by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Aug. 9 and 16, 2004.
"A ray of light: the Grail is fully radiant. A dove floats down from the dome above.” These are Richard Wagner’s stage directions for the maximally transcendent final moments of “Parsifal,” his last opera. Christoph Schlingensief’s production at the Bayreuth Festival last week gave us instead two dead rabbits, their rotting bodies intertwined, their images projected on a screen above the stage. We then saw a sped-up film of one rabbit decomposing, its body frothing as the maggots did their work. I’ve seen a lot of stupid, repulsive, irritating, befuddling, and boring things on opera stages over the years, but Schlingensief’s dead-rabbit climax was something new: for the first time, I left a theatre feeling, like, ready to hurl.
The trouble with this sort of provocation is that if you criticize it, even with an involuntary emetic reflex, you end up playing a role that the instigator has written for you. You are cast as the reactionary, the sentimentalist, the sort of person who requires a kitschy white dove, as if white doves and rotting rabbits were the only options. You are suspected of harboring Fascist tendencies. When Endrik Wottrich, the tenor who sang Parsifal, disavowed Schlingensief’s attempt to transplant the action to Namibia, the director accused him of having uttered racist slurs. No matter that the staging was full of hackneyed “darkest Africa” imagery, with several singers done up in inky blackface; the provocateur will always have the upper hand against the provoked. “If my enemies shout ‘boo’ at the première, then all is in order,” Schlingensief told Stern. Indeed, when the curtain fell, the audience responded with the loudest, lustiest boos I’ve heard outside of Yankee Stadium. Less than a third of the audience applauded when Schlingensief took his bow. In other words, a triumph.
A curious charade played out in the press afterward: everyone denied that anything untoward had happened. The bigwigs who had walked down the red carpet at the gala “Parsifal” première said nothing negative when a reporter from the Nordbayerischer Kurier canvassed their opinions. Edmund Stoiber, the Minister-President of Bavaria, claimed that the production had suited him “because it presented an entirely new point of view.” José Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, found it only logical that “Parsifal” had been transplanted from Germany to Africa. (The opera is set in Spain, but never mind.) Who, then, had made all that noise? Perhaps ordinary opera lovers who had paid for their tickets? When I read the reviews two days later, I was amazed to discover that there hadn’t been any scandal at all—only a few boos, perhaps. A new reality was agreed upon that had little to do with what had happened in the theatre.
It’s all politics, of course. Because German opera houses are heavily supported by state and local governments, the audience’s opinion is relatively immaterial; productions are bought and sold in a marketplace of intellectual publicity. Whenever I attend this kind of opera-esque event, I feel as though I were being called upon to judge some intricate sport I don’t understand, like synchronized swimming. Still, opera it nominally remained, and, as opera, it was god-awful.
Schlingensief is what the Germans call an Aktionskünstler, or “action artist,” meaning that his theatre pieces take the form not of conventional performances but of happenings, demonstrations, media pranks, talk shows, even B movies. He is the head of something called the Church of Fear, one of whose slogans is “Don’t expect too much from the end of the world!” He is notorious for taunting politicians; in 1997, he was arrested for displaying signs that said, “Kill Helmut Kohl.” In 2002, he targeted Jürgen Möllemann, of the Free Democratic Party, who had allegedly made anti-Semitic slurs. Schlingensief staged mock neo-Nazi rallies with banners modelled on the F.D.P. colors. “Kill Möllemann,” he reportedly said. A year later, Möllemann committed suicide by cutting loose his parachute while skydiving. To be sure, the politician had bigger problems to deal with than Schlingensief’s antics: he had recently been accused of alarming financial irregularities. But the coincidence was striking.
The decision to unleash this scary clown on Bayreuth came as a result of ongoing debates over the future of the festival, which, since 1967, has been solely in the hands of Wolfgang Wagner, the composer’s eighty-four-year-old grandson. Pundits had urged Wolfgang to bring in new directors and to appoint a more daring successor. In response, he asked Lars von Trier to direct the “Ring” in 2006—an assignment von Trier has now declined—and also hired Schlingensief, who had never directed opera before, and who once said of Wagner, “I hate his music and his lyrics.” Nonetheless, Schlingensief wasn’t necessarily an absurd choice; after all, Wagner himself had once been a left-wing firebrand with anarchist leanings. Schlingensief’s projects in the months before the première—staging race-car rallies with Wagner blasting from loudspeakers, for example—led me to expect something gaudy and raucous, perhaps with a thuggish Fascist swagger. (This artist obviously gets off on striking Nazi poses, even as he condemns others for doing so.) However dubious its sources, Brechtian grandstanding can be galvanic in the right theatrical hands.
But Schlingensief never got a grip on “Parsifal.” He started off with the adolescent conviction that the opera was all about death. He took trips to Namibia and came back laden with sub-Saharan folklore. He imagined witch-doctor scenarios in which the Holy Grail takes the form of totemic objects and creatures. Enter the rabbit: a live one is seen onstage during the Act I procession of the Grail Knights, and globes emblazoned with Joseph Beuys rabbit figures hang over the magic castle in Act II. There are dim stirrings of a good idea here—Wagner’s drama as an earthy rite rather than an Aryan ceremony. Done far more simply, it might have attained a surreal beauty. But Schlingensief botched the transformation. When Kundry, in Act III, was costumed as a big black mamma, the audience burst into giggles. Was the intrepid African explorer commenting on stereotypes or was he recycling them? Certainly, he had not “de-sacralized” the opera, as some critics said. He just put new mumbo-jumbo in the place of Wagner’s. In this respect, his version resembled the secularized “Parsifal” that Hitler commissioned in 1934, to the distress of many old Wagnerians.
Despite jaw-dropping lapses of taste throughout, the general impression was of dull chaos. Schlingensief made heavy use of a rotating stage, which became a lazy Susan conveying assorted art-world and pop-culture artifacts, including Andy Warhol soup cans, David Lynch freaks, graffiti and placards, muscleboys, “Flintstones” and “Lord of the Rings” costumes. It was difficult to see it all amid the obscure lighting, although I wouldn’t blame the lighting designer for this, since the blocking was too random for spotlights to track any one figure. The entire thing was like a nightmarish avant-garde counterpart to one of Franco Zeffirelli’s overstuffed Met productions, except that no one knew what they were supposed to be doing. The ineptitude of the direction was obvious in the final scene, when Amfortas had to fight his way out from under a curtain that landed on his head.
On some other plane of existence, singers were singing and an orchestra was playing. The only singer who gave a memorable, fleshed-out performance was John Wegner, as Klingsor; for once, the evil magician was sung and not rasped. But I’m not inclined to condemn the other singers—Alexander Marco-Buhrmester, as Amfortas; Robert Holl, as Gurnemanz; Michelle De Young, as Kundry; and Kwangchul Youn, as Titurel—given the harsh working conditions. Some kind of medal should be given to Wottrich, who dared to criticize the director and then endured his hypocritical anti-Fascist posturing.
Pierre Boulez returned to Bayreuth for the first time since 1980, when he last conducted Patrice Chéreau’s classic production of the “Ring.” He led a beautifully controlled performance that managed to cut nearly an hour off the usual running time without ever sounding rushed. Particularly strong was the Act III Prelude, which pulsed weirdly, like a flickering bulb. It would have perfectly evoked the torpor overcoming Wagner’s knights, if there had been any knights. In another context, Boulez’s interpretation might have seemed too refined and becalmed, but in conjunction with Schlingensief’s busy nullity the music was a ray in the darkness, a Grail glowing out of sight.
What a change the following evening, when Christian Thielemann led a revival of “Tannhäuser.” Maybe the “Parsifal” nightmare left me starved for nourishment, but this was the strongest Wagner performance I’d heard in years. Philippe Arlaud’s production, which had its première in 2002, is a serviceable, vibrantly colored affair, placed in a vaguely Eurasian medieval setting. It sometimes dangled, but never fell, over the edge of kitsch. The great thing about the set design was what it did for the sound: its main oval room became a huge, resonating chamber. In the Pilgrims’ Scene of Act III, the Bayreuth Festival Chorus entered from an unseen chasm in the back and then disappeared into an unseen chasm in the front. Wagner called his sunken orchestra pit the “mystic abyss”; in this production there were three abysses, and the sound took on a hallucinatory, sculptured richness as it soared up from one pit or another.
The second great thing about this “Tannhäuser” was the lead singer, the young American tenor Stephen Gould. He has a powerful, flexible, beautiful voice, and, wonder of wonders, he is a charismatic actor. He sounded just as vivid at the end of the opera as he did at the beginning, which is a sign that he has the stamina for the biggest Wagner roles. The third great thing was Thielemann, who sounds more happily inspired every time I hear him. Shaking off Teutonic heaviness, he now favors shimmering textures, dancing rhythms, and endless singing lines. The storm of applause for the conductor, for the singers, and for the incomparable Bayreuth chorus seemed not only an affirmation of what had just been heard but a protest against the previous night. Bayreuth returned to sanity, at least for a moment. When Thielemann conducts the 2006 “Ring,” with Gould as Siegfried, I’ll be there, even if the management decides to replace Lars von Trier with Paris Hilton. Please, Herr Wagner: this is a joke, not a suggestion.