Staatstheater Karlsruhe on Hermann Levi Platz has a distinguished Wagner performance history. Levi, one time Music Director, conducted the first Bayreuth performance of Parsifal and his successor Felix Mottl assisted Hans Richter at the first Bayreuth Ring in 1876. His annotated scores are still used by the current Music Director, Justin Brown, who has been closely involved in the inception of this new opera Wahnfried composed by Israeli Avner Dorman, as counterpoint to their new Ring production.

Christina Niessen (Cosima Wagner) © Falk von Traubenberg
Christina Niessen (Cosima Wagner)
© Falk von Traubenberg

Wahnfried, Wagner's opulent villa in Bayreuth, can be translated as 'Peace from Delusion' and this work does not deal so much with Wagner but his legacy manipulated by his family in the decades following his death. The reckless striving for power, marital strife and family conflicts of the Ring are more than matched by the history of the Wagner Clan, as they are still are to this day. The creative team of Dorman, librettists Lutz Hübner and Sarah Nemitz, together with Brown and producer Keith Warner have developed an 18-scene historical narrative skilfully blending fact with the 'post-truth' distortions and delusions of his inheritors and acolytes.

The main protagonist, initially a foreign outsider, is Houston Stewart Chamberlain, scion of a wealthy British family, now mostly forgotten, but once famous for writing a pseudo-scientific justification of Aryan racial supremacy The Foundation of the 19th Century, which greatly influenced both the Kaiser and Hitler. Chamberlain, played by Matthias Wohlbrecht, is first seen as a timid naturalist with a butterfly net, watched over by his motherly wife, Anna. Falling under the spell of Wagner's music and writings as well as German Nationalist culture, he is drawn into the Bayreuth circle. Discarding his wife, he marries Eva, Wagner's daughter, as he is groomed by the widow Cosima to be the Grail Bearer of the Wagner bloodline and pure artistic heritage. It is Chamberlain's rise to notoriety as a racial theorist and rabid nationalist and subsequent mental collapse that mirrors the rise and fall of Imperial Germany and the Weimar Republic.

Armin Kolarczyk (Wagnerdämon) © Falk von Traubenberg
Armin Kolarczyk (Wagnerdämon)
© Falk von Traubenberg

Told in short scenes with a cast including the spirit of Bakunin, the Kaiser proudly demonstrating his car horn which plays the Donner leitmotif, the domineering women of the household, and the scarcely tolerated Jewish Levi. As interlocutor, there is a Mephistopheles- like Joker character, Wagnerdämon, not so much embodying Wagner's spirit but at once challenging and reflecting the distorted image of the composer created by the family, who selectively edit and destroy his papers creating an Anti-Semite Monster.

Dorman's eclectic musical style, rarely quoting Wagner, sardonically comments on the story employing dissonant Prussian marches, waltzes, catchy popular tunes, jazz and klezmer to subvert and underline the overblown Romanticism of the Wilhelmine Empire and supposedly degenerate post-war era. At times the score sounds like apocalyptic Second Viennese School, and at others, especially in the choral scenes, it recalls the ostinato rhythms of John Adams. The family bickerings show his great skill in vocal characterisation and ensemble writing.

Christina Niessen (Cosima Wagner) © Falk von Traubenberg
Christina Niessen (Cosima Wagner)
© Falk von Traubenberg

The large cast is drawn from the house ensemble, many of them soloists in the Ring Cycle. Matthias Wohlbrecht used his keen tenor to characterise the increasingly unstable Chamberlain and Armin Kolarczyk was an Alberich-voiced, sharply drawn Wagnerdämon. Renatus Meszar, the house Wotan, movingly delineated the dilemma of being an interpreter of Wagner's music while being subject to the family's racial prejudice. The compliant Siegfried Wagner, sung by the countertenor Eric Jurenas, harried by his sisters and overbearing mother, was warmly applauded after his wistful lament for his lost gay lover, Clement Harris. Eleazor Rodriguez's vivid tenor, in the role of Der Meisterjünger, appears late in the action as a shy young corporal knocking on the villa door in 1923. He is transformed into the goose-stepping moustached demagogue Redeemer.

Notable among the women were Barbara Dobrzanska as Ann Chamberlain and Irina Simmes as a frenzied Isolde Wagner, legally excluded from being Wagner's true daughter by the perjured Cosima.

Renatus Meszar (Hermann Levi) and Matthias Wohlbrecht (Houston Stewart Chamberlain) © Falk von Traubenberg
Renatus Meszar (Hermann Levi) and Matthias Wohlbrecht (Houston Stewart Chamberlain)
© Falk von Traubenberg

Set by Keith Warner on the stage of the Festspielhaus, the superbly drilled chorus served both as participants and Wagnerian commentators. Sets are fluidly moved from facsimiles of original sets to the villa salon and family box, becoming the cell in which the deranged Chamberlain is finally confined. Warner fluidly managed the complex forces and staging with satiric detailed edge. The large orchestra, including a battery of percussion, was incisively conducted by staff conductor Dominic Limburg.

Seeing this opera half way through a Ring Cycle in Wiesbaden, was like tasting an astringent sorbet between the courses of a heavily sauced Wagnerian banquet. A timely antidote to immersion in the Wagner ethos and warning of the ever present threats of populism, hatred and intolerance.