Clouds over Wagner's Green Hill at famed Bayreuth Festival

The curtain goes up on the Bayreuth Festival this week, but observers say the prestigious month-long summer music fest dedicated to the works of Richard Wagner could be losing some of its shine.

Detractors say that under its current management -- Wagner's great-granddaughters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, who took over in 2009 -- the festival is on its way downhill.

Fans of the late German composer already joke that the best Wagner singers can be heard anywhere but in Bayreuth.

But the perceived drop in artistic standards may now be starting to hit ticket sales -- unheard of for a festival which has always prided itself on being sold out and having a waiting list for tickets stretching to 10 years and more.

The highbrow daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung this week complained the festival is suffering from "artistic arteriosclerosis" and was "about as exciting as stale beer".

Ever since Wagner's grandsons Wolfgang and Wieland relaunched the event after World War II, tickets to Bayreuth have been the hardest to come by in the world of opera and classical music.

But this year, when a contingent of seats was made available directly on the Internet for the first time, they did not sell out straight away.

In fact, there were still some unsold tickets for one of the performances of the sprawling four-opera "Ring" cycle next week.

- Unpopular choice of directors -

Critics point the finger at the artistic choices made by Katharina and Eva.

Last year, for example, for Wagner's Bicentenary, the self-styled enfant terrible of German theatre, Frank Castorf, was picked to direct a brand-new production of the "Ring".

Hired for the project at very short notice after the original director, filmmaker Wim Wenders, pulled out, Castorf with his punkish, anarchic aesthetic was bound to raise hackles among ultra-conservative Bayreuthers.

And when he took his curtain call at the premiere last year, he was met with more than 15 minutes of booing, whistling and jeering for his bizarre, surreal reading setting the action in faraway places such as Baku, Azerbaijan, and featuring prostitutes, gangsters, Kalashnikov rifles and copulating crocodiles.

But their choices of directors before that have proven similarly unpopular.

Katharina's own recent production of "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg", for example, was panned by critics and audiences alike.

And the current production of "Tannhaeuser" by Sebastian Baumgarten -- chosen for this year's opening night -- has been almost unanimously vilified ever since it first premiered in 2011.

In an interview in this week's Der Spiegel magazine, Castorf accused Katharina and Eva of treating him like an "idiot" and ruling over the festival with an atmosphere of fear and intimidation familiar from communist East Germany where he grew up.

Castorf even hinted at a possible legal battle, saying he had taken the prominent left-wing politician and lawyer, Gregor Gysi, as an advisor.

It remains to be seen whether Katharina will be able to turn the festival's fortunes around once she assumes sole control of the festival next year while Eva retires.

- Merkel absent -

Bayreuth's showing for last year's Wagner Bicentenary was also widely criticised.

The composer's villa Wahnfried, home to the Richard Wagner Museum and Archive, was effectively reduced to a building site for repairs.

The town's world-famous Margravial Opera House, a baroque jewel listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, has also been closed indefinitely for renovation.

And the Festspielhaus theatre built to Wagner's own designs was clad in scaffolding to prevent crumbling brickwork from falling and injuring passers-by.

That work is also expected to take many years to complete.

Compounding such image problems was an announcement earlier this month that Chancellor Angela Merkel -- an ardent Wagnerian and hitherto faithful visitor to the festival -- will not be attending the glitzy opening gala for the first time in 10 years.

A "diary clash" is the official reason for her absence and festival spokesman Peter Emmerich insists Merkel will turn up later in the season.

The Bayreuth Festival opens on Friday and runs until August 28, with a total 30 performances in all of seven different operas, "Tannhaeuser", "The Flying Dutchman", "Lohengrin" and the "Ring" comprising "Rhinegold", "The Valkyrie", "Siegfried" and "Twilight of the Gods."

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