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MUSIC : Munich, Bayreuth and Salzburg: Some Afterthoughts

Last in a series of special reports on summer music festivals in Germany and Austria.


Operas of Richard Strauss in Munich, with Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret" and Janacek's "Makropulos Affair" as incidental diversions. Operas of Richard Wagner in Bayreuth, with the focus on Harry Kupfer's bizarre new production of the mighty "Ring." Operas of Mozart in Salzburg, with a "Salieri and Amadeus" exhibit in the house of his birth for commercial punctuation and a little Pavarotti and Rossini for distraction.

Twenty-four performances in 27 days. Expectations high. Ditto disappointments.

Time for cultural digestion, or, as the case may be, indigestion. Time for reflection. . . .

Munich isn't like Bayreuth and Salzburg. As far as fellow travelers of the musical persuasion are concerned, there is life in Munich beyond the festival.

Munich plays opera all year long, in three theaters. That is true, of course, only when the stage machinery happens to be in order. When the festival ended July 31, the great National Theater had to close its doors for seven months of painful and embarrassing technical renovation.

Life will go on, however, at the exquisite Cuvillies-Theater, a rococo wonder appropriate for operatic intimacy. Life also will go on at the popular Staatstheater am Gartnerplatz, which houses everything from opera to operetta to musical comedy.

The Gartnerplatz production of "Cabaret" is enormously successful with the local masses. Still, for anyone familiar with the Broadway original, it loses a good deal in translation.

Although a few songs and bits of dialogue are offered in the original English, this ironic study of prewar Berlin has been drastically re-focused and re-Germanified. Bald references to Hitler & Co. crop up early in the first act. Decadence reigns and destruction looms from the start.

Wolfgang Reichmann as a burly, nasty, baldpated Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub wants none of Joel Grey's whimsy. Gaye MacFarlane overplays Sally Bowles as if she were a misplaced Ethel Merman. Helmut Baumann's staging is, to say it lightly, heavy handed.

Nevertheless, a good time is had by some.

Mozart Kugeln may be a popular confection in Salzburg, but no candy store in Munich carries chocolate-covered odes to Richard Strauss. In a Bayreuth confiserie , one can buy a bust of Wagner sculpted in marzipan. It looks much like his death mask, on display nearby in the Wahnfried museum. But Munich reveres the memory of its favorite musical son only in musical ways.

The most important way this summer was to present all 15 operas of Richard Strauss in a single, unprecedented series. Even so, Munich indulged in some cheating.

Concert performances were considered adequate for "Guntram," an ancient and unwieldy exercise in hyper-Wagnerism, and for "Friedenstag," an ambiguous paean to peace in the dubious Germanic tones of 1938. At a press conference, Wolfgang Sawallisch fervently defended the bombastic score as well as the simplistic dramaturgy of "Friedenstag." Under the circumstances, one had to wonder why the opera wasn't considered stage-worthy.

In Munich, everyone second-guesses artistic decisions. Even Richard Strauss' daughter-in-law, Alice, contributed some criticism. Interviewed at the family villa in Garmisch, the feisty 84-year-old said, "It would have been better to stage 'Guntram' and give 'Danae' in concert form."

This was an unveiled attack on a parodistic production of "Die Liebe der Danae" staged by Giancarlo del Monaco (son of the late tenor Mario del Monaco) and designed by Monika von Zallinger. Frau Strauss went on to bemoan "the horrible set and one of those young directors who always have to do things any way but the way dictated by the text."

Alice Strauss would not have approved of Harry Kupfer's Bayreuth "Ring." Kupfer is another one of those directors.

He has lots of fascinating ideas. He has a healthy disrespect for the distant past, a healthy respect for the present and, perhaps, the future. The high-tech images of his politically oriented "Ring" occasionally quote Patrice Chereau while evoking the theatrical realism of Walter Felsenstein.

Still, Kupfer meddles. He invents action unsanctioned by the libretto and, more dangerous, brings characters on even when Wagner wanted them off stage. In the process, he impugns melodic integrity. If Wagner had intended Wotan to reappear during Siegfried's encounter with the wood bird or at the climax of Siegfried's funeral march, Wagner would have quoted Wotan's motives at these crucial moments.

We know. We know. Nothing need be sacred. All's fair in love and opera. The composer himself urged his followers to be creative and original. But. . . .

If the ceaseless innovators can rewrite the libretto, they ought to do so in conjunction with a comparably rewritten score. Let's go all the way. Then at least and at last we could have logic and unity.

Then we really would have a new "Ring."

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