After the enormous risk of its beginning, the Bayreuth Festival in Germany was for a long time a place where the stagings of Richard Wagner’s operas were encased in amber.
When his four-opera “Ring,” which inaugurated the festival in 1876, was brought back for the first time 20 years later, Wagner’s widow, Cosima, stuck with a vision essentially identical to the one her husband had overseen. “Parsifal” was even more static: After premiering at Bayreuth in 1882, it returned there as an unchanging ritual until 1934.
But in Bayreuth’s modern era, perpetual workshopping prevails. New productions usually play for five summers before cycling out, and the expectation is that directors will keep futzing through that time. Sets change; sequences are adjusted and eliminated; details are added and subtracted.
Now, it’s Valentin Schwarz’s turn to tinker.
His “Ring” opened last summer. It was a caustic, contemporary-dress interpretation that compressed the work’s sprawling settings to a single estate and eliminated the mythological magic, the dragons, potions and instant transformations. The “Ride of the Valkyries” was a waiting room of wealthy women strutting in cosmetic surgery bandages. The world-ending conflagration Wagner intended for the ending was a fire-free anticlimax at the bottom of an empty pool.
On Monday, though, as the sweeping music of that ending played, a backdrop lowered to reveal the theatrical lighting behind, and the body of Wotan, the king of the gods, was seen hanging from the grid, dripping wet — the death of divinity, “Sunset Boulevard”-style. It was a fresh addition to the staging, if still something of a letdown, a mild finale after 15 keyed-up hours.
There were more tweaks to this “Ring.” The kidnapping and hoarding of children — an obsession with youthfulness; a sense of violence passed through generations — is one of Schwarz’s themes. So it makes sense for girls we saw drawing in “Das Rheingold” to now return to pay their respects at a coffin in “Die Walküre.” The hard-partying decadence of the characters in “Götterdämmerung” is even harsher this year, and the suicide of a goddess earlier in the “Ring” is more strongly telegraphed in the final moments of “Rheingold.” The child of Brünnhilde and Siegfried, not in Wagner’s libretto, died in last year’s version but now escapes the apocalyptic finale.
You can tell Schwarz intended these revisions to heighten certain aspects of his interpretation. But their impact is generally minor. And the most important change from last summer isn’t onstage — it’s in the pit.
Last year, Cornelius Meister conducted the premiere because Pietari Inkinen had to drop out with a case of Covid late in the rehearsal process. Meister’s work ended up being blandly neutral, not quite compatible with Schwarz’s vivid, provocative staging.
Newly volatile and fierce under Inkinen, the orchestra now matches, and feeds, the curdled, unsettled mood of this “Ring”; the sound is often forceful, but it’s stubbornly anti-grandeur. Sometimes that means brash playing that even verges on unbeautiful. The winds were almost wild in a grinding, grim account of the introduction to “Siegfried” on Saturday, and gawkily reedy — at once sinister and whimsical — as Hagen and Gutrune plotted in “Götterdämmerung” on Monday.
The pacing is tauter this year, and more tense. Inkinen propelled scenes forward, giving and receiving from the singers during long narratives. The “Todesverkündigung,” the dreamlike scene in “Die Walküre” in which Brünnhilde appears to Siegmund in a vision, was steadily, hauntingly built. All in all, the orchestra was, as Wagner intended, a character in its own right, one as anxious, unstable and fascinating as Schwarz’s conception at its best.
As Hagen, the production’s linchpin, the bass Mika Kares, a newcomer to the cast, was most memorable: aggressive and doleful, stony and agonized, shambling around the set like the overgrown child he is.
Another newcomer, the soprano Catherine Foster, an alert actress and proud presence, sang with clean tone and slicing high notes as Brünnhilde in “Die Walküre” and “Götterdämmerung.” Sounding gruff as Wotan — a role he shared last year with another singer — and acting with overkill, even by this staging’s standards, the bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny settled in as a meditative, wry Wanderer in “Siegfried.”
Over a week at the festival, the quality of the singing was consistently high. And pre-opening cancellations provided the opportunity for some heroics.
The uncannily pure-toned tenor Klaus Florian Vogt and the sensitive, easily vulnerable soprano Elisabeth Teige sang in “Die Walküre” one day, and “Tannhäuser” the next. Even more remarkable, the tenor Andreas Schager sang the title roles in “Siegfried” on Saturday and “Parsifal” on Sunday, and then Siegfried in “Götterdämmerung” on Monday — all with clarion enthusiasm. This is the kind of Wagnerian Everest-climbing you get only at Bayreuth.
In Tobias Kratzer’s crowd-pleasing 2019 production of “Tannhäuser,” the title character abandons the bohemian high life of Venus and her road-tripping pals for a sober, rule-based order: a performance at Bayreuth of, yes, “Tannhäuser.” (Referencing Bayreuth and its past productions in new stagings is almost de rigueur at the festival.)
Metatheatrical collisions ensue — Ekaterina Gubanova is laugh-out-loud funny as Venus infiltrates the “Tannhäuser” within the “Tannhäuser” — before a tragic final act strains to tie up a lot of thematic loose ends.
But the production is an endearing party, one that extends outside during the first intermission to a pond near the festival theater, for a gleefully messy, proudly queer, highly eclectic performance ranging among the likes of “I Am What I Am,” “Part of Your World” and “Ol’ Man River.” Back inside, Nathalie Stutzmann conducted a warmly effusive performance, with just a slightly chaotic ending to Act II.
It was a superb vehicle for the festival’s chorus, directed by Eberhard Friedrich — but quite possibly outdone by the group’s powerful, elegant work in “Parsifal,” from ethereal to mighty to ferocious and back again.
Pablo Heras-Casado led that opera with a calm confidence that never felt rigid. The selling point of this “Parsifal” — new this year and directed by Jay Scheib — is the incorporation of augmented reality, or AR. But because of internal conflicts over funding, less than a fifth of the audience is provided with the glasses that superimpose over the live action a panoply of floating, moving digital images.
On opening night, I and other critics saw the staging with the AR glasses. But then I returned to see the show as the vast majority of visitors will: without them.
Some things about the inoffensive, unilluminating, unmoving live staging are clearer without the busy AR imagery. I now caught that desert mining seems to be going on in Act III, and that, at the end, Gurnemanz and a female lover, who embraced guiltily at the opera’s start, are happily reunited.
But the use of live video onstage — highly effective in an unsparing perspective on Amfortas’s bloody wound being probed and dressed — elsewhere just shows us close-ups of what we can already see, as at a stadium concert. The fallen sorcerer Klingsor wears high heels, a nod toward gender blurring that goes otherwise unexplored.
As a traditional production, this “Parsifal” was nothing special; it felt palpable that most of the staging’s resources were going into developing the AR. But even if the results of that venture weren’t satisfying artistically or emotionally, the technology worked. And its ambition was true to the spirit of experimentation — and, these days, revision — that has coexisted with reverent tradition at Bayreuth for almost 150 years.