Bayreuth’s laugh-a-minute Parsifal

Written by: Phill Ward

In the forty years since Pierre Boulez became the enfant terrible of Bayreuth, the shift in focus in the operatic world has been greater than at any time in the history of the lyric stage. Fast-forward to 2004 and scandal still reigns at the Wagnerian Bastion, now very much of the manufactured variety, and no longer connected with the great French composer/conductor. After years of internal squabbling with external factors claiming that under his direction the Festival has become increasingly artistically stagnant, Wolfgang Wagner has attempted to liven things up: by installing some controversial and unproven talent from the younger generation of artistic movers and shakers.

Engaging a director with absolutely no experience on the opera stage is risky enough. Employing a figure such as Christoph Schlingensief with a track record of media stunts and ‘artistic terrorism’ looks like managerial suicide. If the Festival was hoping for a scandal that was simultaneously an intellectually provocative production, then the resulting chaos and confusion must have come as a grave disappointment. Adverse audience reaction is the stuff of routine in Bayreuth but the vigorous vocal condemnation at Parsifal’s final curtain spoke more of incomprehension and irritation than of bourgeois outrage.

Approaching this (second) performance with an open mind was almost impossible. In the weeks leading up to the premiere the international press had a feeding frenzy reporting on rows between Schlingensief and Herr Wagner, resulting in the former allegedly seeking psychiatric treatment, and communication between the two confined to lawyers’ statements. Then Endrik Wottrich, engaged to sing the title part, threatened withdrawal, publicly denouncing Schlingensief’s production as “an abomination” – an extremely unprofessional gesture in my opinion.

Schlingensief worked on Parsifal entirely free of preconceptions, as innocent as the title character. His lack of practical experience of the opera world, much less of the oft-misunderstood mysticism of Wagner’s ‘Bühnenweifestspiel’ was only too evident. Director, and designers Daniel Angermayr and Thomas Goerge, created a ‘mess-en-scène’, if you will. Gurnemanz, dressed as Fred Flintstone, occupied a security guard’s hut in a fenced off foreground of an embassy-like Palazzo structure. The rest of the semi-permanent set, endlessly rotating on a turntable, resembled a shanty town, tents and temporary dwellings occupied by a host of extras – the alternative types that Schlingensief has regularly placed in previous work – otherwise superfluous to the proceedings. Gurnemanz’s Knight attendants were depicted as blacked-up tribal warriors – highly dubious not to say racially offensive, while Parsifal himself was garbed as a blond Christ-like figure. Kundry’s chameleon tendencies were over-exploited by continuous costume changes in her Act Two encounter with the now utterly spaced-out Wottrich. She rounded out her wardrobe choices quite literally – discovered in the third act in a tent dressed as a rotund African mumma.

For the grail scenes Schlingensief’s one workable notion was to remove any sense of Christian superiority, clothing the procession in all manner of world religions. The ritual itself was a bizarre hybrid of blood sacrifice and lottery-number draws. Many of the chorus and extras were costumed as a parade of dictators from Napoleon to Saddam Hussein with a few UN Forces thrown in to keep the peace. Much of what went on was veiled in semi-darkness thanks to Voxi Bärenklau’s appalling lighting design. Over all this played the constant flickering of a ragbag of video projections ranging from African fertility symbols and weird staged rituals in slow motion to an extended sequence of basking seals. We were left to contemplate a final image – the speeded up decomposition of a rabbit carcass.

Schlingensief had not the first clue of how to coax convincing portrayals from a very promising ensemble, so it was of no great surprise that the majority of performances were merely adequate. Robert Holl made a reliable Gurnemanz with Marco Pedro-Burmester a promising Amfortas, likewise Wottrich (when he can agree to be involved in the production). The surprise disappointment was Michelle DeYoung’s Kundry, costume indignities not withstanding, vocally under-powered and lacking in focus. Despite his Al Jolson-style black face, John Wegner as Klingsor was the most outstanding portrayal of this role I’ve heard.

Returning to the elder statesman of controversy, the key to understanding Boulez’s interpretation of Parsifal is his highlighting of this music’s transparency; he finds in this extraordinary orchestral language gossamer-like textures. Dispensing with portentous pauses between phrases, the sound wafting up eerily from the covered pit, particularly apparent during the prelude, seems to come from a different world altogether. Boulez’s tempos remain as brisk as the 1960s, still controversial for some of the audience, but the articulation and seamless arch of the orchestral structure is as close to perfection as one could hope for.

Herr Wagner’s bold experiment may at least have succeeded in bursting the bubble of self-congratulatory reverence that has surrounded this work in this place for over a century. The question for the future of Schlingensief’s tangled web of confusion is – can it have one? Bayreuth is famed for its werkstatt ethic – directors and singers returning each summer to work out problems and deficiencies – here though salvaging something approaching a coherent version of Parsifal might be a challenge too great.

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