Booing is par for the course at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, and the Parsifal production opening the 2023 season well deserved it. Singers and orchestra were another matter, however. Most people go to Bayreuth because they love Wagner’s music. Here it was superbly played by the excellent orchestra, and under the baton of Pablo Heras-Casado this was a musical treat.
Unlike in Britain, politicians are happy to be seen here. But the minute Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, arrived at the Festspielhaus, the rain came down in torrents. The gods of Bayreuth had spoken their opinion, and she abandoned her seat after Act I. She and her husband nevertheless featured in the glossy Festspiele newspaper that the administration produces at the end of the evening, to say nothing of Angela Merkel, the former German Chancellor, and her husband Joachim Sauer, opera lovers both.
Yet despite the German liking for opera, bookings at the hotel I stay at were down at 70% of capacity, and Bayreuth needs help keeping itself above water. Step up Katharina Wagner, great granddaughter of the composer and daughter of his grandson Wolfgang, who ran the festival until retiring in 2008. She has made it her business to cultivate local politicians, such as the Prime Minister of Bavaria. Hence money continues to flow into Bayreuth, though its production of the Ring last year was poorly received (see my review in The Article). The festival are having difficulty selling the tickets for its revival this year.
Serve them right, you may say, for bringing in stage directors who try to stamp their own idiosyncratic interpretations on music of sublime originality. This year it was the turn of Parsifal, Wagner’s final opera.
The costumes were of the kind that might appeal to a children’s television series, and were particularly egregious in the key moments of Act II. These involve the attempted seduction of Parsifal by Kundry in Klingsor’s magic garden — a scene that allows a director the chance to introduce a serious element of sexuality. The American director Jay Scheib didn’t seem to have a clue about that. The costumes were a garishly coloured mess, and the representation of Klingsor as the owner of a downmarket nightclub was simply off-putting.
Parsifal is on a great journey to prepare himself to cure the wound of Amfortas (head of the Knights of the Grail), and hardly one to be deflected by such tacky costumes. He is “the pure fool”, der reine Tor, and Kundry an arch-seductress, yet the staging failed to exhibit any sexual allure at all.
The house provided “Augmented Reality” opera glasses, but these showed moving stars, rocks, stylised bodies and other paraphernalia, and became a distraction. I soon abandoned mine to feel a closer connection with the stage. This attempt by Mr Scheib to modernise the setting of Parsifal can hardly be judged a success, though it may fit in with Ms Wagner’s attempts to “modernise” the Festival.
The singing however was terrific, with Georg Zeppenfeld as a deeply impressive Gurnemanz, the senior Grail knight who begins the opera with his clear history of the brotherhood of the Grail, Andreas Schager as a serious heldentenor in the role of Parsifal (replacing the originally scheduled Joseph Calleja) and Elina Garanča as a wonderfully warm voiced Kundry. Derek Welton was a superb Amfortas, and in this production we see more than usual of his father Titurel, well performed by Tobias Kehrer.
In the end there were vociferous boos for the production team, but none at all for the singers (which is not always the case). They and the hidden orchestra treated us to superb, indeed well-nigh perfect music.
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