The first-ever visit of this ardent Wagnerite to his festival at Bayreuth coincides exactly with my 20th anniversary of contributing this column to The Spectator. How satisfying to combine them! Whatever reservations, the experience of seeing all seven mature music dramas within nine days in Wagner’s own theatre was pretty mindblowing.
I’ll begin by setting the scene. Arriving by rail, the initial aspect of the little town is somewhat humdrum — an impression later dispelled as one grows familiar with layout and feel. Unlike major German cities, after heavy bombing Bayreuth was rebuilt to resemble what was lost; so we see a decent texture of 18th-19th-century vernacular architecture in local stone, rising to handsome in squares, and curves and vistas opening out to nature, formal and rustic, in an extensive Hofgarten. It only sinks to indignity, like everywhere else, as the ring road is reached. Three buildings stand out: the stolid yet soaring main church; the Palace, exceptional in off-white and yellow stucco studded with strikingly modelled Renaissance heads, male and female, in terracotta; and the Margrave’s theatre, soberly smiling on the exterior, which scarcely promises the glorious profusion, coloration and calibre of the applied work within.
It was the Margrave’s theatre, with its deep stage disproportionate to its tiny, exquisite auditorium, that Wagner initially alighted upon in the search for the right venue to house his unprecedentedly vast and complex project. Yet the pit can’t accommodate the orchestra for Figaro, let alone the huge forces required by the Ring. Wagner’s venture required construction as special as the artworks it was to contain. Upon this modest court capital from the pages of Thackeray or Carlyle was imposed the heaviest cultural cuckoo-egg imaginable. Even now, more than 130 years on, the Festspielhaus retains an unassimilated look, floating heavily on its hillbrow, approached by sombre strips of lawn and park culminating in an outburst of garish civic blooms.