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Intriguing production: “Parsifal” at the Bayreuth Festival (©Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath)

In the heady days of the 1960s I recall a university science lecturer saying that if the government knew the nature of his research they would not pay him for it. His esoteric work had no practical use, but today we live in a more hard-headed age. Or do we?

In academia things may have improved, but in some areas of the arts they seem to get worse. The big opera houses too often allow visiting directors to indulge themselves in outré ideas rather than serve the music. In opera a director can easily destroy the original concept of composer and librettist by imposing some vapid idea that turns a potentially sublime evening into one of vexation, and the main culprits are government-supported opera houses,  in Britain and elsewhere.
Of course, 19th-century opera can sometimes benefit from a more modern context, an excellent example being Jonathan Miller’s Rigoletto at English National Opera, updated from a decadent Renaissance court to the 20th-century world of the Mafia, and for the last two years the Bayreuth Festival has been coming up with more sensible productions in an attempt to retain control within the Wagner family.

This past summer they gave us an intriguing Parsifal, Wagner’s opera about the renewal of a monastic order (the Knights of the Grail) whose leader once fell under the spell of a sorcerer, and can never recover. His followers await a redeemer (Parsifal) who will breathe new life into their community and enable them once again to fight for justice in far-off lands.

For this tale of redemption and renewal, the director boldly focused his production on a Christian monastery in today’s Middle East. In this context, when Parsifal enters the sorcerer’s lair, with its collection of stolen crucifixes, the flower maidens strip off their black abayas revealing flimsy Ottoman-style belly-dancing costumes. Wagner’s quasi-religious “festival play for the consecration of the stage” thereby acquires a strong contemporary link while keeping Bayreuth in the vanguard of controversial productions, and the first-night audience loved it.

The only downside was a high-profile security presence — which might have occurred anyway in view of two recent attacks by Islamic extremists in Bavaria — along with cancellation of the usual red carpet and first-night party for visiting celebrities and politicians, with Angela Merkel unusually staying away this year.

Strong concepts can work well for opera so long as they are linked to a deep knowledge of the music, otherwise disaster beckons. This past season ENO produced new winners with those dark operas Jenůfa and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, along with a brilliant production of Akhnaten, set of course in Ancient Egypt, but their dreadful replacement for Jonathan Miller’s fine La Bohème, with two drug-fuelled lovers sleeping it off during one another’s famous Act I arias, left the audience underwhelmed if not seriously annoyed, as did the fussily camp take on Tristan and Isolde by a former theatre director, Daniel Kramer, who had just been made the company’s artistic director.

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