europe to witness a Wagner Festival.

The truth is, there is nothing wrong with England except the
wealth which attracts teachers of singing to her shores in
sufficient numbers to extinguish the voices of all natives who
have any talent as singers. Our salvation must come from the
class that is too poor to have lessons.



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