A doubly surreal Parsifal, Bayreuth Festival

This new Parsifal for Bayreuth was really two productions: one for the small number of us with Augmented Reality glasses and the second for the vast majority of the audience without.

While the embracing of whatever technology enhanced his own work was a hallmark of Richard Wagner, I doubt if he would have enjoyed this surreal experience. That surrealism was in two forms. The first was the nature of the images designed, along with the videos everyone could see, by Joshua Higgason that we AR glasses wearers could see. The second was the actual experience of being fitted for the glasses, a pre-performance explanation, and then deciding as the evening progressed whether it was really worth keeping them on. In reality, rather than augmented, I chose to switch between both – watching what was actually happening in Jay Scheib’s new production and then looking through the glasses to see what was happening in this other world.

My neighbours either did not have glasses at all or took them off after a while as they found them too uncomfortable. My experience was that it spoiled the evening as I can remember lots of zany images of swans flying around, arrows shooting at me, skulls and flaming rocks, coloured shapes of people moving around, a house bursting into flames – but not an awful lot of what happened on stage in Act One.

Act Two became even more odd as the events on the stage were bizarre anyway. The floating flowers, the part human part plant things that drifted across my AR glasses’ view, the little butterflies, and fireflies. The brainstorm inducing spectacle was compounded by actual live video being shown on screens on the stage.

I had almost decided not to wear the glasses for Act 3 so that I could clearly see the stage (the glasses cause shading and the videos are virtually invisible) but when I did put them back on it was clear we were in a polluted, poisoned world where not only plastic bags and bottles floated around but skulls and dismembered limbs, sometimes with something or other pouring from them, while a cute fox and two lambs bounded round on a rocky place. We then have rifles and hand grenades; a tractor goes up in flames and on and on. At one stage one of the lenses fell out of my glasses but it really didn’t seem to make any difference.

I adored the moment an almost Icarus-like boy in jeans walked over the audience to us in our AR glasses with his swan feather wings attached to his arms. Similarly, the wounded swan circled us until finally falling to the stage. My partner said all he saw on the stage was someone holding a big bird. I have to admit to dodging a couple of arrows that were coming my way.

People who had seen the show without glasses a few nights previously, and my opera partner, did not wear glasses and their main concern was that the production was static and dull. I was a little surprised as the seduction scene of Act Two appeared full of life and frivolity.

Sadly, however, what is lost is Wagner’s spiritual play about a simple man who through his innocence can redeem the Holy Grail knights. I guess what we are supposed to think is that this chap sees the disaster of our polluted world (the final set seems like an abandoned open cast mine, an old drilling machine, perhaps for uranium or some other such heavy metal). The holy grail is a big blue crystal and at the end he smashes it. Maybe it is some sort of dreadful radioactive isotope.

The Bayreuth Festival Choir excels in the magical and mysterious moments of the story and the whole evening is solidly and richly conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado.

In the title role tenor Andreas Schager makes a convincing transformation from the naïve swan-killing lad to the transcendental Parsifal (although only the AR glasses wearers see the symbolic bird fly down to his upraised arms at the finale). As the mysterious Amfortas, bass-baritone Derek Welton plays the wounded king whose divine healing revives all the knights. Much of the performance, possibly too much, hangs on the Gurnemanz of the gorgeously-voiced bass Georg Zeppenfeld. Parsifal wears a top that says Remember me on it (which he shows off to the audience on one of the (too) many curtain calls, but it is the shocking pink suit and shiny horned helmet sported by the luxuriant baritone Jordan Shanahan as Klingsor that sticks in my mind.

The lithe and smooth mezzo of Ekaterina Gubanova delighted in the role of Kundry (who has her own shadow character throughout, for some reason) and she rather vaguely traversed the two worlds, that is Klingsor until he loses his spear to Parsifal (with a few titters from the audience) and that of the Grail. She sang Venus in Tannhauser this season.

The perfect choral singing under Eberhard Friedrich gave the performance the gravitas that was missing from the hit and miss production, with or without the AR glasses, along with the perfectly paced and measured conducting from Heras-Casado.

Die fliegende Hollander at Bayreuth Festival:

Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth Festival:

Tannhauser at Bayreuth Festival:

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