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A new temple to Wagner on the Danube, not Rhine

Jun 23, 2011, 4:34 a.m.

By Michael Roddy

BUDAPEST (Reuters Life!) - Richard Wagner's operas are linked with the Rhine, but a modern concert hall beside the Danube has become a new temple for works of the 19th century German romantic who never fails to stir passions, pro and con.

This year, Hungary's Palace of Arts, with its splendid acoustics, added a new production of Wagner's "Lohengrin," bringing conductor Adam Fischer closer to his goal of having all of Wagner's major works, from the epic "Ring" cycle to the mystical "Parsifal," ready for annual "Wagner Days" festivals.

"We are planning strategically all the 10 operas and that was planned for 2013 that we finish it," Fischer, 61, told Reuters backstage during an interval in the five-hour-long "Parsifal" where he had a fruit platter to keep up his blood-sugar levels.

"Unfortunately, we can't do the 'Flying Dutchman' because of turbulences at the opera house. We have trouble and fighting -- it's Hungary," he said, referring to a tug of war between his festival and the National Opera House, possibly aggravated by Hungary's famously contentious politics.

"So the 'Dutchman' is missing but the nine operas we will finish by 2013," he said, with plans to add "Tannhauser" next year, the mammoth "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" the year after and the "Dutchman" whenever.

And what distinguishes the Budapest productions from those at Bayreuth, where Fischer has conducted, or by other opera companies which have found that Wagner operas, for all their heavy demands on singers, musicians, set designers and audiences, pull the punters like almost nothing else?

In Budapest, as in Bayreuth, opera-goers get veteran Wagner singers, like Petra Lang, who sang in this year's "Lohengrin." The orchestra is drawn from the ranks of Hungary's highly skilled musicians. There's a lovely terrace, too, to sip a coffee while overlooking the Danube.

But there is something fundamentally different as well.

"We have much more contact with each other -- the musicians hear the stage...they hear each other and we can be much more spontaneous, we don't need as many rehearsals as in Bayreuth because there you must be spontaneous but it is very, very difficult because you don't hear each other," Fischer said, referring to his hall's limpid and clear acoustic.

"We can make a bigger sound and have bigger dynamic differences without the danger of being too loud for the singers."

NOT FOR FAINT OF HEART

The net result is that Fischer's Wagner is not for the faint of heart, or for people who like their classical music playing softly in the background. This is Wagner with the volume up, in the forte passages, while in quiet ones every detail comes through.

That approach paid off handsomely in the "Lohengrin," despite some eccentricities. Announcing in the festival program that his Lohengrin "is not a soldier, but a poet," director Laszlo Martin transformed music's most famous knight in shining armor, who traditionally arrives onstage in a boat pulled by a white swan, into a bespectacled intellectual who wanders in with a white violin case strapped to his back.

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