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Culture

Curtain Rises on 97th Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth

Bayreuth warmed up to Norwegian stage director Stefan Herheim and his multimedia staging of "Parsifal," while Katharina Wagner seemed to be consolidating her position as potential festival director.

Opera house prior to the Bayreuth Festival opening

The Bayreuth Festival is one of the most important cultural events in Germany

Bayreuth has often been described as the nerve center of the German nation and its culture. The images most familiar to the public are the yearly summer ritual of the motorcade to the Festspielhaus and the celebrities who disembark and wave to the crowd. Having come to see the music dramas, they themselves are first the object of attention.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband Joachim Sauer pose prior to the Bayreuth Festival opening

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is an avid opera fan

Guests on Friday, July 25, included Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband, Professor Joachim Sauer, Bavarian Governor Guenther Beckstein and his wife Marga; Economics Minister Michael Glos, Liberal Democrat Party Chairman Guido Westerwelle, TV moderator Thomas Gottschalk and the ever-popular former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher.

But there was a major difference to the ritual greeting this time. In his final year as festival director, Wolfgang Wagner, 88 years old, only briefly waved to onlookers outside the "King's Portal" of the Festspielhaus before retiring to the interior to greet VIP's there. Wolfgang was flanked by his daughter Katharina, but gone was his wife Gudrun Wagner, who died unexpectedly last November.

A musical dynasty

Wolfgang Wagner, kissed by his daughter Katharina

Katharina Wagner is likely to succeed her father, Wolfgang

Gudrun, Wolfgang's chief assistant, was known as the indispensable woman on the "Green Hill," the one who knew the workings of the place better than anyone else. With Wolfgang in poor health, Katharina, also assistant to the director, has assumed that role. At the age of 30, she aspires to the position of festival director in tandem with her elder half-sister, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, who did not appear on opening day.

2008 is the year for Katharina to prove that she has what it takes. Along with new initiatives in the dissemination of festival performances through the mass media, she oversaw an ambitious new production of "Parsifal" by stage director Stefan Herheim and conductor Daniele Gatti.

With the eyes and ears of the world trained on Bayreuth, so was the festival itself this time: the new "Parsifal" is a self-referential examination of 126 years of turbulent German history since the world premiere of that work here in 1882. The set by designer Heike Scheele combines elements of Richard Wagner's residence Wahnfried and the Festspielhaus itself.

A multimedia spectacle

Chorus and soloists sing during a rehearsal of the opera Parsifal

This new production of "Parsifal" was directed by Norwegian Stefan Herheim

The new "Parsifal" is a multi-media spectacle with generous use of tricks and technology, the vast stage and technical resources of Richard Wagner's historic festival theater exploited to the hilt. What to do with a drama strikingly lacking in action, where key moments take place in narration, in the retrospective? Illustrate them with projected stills and videos, visual leitmotifs and character doubles, with elements sometimes moving or changing every few seconds.

It's almost too much for the eye to follow: The title character is a pudgy young man in a sailor suit, then a young boy, then a newborn infant, then the Holy Grail. With the use of trap doors, mist and lighting effects, Kundry morphs into Amfortas. These changes occur so subtly and organically that the viewer is often baffled. The set itself expands or contracts to fit the music or an underlying dramatic thought: "You see, my son, time becomes space here," is a line from Wagner's "Parsifal" --penned decades before Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

In this tour-de-force of modern German history, the drama begins in Wagner's own time. The costumes by Gesine Völlm depict a fin de siècle society with each character carrying angels' wings. The state of innocence thus suggested is soon over: The holy ritual of transubstantiation is followed by a seduction scene and images of World War I, with soldiers gently swaying to Wagner's delicate string sounds as though at the Oktoberfest.

The dark moments

Japanese Mihoko Fujimura sings as Kundry

Mihoko Fujimura was convincing as Kundry

It's clear that this retrospective of German history cannot exclude its darkest era. Kundry appears to Parsifal in Act Two in a curly blonde wig under a top hat à la Marlene Dietrich. The evil sorcerer Klingsor is in high heels, black lace stockings and garters reminiscent of the "Rocky Horror Picture Show."

After Kundry's kiss in Act Two, red flags with black swastikas -- in present-day Germany, an illegal symbol -- are suspended full-length on the set, and Nazi soldiers occupy the scene. When Parsifal takes the Holy Speer, that disturbing scenario is dispelled, the Reichs-Eagle crashes to the floor and shatters into bits.

Act Three takes the viewer to the bombed-out ruins of Wahnfried. After the Good Friday music, the scene is transformed to the Bundestag, modern Germany's parliament, and Amfortas, leader of the Grail Knights, is the chancellor. But even that scene is superseded in a hopeful vision of the future: a gigantic globe magnifies the lush red light of the Grail, then turns to reflect the audience in the Festspielhaus itself.

Making music visual

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner wanted to create a "total work of art"

In this reporter's nineteen-year history of visiting the Bayreuth Festival, this was the first time that a stage director was not booed at the premiere. With so much food for thought, a term by Richard Wagner came to mind: The goal of his "total work of art" was to be "make music visual." Although there were moments where it seemed that conductor Daniele Gatti -- giving his Bayreuth debut -- had compromised to accommodate the elaborate stage machinations, the musical experience was in fact made more satisfying, not less, through the array of concepts and images served up by Stefan Herheim.

Not least of all, it was a superb cast, with all protagonists demonstrating robust vocal strength and clear articulation. They included Korean baritone Kwangchul Youn as Gurnemanz and Japanese mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura as Kundry. There was also a strong debut by German baritone Detlev Roth as Amfortas and the first truly satisfying Parsifal heard here in a very long time: British tenor Christopher Ventris, also giving his Bayreuth debut.

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