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 amour, 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.
Critic Miklos Fay writing in the left-learning Nepszabadsag said the staging was "not a sensational idea, but you could still sing the piece."
And sing it they did, with the Hungarian Army Men's Choir, assisted by other choirs, giving the "full volume" Wagner lovers their money's worth. The 100-plus ensemble made a mammoth sound, fulfilling Fischer's goal of getting the choir more involved in the action than is traditional in Wagner stagings.
"The new challenge this year was the active chorus," Fischer said. "We don't know exactly how the hall will react, or how to use the chorus, but we started this year, and of course the biggest challenge will be in two years with 'Meistersinger' where the chorus is not just huge, but must act as well."
A mixed male-female and children's choir was prominent in the "Parsifal" staged by two young women directors, Alexandra Szemeredy and Magdolna Parditka, who put on Wagner's tale about terminally dysfunctional Knights of the Holy Grail almost as an oratorio, with the choir beaming their voices from three levels.
They also directed Wagner's searing romance-gone-wrong, "Tristan und Isolde," with a set that made it appear that the inside of the concert hall had been hit by an earthquake.
"We are lucky to show the two pieces together. If 'Parsifal' is positive then 'Tristan' is negative," Szemeredy, dressed in white, said in an interview during a break in "Parsifal."
"Our stage design in 'Tristan' is negative, the whole room is broken while here in the 'Parsifal' we try to show the whole room in white," Parditka, who was dressed all in black, said.
"'Tristan' can be addictive," she added, with a nod to Wagner's musically most sophisticated and most romantic work.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)