Augmented reality-infused production of Wagner's `Parsifal' opens Bayreuth Festival

Director Jay Scheib’s augmented reality-infused production of Wagner's “Parsifal” premiered in the the theater the composer conceived of in the late 1880s

Ronald Blum
Wednesday 26 July 2023 17:59 BST

A giant swan sailed into auditorium and crashed, felled by a huge arrow still protruding.

Flowers burst into bloom, radiant in red and green, pink and blue.

In the theater Richard Wagner conceived 150 years ago in a quest for innovation, another cutting edge step took place Tuesday at the venerable Bayreuth Festival: Director Jay Scheib’s augmented reality-infused production of “Parsifal” premiered in the Festpielhaus where Wagner supervised the first staging in 1882.

At the end of a season-opening, six-hour performance that included a pair of hourlong intermissions, an audience that paid 15 to 459 euros ($12 to $508) and included former German Chancellor Angela Merkel applauded for 15 minutes, though 5-10% booed the production team.

AR goggles brought fantastical images: a moon and a fast-moving cloud-filled sky above people’s heads in the first act. If you looked down at your feet during the third, a craggy surface was visible that appeared to be below the auditorium.

As the director’s post-apocalyptic take of the Holy Grail unfolded, a world tree floated along with avatars. A fusillade of calcium batteries and white plastic bags drifted above the landscape along with birds and the final image was a dove soaring above the desolation.

None of this happened physically.

“We sort of focus on a future society in which myth has become possible again and the grail once again somehow achieved a kind of mythic property,” Scheib said in an interview. “But at the same time, we’re not that far in the future and the third act is set around a broken Lithium ion field. We’re set in a world that is somehow post-planet and post-collapse of energy production.”

AR use was at times visually busy: insects and starbursts appeared tangential to the action, and there were a few instances of slight judder. Many digital visuals were impactful, such as arrows shot at the audience. A spear through an ear referenced Hieronymus Bosch's “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”

Wagner called “Parsifal,” his final work, a “Bühnenweihfestspiel,” a stage-consecrating festival play, an often solemn evening with religious ceremonies such as communion. The Wagner family limited staged performances to Bayreuth until it lost a lawsuit in 1903. Scheib's staging, just Bayreuth's 11th “Parsifal” production, paid homage to Wieland Wagner's breakthrough 1951 minimalist sets with a circle of light that represented both the knights' round table and a flying nimbus above the wasteland.

Scheib, a 53-year-old MIT professor who directed Thomas Adès’ “Powder Her Face” and the Meat Loaf/Jim Steinman musical “Bat Out of Hell.” He was contacted by Bayreuth general manager Katharina Wagner -- the composer’s great granddaughter -- about five years ago. They were forced by financial constraints to have only 330 goggles for an audience of 1,925 but hope to increase the total for revivals in the next few years.

The goggles were somewhat cumbersome — audience members who use glasses had to send in prescriptions for corrective inserts that were only approximate and had to arrive well before the 4 p.m. curtain for a fitting. The inserts easily slipped off.

While the AR could be viewed only through headsets, Mimi Lien’s sets, Meentje Nielsen’s bright costumes and Rainer Casper’s lighting could be seen by all in the auditorium. The additional visuals were akin to ads at sports stadiums that are viewed on the telecast but aren’t really there. At some points the different views were dramatic: Parsifal's seizing the spear provoked giggles from some of those watching without goggles.

The BR-Klassik network televised the premiere in Germany and the Stage+ streaming service is showing it worldwide on Wednesday and Thursday. There are six additional performances through Aug. 27.

“This digital level is flowing into the real level of the stage. I didn’t expect that,” Katharina Wagner said.

Scheib arrived for technical work on May 15 and the cast began rehearsals on June 5, a long leadup leading to intense, nuanced performances. Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado made his debut in Bayreuth's covered orchestra pit and led a pulsating performance of a standout ensemble that was taut without ever seeming rushed — the first act clocked at about 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča (Kundry) and baritone Jordan Shanahan (Klingsor) sang at the Wagner Festival for the first time, joined by tenor Andreas Schager (Parsifal) and bass Georg Zeppenfeld (Gurnemanz). Garanca’s only previous Kundry was in an empty Vienna State Opera during COVID-19 in 2021.

Parsifal wore a torn raincoat around a bullet-proof vest for the first act and Gurnemanz a yellow sarong. Klingsor and his Flower Maidens were dressed in hot pink — a decision made in 2021, long before “Barbie.” Parsifal and Kundry, her hair a weird amalgamation of black and white, embraced in the final act not far from a derelict mining machine, his shirt reading "Remember Me” and hers “Forget Me.”

The home audience and those without goggles saw a tamer take but with the same message: human consumption destroyed civilization and left those protecting and seeking the grail unmoored from their tasks: Parsifal closes the opera by smashing the chalice.

Scheib brought in MIT technical instructor Joshua Higgason for video and the AR.

“We can start to see visions and hallucinations,” Higgason said. “We can start to put different symbols and different signs into the air that would be really difficult to put into the world otherwise. In the zeitgeist, it’s in the world right now, but not a lot of people have sat down in a performance and seen something for that entire length of time in glasses on your face.

"I do think that this is kind of opening a different relationship with image and object, both in the physical world and the virtual world,” he said.

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