July 27, 2004

A Hullabaloo for an Opening at Bayreuth


BAYREUTH, Germany, July 26 — With a steady stream of A-list national celebrities, roving television crews and crowds of excited onlookers packed several rows deep, the Bayreuth Festival opened its 93rd season here on Sunday afternoon.

Dedicated exclusively to Wagner's operas, the festival has long attracted German high society and devoted Wagnerian pilgrims, but this year's opening was especially charged thanks to the premiere of a highly anticipated production of "Parsifal" by Christoph Schlingensief, a provocative and controversial German director who had never before worked in opera.

The suspense had been building for months, with the press supplying abundant reports of a clash between Mr. Schlingensief and the festival director, Wolfgang Wagner, the composer's grandson, who only last month was dealt a significant blow when Lars von Trier resigned as director of a new "Ring" Cycle scheduled for 2006. Making matters worse, the tenor singing Parsifal bitterly denounced the new production only days before the premiere.

As the day finally approached, all the hype could be boiled down to this question: Would Mr. Schlingensief's "Parsifal" be a fake intellectual exercise in bad taste that denigrated Wagner's loftiest and most religious opera, or would it provide the bold new life and freshness that the festival (and its director) needed perhaps now more than ever?

In the end the event could not live up to its lofty setup: this "Parsifal" neither shocked nor soared. Mr. Schlingensief delivered a production that was visually anarchic and thematically cryptic but at times intriguing and certainly tame by German stage standards. When Mr. Schlingensief and his production team emerged to take their bows, there were dueling choruses of boos and bravos, but the two sides seemed fairly evenly matched. Both opinions were voiced with such vociferousness that there seemed little doubt about how much had been at stake, or for that matter, how seriously Bayreuthers take their opera.

Even if it did not provide the promised scandal, this "Parsifal" was certainly unlike any seen before at this festival. The knights of the Grail, whose leader, Amfortas, has been mortally wounded and must be saved by the holy fool Parsifal, have abandoned Wagner's mythological Middle Ages in favor of a deconstructed and symbol-strewn landscape that supposedly combined elements of Nepal and Namibia. In practice, the stage was a chaotic jumble of urban ruble, ancient Asian and African religious symbols and high-concept directorial statements such as a "Cemetery of Art" that shows up in the third act, with famous paintings set out as tombstones.

Wagner's characters also had a new multicultural look. The knights of the Grail, a disturbingly pure-blooded group in Wagner's original, were transformed into a motley crew of races and creeds more interested in pagan rituals than Christian religious rites, and the seductive maidens of the evil sorcerer Klingsor were bedecked in various combinations of feathers and tribal body paints.

It all added up to an overwhelming visual picture, but Mr. Schlingensief did not stop there, layering on still more visuals with an almost constant stream of shifting filmic images projected onto scrims and onto the stage itself. The relationship of the images to the musical-dramatic moment was, shall we say, indirect: seals cavorting on the beach while Gurnemanz lamented the fate of the order of the Grail; a giant decomposing rabbit during the work's sublime conclusion.

In fairness to Mr. Schlingensief, this was not as arbitrary as it may sound. The film, according to an explanatory note, was his attempt to embrace viewers with a contemporary visual language speaking most readily to them, in keeping with Wagner's theories of opera as an all-encompassing total work of art. The African and Asian cultural artifacts were attempts to find religious and mythological imagery still resonant in a secular age. But the giant rabbit, well, that's still anyone's guess.

Any one of these ideas might have proved fertile ground, but Mr. Schlingensief's "Parsifal" ultimately undermined itself through overinclusion, a crowding of signs and symbols that did little to illuminate the truths of this dark, complex and arrestingly beautiful work.

Instead "Parsifal" became a wash of visuals, a semiotic guessing game that too often worked against the grain of the opera's dramatic structure.

For example the central transformative moment of the opera, Kundry's kiss that awakens Parsifal to his destiny as savior, was literally and figuratively overshadowed by all the postmodern debris. By any reckoning this should have been a crowning dramatic event, but it made barely a ripple in Mr. Schlingensief's world.

By contrast the most compelling moments were the simplest, when the stage would stop spinning, when for a few brief moments lights and colors formed an arresting picture, and the image would merge with Wagner's music, and the two would stand together in striking relief.

This was also thanks to Pierre Boulez, who won a well-deserved outpouring of audience gratitude for his remarkable conducting. His tempos were generally brisk, his ear for the Wagnerian color palette immensely refined. The music had pliancy, transparency, balance and a surprising lack of the modernist asceticism he sometimes brings to 19th-century music.

For their part the singers were quite strong, if occasionally dwarfed by all the sets and concepts. Robert Holl was a sturdy and resonant Gurnemanz, John Wegner made a vocally splendid and suitably sinister Klingsor, and Michelle de Young sang the tortured role of Kundry with a generous tone, though the dramatic power of her character was hamstrung by the production itself. The tenor Endrik Wottrich was a pure-voiced (if skeptical) Parsifal, and Alexander Marco-Buhrmester was duly anguished and effective as Amfortas.

It will be interesting to see how Mr. Schlingensief develops as an opera director, which may depend on whether he can focus his provocative visions with more discipline. As for Mr. Wagner, he may have scored a victory simply by engaging such a controversial figure, riding the wave of publicity it generated, and having the whole ordeal end perhaps in befuddlement but not in defeat.