For Richard Wagner, the latest technology was crucial to staging his operas.
In Bayreuth, Germany, where he opened a hilltop theater in 1876 to realize his vision for his works, he promised that “the most up-to-date artistic resources will be used to offer you scenic and theatrical perfection.”
That year, the Rhinemaidens at the start of his “Ring” were supported behind the scenes by wheeled machines that made them seem to swim. A projector with prisms tried to create the effect of gods walking across a rainbow. The auditorium was dimmed — unusual at the time — to focus the audience’s attention and enhance the illusions.
Nearly 150 years later, cutting-edge technology has come again to Bayreuth: augmented reality, which adds a dense, often impenetrable layer of surreal imagery to Jay Scheib’s new production of “Parsifal,” which opened on Tuesday.
This medium could hardly be further from the creaky machinery and gas lighting of the 19th century. But the goal is the same as Wagner’s: to create “scenes such as you might imagine had come from an ideal world of dreams.”
But there’s a catch.
After a squabble within the notoriously squabbling Bayreuth Festival about funding the expensive augmented reality, or AR, glasses, money was allotted for 330 sets in a theater of 1,925 seats.
So 83 percent of the audience just experiences the old-fashioned article: Wagner’s operatic mystery play about a young man who ends up redeeming the ailing rituals of a corps of Holy Grail knights, straightforwardly staged and superbly sung, and conducted with muscular solidity by Pablo Heras-Casado. A much smaller group, including critics, gets the glasses, which superimpose on that live staging a crowded AR environment that is constantly in motion.
Are the 83 percent missing much?
They miss the space between them and the stage seeming to fill with twinkling stars as the soft prelude begins. The bare trees rotating in the ether. The motion-capture outlines of figures walking, embracing and suddenly ablaze. The asteroids. The fly that seems to land on the outside of the AR lenses.
Later, the flocks of birds, blood-red globules and spiky strawberries. The slithering snakes and spinning, silently cackling skulls. The blossoming flowers. The arrows, spears, machetes, axes, grenades and severed arms. The forlornly quivering plastic bags and the bounding fox. The rocky ledge that appears to fill the area beneath the seats in the third act.
In AR style, the 3-D images don’t move with you as you move your head. Rather, you seem to be able to pan across an environment that surrounds you: not a realistic landscape but a galaxy of disembodied elements floating in the darkness, a free-association, stream-of-consciousness panoply linked, to varying degrees, to the plot.
Some of the images’ textures are photorealistic, but most emphasize their computer-generated unreality, their unnatural angles and fake finishes, their eerie weightlessness. The aesthetic — with its collagelike excess of uncanny juxtapositions and its flat affect — evokes the digital art that has sometimes been winkingly called post-internet.
But for those wearing the glasses, the union of the production’s AR and live aspects isn’t generally happy. The lenses are tinted, so the live performance looks considerably dimmed, and the staging’s frequent video projections are almost invisibly faint.
The AR elements (designed, along with the video, by Joshua Higgason) often block the onstage action, even as those elements are fragmented enough to suggest they are offering a complement to that action, rather than a self-sufficient alternative.
However dreamlike, the resulting visual confusion doesn’t convey the hypermaximalist, proudly absurdist overload of Bayreuth productions like Christoph Schlingensief’s 2004 “Parsifal” or Frank Castorf’s 2013 “Ring.” This is because Scheib’s sensibility — in both the virtual and live spheres — is basically plain and direct.
When I peeked below the glasses to watch bits of the performance without AR, there was nothing particularly imaginative or illuminating about this “Parsifal.” The first act takes place in a spare, slightly ominous, vaguely sci-fi landscape — the sets were designed by Mimi Lien — with a halo of flashing lights that brings to mind the spaceships of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”
These Grail knights wear stylish, contemporary clothes — long tunics, yellow skirts, boldly patterned hoodies — designed by Meentje Nielsen. The sorcerer Klingsor’s enchanted garden in Act II is a psychedelic pool party in “Barbie” colors. After Parsifal destroys the garden, the third act is set in a lonely desert encampment, alongside a machine on the blurry line between war and industry: maybe an earthmover, maybe a tank.
The tenor Andreas Schager is tirelessly passionate and convincingly boyish as the guileless Parsifal, and the bass-baritone Derek Welton is mournful yet reserved as Amfortas, the wounded king of the Grail. The bass Georg Zeppenfeld is an elegiac Gurnemanz, who oversees the knights; the baritone Jordan Shanahan, a brooding Klingsor.
The mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca sounds luxurious — lean yet velvety — as the ambiguous, ambivalent Kundry, cursed to shuttle forever between the realms of Klingsor and the Grail and a role too often screamed. Bayreuth’s chorus, directed by Eberhard Friedrich, is, as ever, poised and powerful. On Tuesday, the orchestra didn’t quite bring out the exquisite transparency and delicacy of some important passages, but Heras-Casado’s conducting was vibrant, even-keeled and well-paced.
There were a few memorable AR moments. At the end of Act I, a boy in jeans seems to walk through the space, slowly flapping wings attached to his arms — perhaps a melancholy nod to the winged children in Stefan Herheim’s celebrated 2008 “Parsifal” here, just as the dam we seem to be at the bottom of at the start of Act II may be a reference to the hydroelectric plant that opened Patrice Chéreau’s centennial “Ring” at Bayreuth in 1976.
Yet there is something bland and empty at the production’s core. It’s not clear what Scheib thinks the nature of the sickness is at the root of this Grail cult, so it’s not clear what Parsifal’s climactic redemption offers. If the final AR image of plastic bags, echoed by one onstage, gestures toward a critique of environmental despoliation, it’s a wan gesture.
This means the augmented reality has little profound substance to support, just a jittery desire to stimulate — to ornament and impress — which is just what Wagner didn’t want from stage technology. Scheib’s AR decorations rarely inspire emotion or a sustained sense of wonder: the impression, as Gurnemanz says to Parsifal, of time becoming space.
The inadvertent result of all the lavish resources is to prove the superiority of the live over the digital — to keep us sneaking back under our glasses from the augmented real to the really real. The closest parallel in the opera to contemporary technical wizardry is Klingsor’s false garden; it feels rather perverse to extend those artificial seductions to the rest of a piece that’s condemning them.
We have come a long way from this opera’s premiere at Bayreuth in 1882, when Gurnemanz and Parsifal stepped in place as a painted backdrop scrolled by, turned by hand on rollers, to create the illusion they were walking. “The simplest of means,” one observer wrote, “had brought about an overwhelming effect.”
For all its ambitions and expense, Scheib’s “Parsifal” never overwhelms.
Through Aug. 27 at the Bayreuth Festival in Bayreuth, Germany; bayreuther-festspiele.de.