Parsifal in Bayreuth 2007

For Wagnerians, the Bayreuth Festival is the Holy Grail. After having waited for years for a chance to experience a performance there, being granted tickets to Parsifal — where the Holy Grail itself features prominently — felt like being redeemed by divine powers. Expectations were equally high as we drove up the tree-lined approach to the Festspielhaus, ate our last supper before the performance, entered the magnificent building, sat down in the hall that gets darker than any other, heard the orchestra play the heavenly introduction, and saw the dark green curtain raise.

From then on, however, it was hell. The stage was filled to the brim with shacks, barbed wire, fences and a guard tower. Graffiti covered most surfaces. For the greater part or ther performance, images and video were projected onto screens, scrims or directly onto the poor performers and the stage. This made it hard to get any sense of what was going on on stage, let alone see the singers. There were grotesque images of dead and decomposing animals. Large quantities of artificial blood were used in cermonial exchanges between people of every faith, creed and genetic makeup. It was morbid, disgusting, adolescent, inept, and boring. I felt insulted and sick. It was, without doubt, the worst opera performance I've ever seen.

As it turned out, the director (Christoph Schlingensief) sat in the row in front of us. To my surprise, several in the audience asked him to autograph their tickets. Er ist ein star, one of them told me. I said, in my best German, that this is the worst performance I've ever seen. Ja, he's a bit crazy. Es war ein Skandal.

I can understand that a young director wants to make a name for himself by putting something offending on stage. One can also argue that the works of Wagner are so ambiguous that they encourage a wide range of interpretations. This is, indeed, why some of us travel the world to see the Wagner's operas over and over. Something, however, went terribly wrong with Parsifal in Bayreuth.

The opera house was built by Wagner himself, and those who manage the house are responsible for his legacy. They should not have let this production go on stage. I can see only two possible reasons for why it was permitted.

First, the Wagner family who still controls the house and the festival, have been under pressure to rid themselves of their connections with the third reich. At the time when this production was commissioned, new books were written and documentaries were made on this subject. Staging a production that was entartet in every sense may have been a symbolic distancing of the current house from its past.

Second, economics may have something to do with it. Grants from public sources in Germany may come more easily to those who put seemingly avant-garde productions on stage. On the other hand, the unintended consequence may be the loss of private patronage. Not many patrons will want to give financial support for the privilege of being disgusted.

I seriously considered leaving before Act 3, having suffered through Acts 1 and 2. Several people had left during the first intermission and seats had been shifted. In the end I found a better solution which allowed me to find some redemption; by closing my eyes, the works of Mr. Schlingensief disappeared and the wonderful music of Wagner remained. I'm sure the Master would have done the same, if forced to suffer through the performance. I didn't see a single second of Act 3 and thereby spared myself from further atrocities.

One reason to stay until the final curtain dropped was to applaud those poor performers who tried valiantly to sing their way out of a poor staging and the marvelous orchestra who did their bit to uphold the Wagner legacy. The other was to hear the reaction of the audience, my fellow sufferers. And as the curtain went down and the final notes faded to nothingness, before any applause or any booing started, a voice dared to pierce the darkness of the hall — someone shouted: schweinerei!. The word translates to English as: boarish, vile, obscene, revolting, foul, shameless, a mess, a scandal, a disgrace.

Schweinerei! sums it up quite nicely.

howcome 2007-08-26

[On returning home, I was happy to learn that (a) I attended the very last performance of this production, that (b) Stefan Herheim will direct a new production of Parsifal in Bayreuth next year, and that (c) The New Yorker published a well-written critique of Schlingensief's production and concluded that as opera, it was god-awful.]