Swastikas Fly, Nazis Parade Again at Bayreuth: Shirley Apthorp

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Swastika banners unfurl over the stage, Nazi SS officers goose step in formation. It has been awhile since Bayreuth looked like this. Scattered boos from the audience augment the score of Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal.”

A new era is dawning at Bayreuth’s annual Wagner festival. And parts of it look unnervingly like the old one. That is Stefan Herheim’s whole idea. The Norwegian stage director tells “Parsifal” as an image-laden trip through German history.

The opera becomes a narrative of Wagner’s reception, from the composer’s troubled youth to the political wrangles of the German republic in Bonn and Berlin. Most of the action plays out in Bayreuth itself, the living room of Villa Wahnfried, Wagner’s house, mutating with the passage of time. In the end, Herheim holds up a mirror to the audience itself. Literally.

The booers numbered only a handful amid an enthusiastic public. The July 26 opening of the Bayreuth Festival drew a glittering crowd. Chancellor Angela Merkel; former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher; Guido Westerwelle, the head of Germany’s Free Democrats; and an elite selection of television and stage personalities drew gaping onlookers in the afternoon bustle before the six-and-a-half-hour performance began.

Tottering on the arm of his statuesque daughter Katharina, 30, who is tipped to take over the festival together with half- sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier, 63, in August, 88-year-old Wolfgang Wagner welcomed the big-name visitors.

The Bayreuth public, exhausted by years of family dramas and power struggles, is ready for a change. That was evident in the warm response to Herheim’s frenetically didactic “Parsifal.”

Nazi Legacy

Not all of Herheim’s gestures are new. Indeed, many have become almost obligatory for provincial German houses dutifully working through a post-1968 approach to the Nazi’s legacy of dubious Wagner interpretation. But the richness and psychological depth of Herheim’s images and the seamless musicality with which he and his team have knitted them together add up to an evening of breathtaking impact.

Wagner’s tale — the ignorant Parsifal meets the knights of the Holy Grail, sets out on a quest, resists temptation, vanquishes the evil Klingsor, wins wisdom, redeems and replaces the ailing King Amfortas — is layered with complex reflection. The course of history, the nature of death and birth, the role of sexuality and eroticism in society, and the question of individual identity are all explored. It could be tedious if it were not so exquisitely wrought.

Seduction Scene

At the center of the stage is a bed, deathbed of Parsifal’s mother, place of his birth, scene of seduction. The prompt box is Wagner’s grave, or the home of the Holy Grail, a place of mysterious magnetism. Herheim’s handiwork is dazzling, Heike Scheele’s sets are a work of genius. Hours of stage magic unfold with dazzling skill.

Italian conductor Daniele Gatti makes his Bayreuth debut memorable for what may be the slowest “Parsifal” on record (4 hours and 40 minutes, not counting the intervals). To his credit, it seldom drags, and the high points burn with focused intensity. The Bayreuth orchestra does not play its best for Gatti, and neither transparency nor sharp edges feature prominently. Instead, he opts for organic development, lush curves and whispered pianissimi. Gatti listens attentively to his singers, and makes sure that we hear their every word.

Animal Power

These singers are worth hearing. In the title role, Christopher Ventris offers no-holds-barred heroism and seductively effortless sounds delivered with charisma and command. Detlef Roth’s Amfortas is worldly wise and rich in detail, Kwangchul Youn’s Gurnemanz makes every word of his marathon monologues grippingly emotional, and if Mihoko Fujimura occasionally screeches a top note or slurs her diction, her performance as Kundry has such animal power and psychotic diversity that it’s worth a small vocal trade-off.

For Katharina Wagner, who is plowing ahead with the business of marketing her own image to the universe as Bayreuth’s blonde savior, this is a promising start to an era that is already her own in all but official terms. Whether one successful staging is enough to baptize herself a world-class festival director is open to debate. Half-sister Eva was conspicuously absent from the opening-night celebrations, and the degree to which she will play a role in Katharina’s festival is equally open to speculation.

Plenty is wrong in Wagnerian Bayreuth, but after Friday it is clear that some things can still be entirely right. (Rating: ****)

“Parsifal” plays again on Aug. 6, 16 and 28. All performances are sold out. For more information, go to http://www.bayreuther-festspiele.de. The festival is sponsored by Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Benecke Interior Design.

by Shirley Apthorp in Bloomberg