By Michael Roddy
BAYREUTH, Germany - Security concerns after killings in Germany, coupled with Islamic elements in a new production of Richard Wagner's opera "Parsifal", created a nervous opening for the annual festival dedicated to the composer in Bayreuth on Monday.
But at the end, the capacity audience cheered.
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A police roadblock at the bottom of the drive leading up the "Green Hill" to Wagner's specially built 19th-century opera house forced people in formal evening wear to walk in the muggy summer air. Women's handbags were opened for inspection.
The traditional red-carpet arrival for German celebrities and politicians was canceled, as were the post-premiere champagne receptions, after the Bavarian government said its officials would not attend the opening out of respect for the nine people killed by a German-Iranian teenager in Munich last week.
Peter Emmerich, the festival's spokesman, said security concerns were clearly having an impact. On Sunday, a 27-year-old Syrian man denied asylum in Germany a year ago blew himself up outside a crowded music festival in Ansbach, 135 km (84 miles)from Bayreuth, injuring 12 people in the country's fourth violent attack on civilians in less than a week.
"The whole situation in this land in Germany and Bavaria, of course, that is a problem but not for the festival - for the artistic aspects of the festival - but for the mood," Emmerich told Reuters.
In the end, the production went off without a hitch. Russian soprano Elena Pankratova as the temptress Kundry, German bass-baritone Klaus Florian Vogt as the "holy fool" Parsifal and German bass Georg Zeppenfeld as Gurnemanz, one of the caretakers of the Holy Grail, got the lion's share of the applause.
Almost as strongly appreciated was German conductor Hartmut Haenchen, who stepped in at the last minute when conductor Andris Nelsons left due to artistic differences with the festival.
There were a few inevitable boos but also strong applause for German director Uwe Eric Laufenberg, whose new version of the opera sets the action in a deteriorating church, which German press reports have quoted him as saying was meant to be in Iraq.
With soldiers traipsing through the church and arrogantly ignoring the "Knights of the Grail", and women in the cast in what strongly resembled Moslem niqabs covering all of their faces apart from the eyes, the production was the subject of numerous press reports suggesting that it might offend Muslims.
Laufenberg countered that his work was "pan religious" and underscored the point in the finale, departing from Wagner by having a coffin filled with symbols from several major religions, including Christian crosses, Jewish menorahs and religious books.
Women cavorting naked in a tropical downpour amidst lush vegetation in the third act also was not part of Wagner's original script.
Reviewer Florian Zinnecker for the regional newspaper Nordbayerische Kurier said overall he had enjoyed the production, "but the third act, not really".
Despite the recent incidents, the opera house was packed and the mood was festive - though more subdued than usual.
"I had some days when I was thinking about it (security)," said Esther Perbrandt, a designer from Berlin attending with friends. "But we still need the beautiful things."
(Reporting by Michael Roddy; Editing by Dan Grebler)