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Redemption the Redeemer

A Parsifal at Bayreuth is always an event. Wagner's Bühnenweihfestspiel is—together with the Ring—the most important opera on the "Green Hill" in Bayreuth, and this year the direction of the new production fell to the hands of opera neophyte Christoph Schlingensief.

In a response to (just) criticism about his autocratic and inflexible leadership, Wolfgang Wagner (the master's grandson and brother of the wonderful director Wieland) surprised Wagnerites by handing the 2004 Parsifal and the 2005 Ring to relatively young newcomers to the world of opera: theater director Schlingensief and filmmaker Lars von Trier (Zentropa, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville), respectively. The latter, very unfortunately, gave up on the daunting project, apologizing for not feeling that he would be up to the challenge (see post on June 7). Schlingensief, infamous for having staged a Hamlet in Zurich with a cast made up entirely of neo-Nazis and skinheads, however, did pull his vision through and—A. C. Douglas's opinion notwithstanding—succeeded.

His Parsifal was calmly hailed by the press (see post on June 26) and many viewers alike as being interesting, bold, attractive, and at the very least a Parsifal that does not allow the viewer to nod off at any moment during the production. "Interesting" could be interpreted as damning it with faint praise, but Schlingensief's production is not one to be reacted to with blasé, mild approval. His cluttered, ethnically enriched, video-enhanced Parsifal was provocative (as good opera should be), generally considered "difficult" and laden with symbols—probably (and forgivably, for a novice) far too many of them. Parsifal was Jesus-like, with the blood of representatives of the world's religions on his garb. Klingsor was demonic, in a costume that befitted a villain in computer RPGs with a heavy part black voodoo magician. Video projections, many of them done by Schlingensief for other works of his in the past, added another, sometimes confusing, layer on top of the singers and their surroundings. Set with very dim lighting (a Bayreuth tradition, almost), the colorful costumes could not be appreciated until curtain, and at times it was apparently difficult to distinguish between singers and "stuff" on stage. But it did sweep away the 70-year-old tradition of offering minimalist, geometrically designed sets off the Bayreuth stage that had been the opera's hallmark. (This is only the seventh new production of Parsifal in Bayreuth since its premiere in 1882.)

Christian Schlingenseif, 2004
Christoph Schlingensief, director of Parsifal
Parsifal, Bayreuth Festival, 2004
Parsifal, Bayreuth Festival, 2004
Endrik Wottrich as Parsifal, 2004
Endrik Wottrich as Parsifal, Bayreuth Festival, 2004

An art cemetery, Andy Warhol's Cans, Albrecht Dürer's hare (see post on September 5, 2003) make cameos—and that's just Act 3. Scenic reductionism is not what this Parsifal is about, then. The scandal that many expected and even more had hoped for did not occur. The fairly decent amount of boos were predictable and premeditated, the applause generous. For all the hoopla of bringing a directing novice to the sacred Wagner temple, Wolfgang Wagner wanted to be safe on the musical side and brought in Wagner veteran, l'enfant terrible-turned-Keeper-of-the-Grail Pierre Boulez to conduct the affair. His Wagner conducting—fast, crisp, ascetic, with heavy accents—was radical when he had the musical direction of the Patrice Chereau Ring (1976) or Parsifal in 1966; it isn't anymore, though. The press reacted differently to the music: the German press was reserved and indifferent to critical, referring to Boulez's own words on his approach to Wagner rather than bothering to explain, and the foreign press was more enthused about the musical quality. The Bayreuth choir, everyone agreed, was in top form. The singing, and agreement, here, too was barely up to Bayreuth standards, however. Boulez's thin approach to the score helped, in that it meant that the singers did not have to yell. Endrik Wottrich (Parsifal) did it anyway, Eleonore Büning from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wryly remarked. Alexander Marco-Buhrmester and Kwangchul Youn (Amfortas and Titurel, respectively) were the only ones to get high marks in her book.

But who cares about the performance when—also a Bayreuth tradition—there is a scandal to talk about, after all. Not about the direction or the singing, but involving the director and a singer. The first tremors were felt when Endrik Wottrich (Parsifal) panned the production in an interview a few days before the premiere (mentioned by A. C. Douglas at sounds & fury). Wolfgang Wagner was surprisingly lenient, though that might just have something to do with the fact that his daughter and scheduled successor to his position, Katharina Wagner, is "good friends with" Wottrich. Wottrich having his own opinion about a production is fine, but he wasn't very diplomatic about it. Schlingensief, of course, not averse to a good exchange on artistic visions, had his way of getting back, mentioning that Wottrich had problems with the African elements of the opera (he had said so himself) and objected to "Negroes" running about the stage. Schlingensief went on to say that he didn't share Wottrich's concept of "purity" for Germany—which, if you know anything about Germany, is tantamount to firing the silver bullet without looking vicious yourself. Wottrich fired back. He was not going to let someone like Schlingensief dictate whether he could say "Negro" (the German Neger, which isn't a terribly bad thing to say, but politically incorrect for at least a decade and a half) and anyway he didn't have a problem with blacks but would equally object if white homeless bums were on stage. At any rate, it was dragging Wagner down into the dirt and Western Civilization was far too good for that. Finally it was really Schlingensief who was the racist and Nazi, because he put blacks into roles associated with serving others in Parsifal.

If Wottrich, the archetype of a cultural conservative with a lack for subtleties in public perception, helped himself much with the rebuttal is for others to decide, but it made and still makes for a juicy little éclat. In the end he called Schlingensief's production "dirt" and "trash" and vowed not to sing it again next year. Which, just from the position of someone appreciating good singing, is probably not so terrible a loss. But who will provide the scandal?

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