Taking the Wagner Cure

Near Bayreuth the Wagner Theater and the lunatic asylum on the right are conspicuous.

—Baedeker’s Southern Germany (1902)

The 1974 Bayreuth Festival presented further evidence that the shortage of star-role Wagnerian singers is acute. But even if this were not the case, the most remarkable performance would have been that of the audience. Dressed in full evening clothes in mid-afternoon, the devotees arrive at the Festspielhaus from castles all over the world, but especially from spiritual Berchtesgadens. Then long before starting time the faithful file into cramped wooden pews and, because of the lack of aisles both side and central, remain standing to accommodate stragglers. In the mausoleum-like hall (black curtain, Corinthian columns, Bogenlampen) and in the absence of any sign of an imminent theatrical event—the orchestra, like the Nibelungs, is subterranean—this standing suggests an act of reverence, that a memorial service rather than a stage spectacle is about to take place. Carlyle’s “lay pulpit” is still an apt description of the German theater.

Shortly before curtain time the doors are locked and latecomers turned away, a rule so strictly enforced that this year some New Zealanders are rumored to have returned over the oceans and continents bitterly disappointed at having missed Das Rheingold by thirty seconds. But all regulations at Bayreuth are rigidly observed, including one which warns that “Tickets Deformed In Any Way Will Not Be Accepted.” (Adding nibbling and crumpling to “do not fold, mutilate or spindle”?) A minute or two before the performance starts, a total, World War II black-out occurs and induces mass rigor mortis unbroken by muffled coughs or shifts in position. What, one wonders in this inhuman silence and impenetrable dark, would be the punishment for failing to suppress a blasphemous thought? The black-out, moreover, does not end with the final curtain, and since it is impossible to make an exit, one can only join the captive applauders.

The acoustics of the Festspielhaus are its most acclaimed feature, but the differences between the sides and the center, the loges and front parterre, are pronounced. In addition, stage location seems to affect the singers’ pitch and rhythmic coordination, which suggests that they, too, are not always within perfect earshot of the orchestra. The voices are never covered, it is true, but that is hardly an unmixed blessing, and, unfortunately, the price of the singer’s supremacy is the orchestra’s demotion to the role of accompanist. None of the recordings made in the theater reproduces the unique separation between voices and instruments, probably because stereophony and the architecture of the Festspielhaus are incompatible. But the balance within the orchestra is consistently satisfying, the strings predominating and the brass kept at bay. Violin lines scarcely heard in other opera houses come forward, partly as a result of the large numbers of players (specified by Wagner but employed only here), partly because of their placement.

The concept of the invisible orchestra is ideological, nevertheless, and only secondarily acoustical. Its purpose is to strengthen, or…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.