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As I relate in greater detail below, Tannhäuser, a production now in its fourth year, emerged as the most successful all round: Philippe Arlaud's magnificently colourful design and staging, a post-modern synthesis of medievalism and space age imagery, matched by equally magnificent conducting on the part of Christian Thielemann, whose powerful sound sculpting seemed closest to the Bayreuth tradition. The Flying Dutchman's psycho-analytical production concept, in which Claus Guth explored inner psychological workings and issues of child abuse, was innovative and challenging, with fine singing under the artful control of Marc Albrecht. The production of Parsifal aroused the most controversy: the provocative young director, Christoph Schlingensief, seemed to revel in the chance to attract boos from those vociferous devotees of Wagner orthodoxy still ensconced in an exclusivist notion of hallowed art, and his ideas of multiculturalism freely mingled symbolism drawn from pop-art, Third World post-colonial politics and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

For my own part, I found his departure from the conventional Eurocentric Christian symbolism of the work refreshing and stimulating, a brave and worthy attempt to universalise; however, his stage craft, pacing and technical handling of resources seemed weak, at times inept and amateur, with too much busy business and obscure symbolism that clouded the central idea, in some places even appearing to contradict musical and textual implications. From the advantageous acoustic of a fourth row seat, however, Boulez' stunning musical interpretation redeemed the experience.

The climax of my Bayreuth week was Tristan und Isolde, the only new production of the season. The Swiss director Christoph Marthaler, well known in the avant garde theatre yet a relative novice in the world of opera, set the opera in the 1930s as a type of royalty in exile; his overall minimalist approach somehow refracted the fiery intensity of Wagner's score into cool detachment; Eiji Oue's conducting, whilst unusually lucid in parts, also lacked a degree of warmth and passion, notably in the 'Liebestod'. Nevertheless there were effective, powerful and beautiful moments: and the legendary bat that flapped its wings, gliding gleefully around the glistening floodlit stage, signalled that on that evening the spirit of the Wagners was clearly in attendance.

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Copyright © 25 July 2006 Malcolm Miller, London UK


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