Bayreuth JournalAnthony Tommasini at the Bayreuth Music Festival
The Bayreuth Music Festival is a celebration of the music of Richard Wagner. This year's festival will include performances of "Der Ring des Nibelungen," "Tristan und Isolde" and "Parsifal."
In designing the unusual covered orchestra pit for his opera house here at Bayreuth, Wagner was initially thinking about its visual impact. He wanted the orchestra to be hidden from the audience. He didn’t want lights from the pit ruining the scenic images on stage. He wanted the audience to forget that an orchestra was there and just bask in sound that seemed to be coming from nowhere. His hunch was that the pit would also be acoustically marvellous. The acoustics turned out even better than he had hoped.
The point is, you are not supposed to see the pit, ever. Lucky me. Pleading professional interest, I asked to see the mysterious pit at the Festspielhaus and was given a tour before the performance of “Das Rheingold” the other night that commenced the new production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. My guides were a helpful woman from the press office and an informed member of the orchestra, one of seven harpists.
The pit is certainly discombobulating. Wagner wanted the musicians to be sunk into the depths beneath the stage. Instead of playing in a semicircle, as is standard, they play from six descending wooden rows, rather like huge steps, with the strings on the top row and the brass and percussion instruments on the bottom. Wagner’s great, and still unique, innovation was to cover this raked pit almost completely with a shield that curves over the musicians and at first projects the sound back toward the stage. Because of this, the singers can easily project over the loudest Wagnerian orchestral blast. If a soprano can’t be heard as Brünnhilde here, she should not be singing the role at all.
So, O.K., the idea makes sense, and the acoustical results are amazing. But what is it like to play in that pit? Climbing up and down the rows feels risky. You could imagine unionized American orchestra musicians keeping accident liability forms in their instrument cases, all set to go. Since there is no air-conditioning in the Festpielhaus, the musicians playing in the pit on a humid July night must feel as if they were immolating along with Valhalla and all the gods at the fiery climax of “Götterdämmerung.”
Though the gracious harpist who guided me says she is honored to be a member of the orchestra, she conceded that the pit is a daunting environment to play in. If you are in the lowest rows in the back, it is very hard to hear the other instruments, she said. And the accumulated sound during fortissimos can be overpowering. Even the conductor, who sits in a chair towering over the players, just below the top ledge of the overhead cover but with a good view of the stage, has to make adjustments, she explained. He must elicit balances according to how he senses the overall sound is coming across in the house, not according to what he hears before him.
Some conductors never made the adjustment. In his history of the festival, Frederic Spotts quotes Georg Solti as saying, “If anybody had told me when I was in music school that I would one day be in a pit where I couldn’t hear anything or see all the players, I would have become a doctor.” But Solti loved big, lush, powerful orchestra sound, especially in Wagner. A Wagner score at Bayreuth, when the right conductor is in charge, sounds mellow, warm, radiant and pervasive without any sense of forcing.
One tradeoff for the festival musicians, who mostly come from top-tier German orchestras, is that because no one sees them, every day is Casual Friday in the pit at Bayreuth.