June 2, 2011 / 1:45 PM / 6 years ago

Wagner rides summer wave of popularity

LONDON (Reuters) - Once upon a time it seemed one of the few places to hear a Wagner opera during the summer was at the temple he purpose-built for his mammoth masterpieces in Bayreuth, northern Bavaria -- if you could get a ticket.

Not any more, as productions from Budapest to San Francisco demonstrate that Richard Wagner's stretch-limousine operas -- "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg," a sellout in a new production at Glyndebourne this summer, clocks in at seven hours with intermissions -- are no longer just for long winter nights.

"Serious operas are suited wonderfully to the sort of overall experience here at Glyndebourne, especially spending a day immersed in music and a beautiful garden," said general director David Pickard, relieved and thrilled that the biggest staging ever at the festival in southern England was a success.

It's possible to spend much of this summer immersed in the lush, romantic world of the 19th-century composer who pushed the boundaries of music and opera, and left a legacy of arrogance and anti-Semitism that make his works controversial to this day.

Here's a non-encyclopedic roundup of some of what's on offer:

BUDAPEST -- Having presented Wagner's famous "Ring" cycle of three hefty operas about gods and dwarves and stolen gold, plus a three-hour hors d'oeuvre, "Das Rheingold," in summer rotation for the past six years, the Palace of Arts (MUPA) turns to what the venue's management is describing as the composer's more human works -- "Parsifal," "Lohengrin" and "Tristan und Isolde."

"All these pieces are talking about human values," said Csaba Kael, general manager of the modern concert hall and arts complex beside the River Danube.

Those would be the human values of a knight in shining armor who shows up in a swan boat and a youth who takes charge of a dejected band of knights guarding the Holy Grail, but human values nonetheless.

Since the venue is a concert hall and not an opera house, the productions make clever use of minimal props, video projections and various tricks of stagecraft to present what Kael described as opera "staged for music."

Under the music direction of Adam Fischer, who has conducted at Bayreuth, listeners get top-notch orchestral playing plus a blend of Hungarian and international singers, many of whom have performed at Bayreuth.

German mezzo soprano Petra Lang reprises the role of Ortrud from "Lohengrin," which she has sung with the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, at the premiere of a new production on June 9.

But the special thrill comes from the hall's extremely clear acoustic which allows you to hear every note -- and Wagner wrote a lot of them. "The acoustics are unbelievably good and you can listen to Wagner's music like nowhere else," Kael said.

(Wagner Days at the Bartok Bela National Concert Hall, June 3-June 19. www.mupa.hu)

SAN FRANCISCO -- What happens when you transpose Wagner's quasi-Nordic legend of Gods and Nibelungen and Rhine maidens to America of the Wild West and Gold Rush, up to the present day?

Perhaps you get a scolding from traditional Wagnerians, but more likely what the San Francisco Opera has on its hands is another example of how Wagner's shape-shifting "Ring" cycle lends itself to more reinterpretation than even the composer's fertile mind could have imagined.

The cycle that American director Francesca Zambello has cooked up, and which will be presented in its entirety for the first time this summer, transports the lusting after gold and buxom Rhine maidens of the first opera "Das Rheingold" to the Gold Rush, then works its way to the post-industrial wrack and ruin of the once-pristine countryside.

"This is a 'Ring', to put it too simply, about the management and mismanagement of natural resources," critic Joshua Kosman wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. Very San Francisco, one would have thought.

With Sweden's beautifully voiced Nina Stemme as the cycle's heroine Brunnhilde, plus conductor Donald Runnicles, who is known for finding hidden details in the music, on the podium, listeners are guaranteed an earful and an eyeful.

(Wagner's "Ring" at the San Francisco Opera, June 14-July 3, www.sfopera.com)

LYON, France - Imagine planning a new production of Wagner's Irish-based story of star-crossed lovers "Tristan und Isolde" and having the directing team bow out for what the opera house's website says are "personal reasons?"

Faced with that problem, the Opera de Lyon reached out to the inventive Catalonian team of La Fura dels Baus, who staged the opening ceremonies for Spain's 1992 Barcelona Olympics and have been taking on new artistic challenges ever since.

The Catalonians staged a highly regarded "Ring" cycle in Valencia and pulled big houses in London at the English National Opera for avant gardist Gyorgy Ligeti's rarely seen "La Grande Macabre," set inside the mammoth torso of a naked woman.

"The mythic romantic legend will be presented in a setting that is certain to arouse curiosity," the Lyon opera's website says.

Kirill Petrenko conducts, with American Clifton Forbis fitting comfortably into the role of Tristan he has sung all over the world, and the Danish soprano Ann Petersen is Isolde, the Irishwoman who falls for the wrong guy, and sings everyone into a state of bliss at the end.

(Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" at Opera de Lyon, June 4-June 22, www.opera-lyon.com)

Editing by Steve Addison

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