Rolling fields in emerald green, dotted with contented cows, fringed by rugged Alpine peaks: the setting for Erl’s unlikely Wagner festival is itself so like a stage backdrop that it sometimes seems less real than the inside of the theatre.
A quick number-plate check of the cars lined up outside before a performance is like a lightning trip through Europe: Austria, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Lichtenstein. But in the open courtyard in front of Erl’s Passionsspielhaus the impression broadens. New Zealanders, Scandinavians and Koreans have also made the pilgrimage to the Tyrol’s answer to Bayreuth.
Not that Gustav Kuhn, the hyperactive conductor who founded the festival in 1997 and since then has staged, lit, organised and conducted all his own productions in its July season, is likely to warm to the idea of Erl as a little Alpine Bayreuth. He would probably prefer to see Bayreuth as an overblown, time-worn second- best to Erl.
And he might have a point. There is a fresh, open, vital feel to the Erl festival to which Bayreuth could well aspire. Erl offers sparse, literal productions, a superlative orchestral sound, a clear-eyed view of Wagner’s scores, strong and even casting, and an atmosphere both entirely removed from the stresses of everyday working life and remarkably free of pretension – all things that tend to appeal to a surprisingly large population of globe-trotting Wagner fans.
It has all been done ridiculously on the cheap, which is a large part of the charm. Today, the Erl Festival runs on a mere €2.5m, tiny in comparison with its higher-profile counterparts but still a great deal for a village with a population of 1,700. Kuhn knows how to twist the arms of friends to get a handful of big-name singers for budget prices, and how to augment them with the crème of the young talent he collects at his Accademia di Montegral during the year. A Minsk ensemble forms the core of his festival orchestra, fleshed out with gifted young European musicians.
Low-key stagings make a virtue of necessity. The Passionsspielhaus was built in the 1950s for Erl’s traditional sexennial Passion Play, and lay empty for the intervening five years in the ensuing decades. Conductor Sergiu Celibidache, conducting his Munich orchestra on a chance visit to Erl, declared the Passionsspielhaus acoustic a natural wonder, but it was Kuhn who turned potential into reality. The building, a sober white curve that dominates the soft, green slopes round it, boasts no frills, but an open wooden interior and a broad fan of 1,500 seats that offer perfect sight and sound make up for the lack of stage machinery and fly tower.
From a modest start a decade ago, Kuhn has systematically built up both his festival’s Wagner repertoire and his orchestra’s Wagnerian sound. Not to be outdone by rival novelties, Erl presented the Ring in 24 hours last summer (a feat only possible if Das Rheingold is treated as a prelude, not a real part of the Ring). This year, Kuhn delivered a new surprise: the Ring in seven parts.
By the simple expedient of performing Wagner’s works in the order in which they were written, Erl served up a Tristan und Isolde between the second and third acts of Siegfried, a Parsifal hot on the heels of Götterdämmerung, and readings of the text of Die Meistersinger to flesh out the shorter Siegfried evenings. With no free nights between the events (Kuhn’s musicians seem to be made of tougher stuff than their Bayreuth counterparts), it’s another way for the hardcore Wagnerian to get the most possible music for the least time off work, as well as a fascinating chance to trace the exact path of Wagner’s tonal and melodic development.
Those in search of the latest word in Regietheater might be disappointed. As a conductor, Kuhn is precise, colourful, poetic, phenomenally well- organised, and has his own highly charged take on each score. As a stage director, his ambitions are more modest. His Ring is a relatively unadorned narrative, in vaguely contemporary dress (costumes: Lenka Radecky), spiced up with a few regional references (Siegfried in Lederhosen, the Valkyries on mountain bikes). He knows who his characters are and how to draw his singers into their roles and relationships. He has a sense of humour and an unimpeachable grasp of where the dramas are going. But like any conductor, he wants his singers where they can see him, and has no interest in anything that might put the musical balance at risk.
With the orchestra the only place it will fit in Erl – in serried ranks at the back of the stage – the singers have the advantage that they can more easily be heard above the din, but the disadvantage that the conductor is somewhere behind their backs. Kuhn has solved the problem with a battery of strategically placed video monitors, so that Siegfried and Brünnhilde give the unfortunate impression of being more fascinated by something on television than they are by one another. And often, when Kuhn’s lighting fades into the occult end of the brightness scale, the singers seem just a faint smudge in front of the place where the real action is happening, between the spotlit conductor and his instrumentalists.
The focus remains firmly on the music, without the distraction of either good or bad theatrical inspiration. And there is plenty there to enjoy, both in the crisp and centred sound of Kuhn’s orchestra and in a diverse range of singers – among them old hands such as Robert Hale and Phillip Joll as Wotan/Wanderer, relative newcomers such as Monika Waeckerle, whose resolute yet sensitive Brangäne enthralled, and Bettina Kampp, who gave a youthful, burnished Brünnhilde in Siegfried, and an up-and-coming generation of accomplished young artists, such as Jürgen Müller, whose boyish, lyrical Siegfried is instantly appealing, and Liang Li, Fasolt in Das Rheingold and Fafner in Siegfried, equally satiny and intriguing in both roles.
There is, in short, no bad singing in Erl, a claim very few opera festivals can make. Wagnerians of sharp hearing and pious inclinations will find all they seek in Erl, and pilgrims of other kinds should not be short of aural pleasure.
Continues until July 28, tel +43 512 57 88 13