Parsifal premieres without scandal
Christoph Schlingensief's production of Wagner's final work marred by disappointing cast of singers
By Eleonore Büning
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

The audience was prepared for the worst. A highly controversial German director whithout any experience in opera had been charged with putting on a new version of “Parsifal“ to open the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. But after months of suspense, the audience left the theater on Sunday rather calmed.

It looked good - inasmuch as you could see anything. In fact, the new “Parsifal“ in Bayreuth, which has been awaited with a self-fueling tension, and the perfect timing of which, right up to the opening, turned out to be impressively effective even for a festival, is the darkest version of Wagner's final work, in which he bade farewell to the world, that was ever put on this stage.

Christoph Schlingensief, who is able to put himself onto center stage so passionately, shrouded the results of his work in an enigmatically dimmed, low light. Whatever was not made invisible by light designer Voxi Bärenklau disappeared beneath a varnish of video patterns. At times it was so confusingly dark that nothing gave any inkling of whether garbage or people were busy on the stage, so that the imaginative splendor of the costumes that Tabea Braun had concocted was not shown off to advantage until after the performance when the cast bowed to the audience.

Seven new productions of “Parsifal“ have been staged in Bayreuth since its premiere in 1882. A permanent exhibition in Bayreuth's new city hall documents that at the latest since Alfred Roller (1934), it is always about symmetrical concepts of space, in which static objects, symbolism and light were decisive: a pillar to the right and to the left, and in the middle something perfectly circular for the Holy Grail. Schlingensief and his team have wreaked havoc with this arrangement. It corresponds in an almost banal manner to the seemingly ritualized standstill of the musical development and the lack of a plot in the play.

At first glance, the stage seems to be too cramped with stuff to make any sense of it. However, while the stage is turning and the hyperactive crew is operating on the rope floor, new views are continually being picked out of the patchwork of scenery by using spotlights, video fade-out and a sophisticated distribution of black light.

These views tell the archaic story of the terminally ill Amfortas and how he was saved by the naïve Tor, of Gurnemanz, who has grayed into an institution and of the unpredictable witch Kundry, of the black voodoo magician Klingsor, the healing spear and the chalice of the Holy Grail, and are embellished with subplots that are subsumed into the story. Portents start to glow and disappear.

In the twinkling of an eye, the Grail becomes a kraal. The audience has to be paying attention all the time in order not to miss anything. In other words: This is the first “Parsifal“ in Bayreuth that is completely free from scenic redundancy and makes it im-possible to have a snooze on the side.

The brittle and quickly hammered out interpretation with which Pierre Boulez formulated his subcutaneous objection to the sensual Baroque opulence in the trench on the stage is irritating at best. The sound is colorless, the orchestra seems to be turned down: breaks that are holes with no tension, block-like phrases placed next to each other, movement patterns that disintegrate into individual incidents and are thus insistently deprived of their mystique, sharp instances of over-accentuation. Boulez, who has been conducting the Bayreuth “Parsifal“ since Wieland Wagner's production in 1966, knows the piece and has established the intention that lies behind this deconstructive interpretation elsewhere in detail.

The singers profit from this ascetic orchestral sound anyway. They do not have to shout. Endrik Wottrich's voice has too dark a timbre to be a tenor in Parsifal, but he sang it anyway. Robert Holl, who played a shaggy Gurnemanz, could have focused his strong voice better to complete our joy. We would have expected more color and less barking from Klingsor (John Wegner) and less sharpness and more precise articulation from the beautiful Kundry (Michelle de Young), who had to fling on increasingly beautiful comic costumes at a speed of knots.

As is often the case in Bayreuth, the cast of singers was disappointing. Apart from the festival choirs, which were perfectly trained by Eberhard Friedrich, and the flower girls (Julia Borchert, Martina Rüping, Carola Gruber, Anna Korondi, Jutta Maria Böhnert and Atala Schöck), who melded their voices impeccably together, only the expressive Alexander Marco-Buhrmester in the role of Amfortas and Kwangchul Youn as Titurel really sang at festival standard.

Jul. 30, 2004

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