Richard Wagner's knights of the Holy Grail opera was reset in the Islamic world as security measures were tightened at the Bayreuth Festival. The audience booed the production, though the soloists were top notch.
The ominous verdict making the rounds among critics on opening day, July 25, was "Stadttheater." Translated as "city theater," it sounds innocuous, but with half of the world's opera houses located on German soil, most of them are indeed located in small towns and draw local audiences.
Ranking Uwe Eric Laufenberg's production on the level of run-of-the-mill local theater is a withering insult. At the Bayreuth Festival, superlatives are expected.
Another catchword in the run-up to the opening was "Islamkritik" (taking a critical view of Islam). Was this interpretation of Wagner's music drama that? Hardly.
The third most-often-heard word on the Green Hill this year was "Sicherheitsmassnahmen" (security measures), which reportedly had something to do with the "Islamkritik." With the main entrance to the Festspielhaus theater closed off, no red carpet greeting of celebrity guests, visitors having to show their tickets to pass security at multiple points and television production trucks behind opaque fences, the atmosphere was different for this festival that has always had a relaxed atmosphere.
Most visitors reluctantly accepted it. Local authorities and the festival turned out to be prescient: The enhanced security measures were planned long before last week's string of shootings and violence in German cities. The performance on opening day was dedicated to the victims and their families.
Knights - and Western civilization - besieged
Wagner's setting for "Parsifal" is Montsalvat, the castle of the knights of the Holy Grail. In this production, it's a bomb-scarred church in the Middle East, revealed in a video sequence to be in northern Iraq, in IS-occupied territory.
The grail gives spiritual sustenance to the demoralized knights, but only when it is ritually uncovered. That is the responsibility of the knights' leader Amfortas, whose wound reopens every time he performs the excruciating ritual. Here, Amfortas, portrayed by American bass-bariton Ryan McKinney, is stabbed, and his flowing blood is imbibed by the knights.
Along with the grisly ritual, one sees soldiers walking in and out of the scene and the title figure in military garb. In Act Two, the flower maidens of the evil knight Klingsor are clad first in black to resemble Muslim women, but appear during the seduction scene as belly dancers and finally fully veiled in burqa.
The Good Friday music in Act Three is accompanied by seemingly naked girls dancing in a summer rain, perhaps suggesting that Christianity is more accepting of sensuality.
Christianity under threat
What to make of it all? Director Laufenberg explained to DW that he wanted to penetrate to the work's core message: Wagner's examination of Christianity. In this ninth production of "Parsifal" at the Bayreuth Festival since the premiere in 1882, the cautious updating of scene and costumes is a far cry from "Regietheater," in which directors take extreme liberties in their interpretations. That has been the standard in European opera productions in recent years, also in Bayreuth.
For their efforts, Laufenberg and his team earned a smattering of boos after the final curtain, but the response was warm overall. The loudest ovations went to German baritone Georg Zeppenfeld, who in the role of Gurnemanz had sonorous vocal lines and glass-clear articulation.
Giving her debut in the role of Kundry, Russian soprano Elena Pankratova was rewarded for her passionate risk-taking. Like her, German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt in the title role seems to take his voice to the limit of what is humanly possible without exhausting his resources. As Amfortas, American baritone Ryan McKinney rounds out an all-star cast of soloists that far exceeds the level of "city theater."
This ideal Wagnerian singing gives the lie to the old cliché that, in opera, things were better in the olden days. As historic recordings reveal, they weren't.
Several rounds of bravos went to the musicians as a whole - orchestra, chorus and soloists - and particularly to conductor Hartmut Haenchen. As a last-minute replacement for Andris Nelsons, the 73-year-old German proved what it is possible for a conductor to achieve in three and a half weeks. De-mystifying the score, Haenchen chose swift tempos and placed the music in the service of the drama. Not only was that Richard Wagner's intention, but after many performances heard in Bayreuth that celebrate the music and not the drama, it was refreshing.