Thursday 24 August 2023

The Bayreuth Festival is thrust into a new age, the digital age, by the application of Augmented Reality in a ground-breaking new production of Wagner's Parsifal

Wagner: Parsifal - Georg Zeppenfeld - Bayreuth Festival (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Parsifal - Georg Zeppenfeld - Bayreuth Festival (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)

Wagner: Parsifal; Ekaterina Gubanova, Tobias Kehrer, Andreas Schager, Jordan Shanahan, Derek Welton, Georg Zeppenfeld; dir: Jay Scheib; cond: Pablo Heras-Casado; Bayreuth Festival
Reviewed by Tony Cooper, 23 August 2023

Through my 3D glasses I found myself wrapped up and entwined in an abundance of floating objects that seemingly one could touch! 

The 2023 season at the Bayreuth Festival opened with a ground-breaking new production of Parsifal directed by 53-year-old Jay Scheib, an American of international standing in the hi-tech world and a technological wizard like no other! A couple of his credits include Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face (New York City Opera) and the Jim Steinman/Meat Loaf musical, Bat Out of Hell (Capitol Theatre, Düsseldorf).  The production also feature conductor Pablo Heras-Casado's debut at the festival.

Wagner: Parsifal - Andreas Schager, Elina Garanca - Bayreuth Festival (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Parsifal - Andreas Schager, Elina Garanca - Bayreuth Festival (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)

A professor of music and theatre arts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jay Scheib’s well known for his genre-defying works of daring physicality and the integration of new (and used) technologies in live performance. Therefore, in his realization of Parsifal for Bayreuth he has thrust this iconic festival into the digital age by engaging in Augmented Reality.   

Annoyingly, though, those members of the Society of Friends of Bayreuth, headed by Georg von Waldenfels, are light years away from Scheib’s thinking and, indeed, from Katharina Wagner’s thinking and vision, too. They harbour strong ideas of how Wagner’s operas should be presented and, therefore, with Scheib’s take on Parsifal it floundered a bit as far as they were concerned.  

But such technology as Augmented Reality, an interactive experience that enhances the real world with computer-generated perceptual information, is a thought-provoking and bold move to engage in but, hopefully, such ideas as the likes that Scheib harbours will appeal and attract newcomers and, above all, younger audiences to walk the Grüner Hügel in anticipation of productions more in keeping with their viewpoint and in keeping, too, with modern-day theatrical presentation.   

In essence, AR enables audiences to immerse themselves into a virtual three-dimensional world and, therefore, by using software, apps, hardware and the like, while employing the use of 3D glasses, technology overlays digital content on to real-life environments and objects in which the physically existing world is expanded by virtual content.   

Turning the clock back, I well remember those crudely cardboard-made red-and-green 3D glasses that came into being in the pioneering years of three-dimensional viewing in the late 1950s. Come the 1970s and you’ll find Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey had a go reviving the format for their movie, Flesh for Frankenstein. And now Bayreuth finds itself centre stage immersed in a simulated three-dimensional environment in what is one of the most ambitious attempts to incorporate AR into opera performance.  

A free thinker and a futuristic thinker, too, Scheib came up with an amazing production of Parsifal that could be either enjoyed engaging in AR technology or simply sticking to a traditional staging. Just as well, really, as not every member of the Festspielhaus audience was equipped with 3D glasses owing to the high cost of providing them over the course of just seven performances. Therefore, with a seating capacity of 1,925, there was disappointment in many quarters because only 330 audience members or so were blessed in seeing the show as truly conceived by Scheib and his running mate, video/AR designer, Joshua Higgason.   

And with Joseph Calleja bowing out of the title-role because of a persistent throat infection, it caused further disappointment. He was replaced by Andreas Schager who, in fact, made his Bayreuth début in the same role in Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s magnificent staging of Parsifal in 2016. Originally, Schager had been scheduled to sing Erik in Holländer, the role passing on to Croatian tenor, Tomislav Mužek.  

A complicated process, the technology of Augmented Reality can only be viewed through headsets which are linked to small boxes under one’s seat not too dissimilar to smartphones without, of course, screens. Each box has an app containing the AR content directly linked to the glasses. A stage manager is on hand following the piano score communicating as to when the content should appear.  

A memorable production for sure it will also be memorable for the Spanish conductor, Pablo Heras-Casado, I should imagine, making his Bayreuth début. And what a début! A baptism by fire! However, he soon got to grips with the acoustics of the Festspielhaus which can often be a bit tricky for a newcomer but in my humble opinion he kept the right balance between the pit and the stage.  

Under his direction the orchestra excelled in the playing of the Prelude - a slow, religious tone poem based on the motives of the Love Feast, the Spear and the Grail - which wraps up and sets the scene for the entire opera which, of course, was specifically written for Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus, Wagner’s final and farewell work to the world completed in January 1882 and first seen in the same year.   

Through my 3D glasses I found myself wrapped up and entwined in an abundance of Nature in act one ranging from forest scenes galore to a wide canvas of floral patterns all floating heavenly round Bayreuth’s vast auditorium and, indeed, with specific images directed towards me. I was transported to another world, a fantasy world, really, one of make-believe, where wonder, amazement and surprise kept good company with the opera’s main themes.   

Thoughts flashed through my mind how different my last 3D experience was in the Fifties. It’s beyond comparison compared to the interactive experience this time round. For instance, in the telling scene in which the innocent youth Parsifal arrives at the Hall of the Holy Grail, the AR element to the production was second to none featuring oversized images of an entire flock of flying swans entering your visionary space and floating throughout the vast auditorium of the Festspielhaus to mesmerising effect.  

If AR wasn’t enough a video technician, permanently on stage, transmitted his images directly to various screens darted around the stage so, overall, there was a lot of visual activity to take in. Intermittingly, I took my 3D glasses off just to concentrate on the stage aspect of the production until curiosity got the better of me. I felt I was missing out in the world of augmented reality.   

Another good example of the AR content was amplified by that pivotal moment when Klingsor hurls the Holy Spear at Parsifal who miraculously catches it in midair thus causing his realm to collapse. Immediately this scene was transported to the AR world by an extremely large floating image of the spear heading straight towards me. It was so close to me I felt I could touch it. After lingering awhile, it simply vanished into thin air. Unbelievably, individual images such as the spear can be directed straight to one’s seat.  

If the production was strong in the floating world of augmented reality it was even stronger at ground level fielding a formidable team of strong Wagnerians such as Grüner Hügel favourite, Andreas Schager, making his role début in the title-role and Moscow-born, mezzo-soprano, Ekaterina Gubanova, storming the role of Kundry. How well this deuce worked together.   

The cast was further enriched by another Bayreuth favourite, Georg Zeppenfeld, as the veteran knight of the Holy Grail, Gurnemanz, while Derek Welton as Amfortas, king of the Grail, dramatically played his part to the full while Tobias Kehrer took the role of Titurel.   

And the one we all like to hate, the baddie of the pack, Klingsor, was played to the full by Hawaiian-born baritone, Jordan Shanahan, also making his Bayreuth début. In a Svengalian and manipulative way he delivered a magical performance that more than highlighted his acting abilities which a packed house adorably lapped up!  

The trio of creatives - Mimi Lien’s sets, Meentje Nielsen’s costumes and Rainer Casper’s lighting - fitted so well the production overall while the colourful (over-the-top) stage picture of The Flower Maidens’ scene looked like a clip from the Barbie movie that has taken the world by storm. As an aside, black tie is de rigueur at Bayreuth but a male member of the audience sitting directly in front of me could be said to be challenging the traditional dress code by sporting a Barbie T-shirt. At Bayreuth?  

The setting for the last scene, in stark contrast to the Nature-loving opening scene, was a rather drab-looking affair punctuated by a long-abandoned industrial vehicle dumped beside a dirty pond in a rubbishy down-trodden area with the AR content amass with a load of floating plastic bags and containers of all descriptions as well as industrial waste such as solid-state batteries and the like highlighting the wastefulness and the deterioration of society in general which in my humble thinking equated to the suffering and deterioration brought upon the knights of the Grail through Parsifal’s foolish ways.  

But Parsifal redeems himself and the Brotherhood is saved. Abruptly, though, the ending came with Parsifal smashing the Holy Grail, seen as a piece of blue cobalt rock, to pieces. Once again, in the context of the production’s AR content, the overall stage effect of this ‘odd’ happening focused on an abundance of large chunks of rock floating aimlessly round the auditorium as if in outer space but in reality were floating before your very eyes!   

Change comes slowly in many respects in life especially at Bayreuth and, therefore, I think it’s fair to say that Katharina Wagner and Jay Scheib’s gamble, if that’s the right word to use, paid off. However, gazing into my crystal-ball, I should dearly like to see a commissioned opera or, indeed, a musical, created especially with AR technology in mind staged in a new purpose-built theatre designed in a similar vein to the ABBA Arena at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford East which is elevating the ABBA Voyage show to a different (and higher) level of entertainment never seen before.   

What happens next at Bayreuth. I wonder? However, over the past few years one cannot deny that Katharina Wagner has attracted a host of enterprising and gifted directors to the Grüner Hügel who have conceived and delivered a string of stunning productions such as Barrie Kosky’s Meistersinger, Yuval Sharon’s Lohengrin and Tobias Kratzer’s Tannhäuser while Frank Castorf’s Ring hit the mark (especially for me) but overall got the thumbs down. Extraordinarily, it’s now being hailed as a worthy and progressive production by many Wagnerites I meet on my travels.  

Wagner: Parsifal - Bayreuth Festival (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)
Wagner: Parsifal - Bayreuth Festival (Photo: Bayreuther Festspiele / Enrico Nawrath)

Interestingly, the Bayreuth Festival has been led by a member of the Wagner clan since the death of Richard Wagner in 1883 while Katharina Wagner, his great-granddaughter, took over the joint artistic directorship of the festival with her half-sister, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, from their father, Wolfgang, in 2008, while becoming sole artistic director in 2015. As her contract comes up for renewal soon, Katharina Wagner has firmly stated that if an offer came her way (and I sincerely hope it does) she would only accept the post on condition that changes are made to the festival’s organisation.   

She further added that ‘if Bayreuth just wants traditional-style productions audiences might as well sit at home and watch Wagner on DVD’. There you have it!

Reviewed by Tony cooper

Conductor: Pablo Heras-Casado 
Director: Jay Scheib 
Stage designer: Mimi Lien 
Lighting designer: Rainer Casper 
Costume designer: Meentje Nielsen 
Video/AR designer: Joshua Higgason 
Dramaturg: Marlene Schleicher 
Chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich 
Amfortas: Derek Welton 
Titurel: Tobias Kehrer 
Gurnemanz: Georg Zeppenfeld
Parsifal: Andreas Schager 
Klingsor: Jordan Shanahan 
Kundry: Ekaterina Gubanova   
First Knight: Siyabonga Maqungo 
Second Knight: Jens-Erik Aasbø
First Squire: Betsy Horne 
Second Squire: Margaret Plummer 
Third Squire: Jorge Rodríguez-Norton 
Fourth Squire: Garrie Davislim 
Klingsor’s Zaubermädchen: Julia Grüter, Betsy Horne, Evelin Novak, Margaret Plummer, Marie Henriette Reinhold, Camille Schnoor, 
Alto solo: Marie Henriette Reinhold  

Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • Revenge is the name of the Dutchman’s game: Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Holländer at the Bayreuth Festival - opera review
  • Unbound and Unleashed: Hubert Parry's cantata Prometheus Unbound gets the glorious first recording that it deserves - record review
  • Jerry Herman & Harvey Fierstein's La Cage aux Folles at Regents Park Open Air Theatre - music theatre review
  • A remarkable premiere: Granville Bantock's The Sphinx at the London Song Festival - concert review
  • There is a lot going on in what is a relatively short opera: John Wilkie on directing Giordano's opera Fedora at IF Opera with a fantastic young cast interview
  • Joel Lundberg's Odysseys and Apostrophes with pianist Kalle Stenbäcken - record review
  • Shot through with sheer delight & joie de vivre: the sounds of 1840s Copenhagen from Concerto Copenhagen as the perform music by 'The Strauss of the North' - record review
  • London, ca.1740: Handel's musicians - wonderfully engaged performances from La Rêveuse as they explore works by the musicians of Handel's orchestra - record review
  • Still a classic after all these years: Peter Hall's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Glyndebourne is in strong hands in the latest revival, conducted by Dalia Stasevska - opera review
  • Tales of Love & Enchantmentexploring the delightful songs of contemporary French composer Isabelle Aboulker at the London Song Festival - concert review
  • Small but fierce: I chat to Cameron Menzies, artistic director of Northern Ireland Opera - opera review
  • Home


No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month