Parsifal unredeemed for the Viennese

Dontcha know what day it is? Perhaps Easter is a small step downwards in holiness from Good Friday, but I still didn’t expect the staid Staatsoper audience to make their Easter Parsifal into a circus of boos, incomprehensible yelling at inappropriate times, and no fewer than three cell phones in Act 1. Oh, throw in the usual clapping/aggressive shushing fiasco at the end of Act 1.

The actual performance was rather good. Ingo Metzmacher and Waltraud Meier are great news for Wagner, the orchestra was in solid form, and the cast had a few other standouts as well. Christine Mielitz’s production is a mess, but occasionally an interesting one. Too bad about the sideshow.

Wagner, Parsifal. Wiener Staatsoper, 4/24/2011. Production by Christine Mielitz (revival), conducted by Ingo Metzmacher with Christopher Ventris (Parsifal), Waltraud Meier (Kundry), Franz-Josef Selig (Grunemanz), Falk Struckmann (Amfortas), Wolfgang Bankl (Klingsor), Ain Anger (Titurel).

This production was yet another of the Holender regime’s attempts at Regietheater, one of the less fortunate ones. Here, an underdeveloped dramatic idea meets iffy design and, now, poorly rehearsed revival performances. Like in her Fliegende Holländer, which was also designed by Stefan Mayer, the set contains a confusing network of moving parts that seem far more fussy than helpful.

Mielitz’s greatest interest is gender issues. Act 1 appears to take place in some kind of school or mental institution, with students in fencing uniforms doing drills and Parsifal intruding in modern street clothes. Kundry appears robed entirely in black and is harassed and threatened by the knights. Parsifal comes from outside the knight’s insulated masculine world. In the production’s smartest bit of staging, we see the climax of the Act 1 Grail ritual from his point of view. He stands outside the main proscenium, lights point out at us in the auditorium, and the circle of knights slowly rises into darkness, revealing a crowd of women and children robed like Kundry, a literal underclass in the cellar below the knights. We, like them and Parsifal, are not initiates and cannot see or understand the ritual. But the women and children still sing, forced to go along.

Klingsor is a scheming schemer whose sleek modern lair, gold lamé suit, and large video screen suggest nothing so much as a James Bond villain (or, for the less mature among us, Dr. Evil). He drugs Kundry in some way, and also has his herd of red-dressed flower maiden slaves. Mielitz seems to be poking cheap fun at the languid quality of their music when a giant disco ball descends and spins for a bit, casting light around the auditorium suggesting that we are also being seduced. Or something. The spear is a bright neon rod that looks like it’s straight out of an Achim Freyer production.

In Act 3, we see an empty stage with a few projections (did they run out of money?) and are again enlightened or implicated by the shining of blinding light into our eyes. Parsifal’s Mitleid seems to consist of bringing Kundry-acquired feminine wisdom to the knights. Kundry gets to hang out with Amfortas, and Parsifal exposes the artifice of the knight’s ceremony as the set collapses and lighting fixtures and set supports become visible. Finally, the knights are revealed weaponless, Kundry rises angelically upwards, either saved or just blowing the joint, and the golden box that was implied to be holding the Grail falls to the ground, no longer needed.

Unfortunately, despite some scattered interesting bits the production lacks an overarching narrative and dramatic focus. Where are the knights in Act 1 and what does it have to do with Klingsor’s place in Act 3? If women are wise, what is the deal with wound? This is an impossible opera, but too much is just left unexplored. It is badly cluttered with action that seems to have little to do with anything (I have left a lot out in the above summary that didn’t seem to fit in thematically), and I really wish it had just been better. Blocking and technical direction were not the most polished.

The musical performance, however, was the best Wagner I’ve heard in Vienna this season with the exception of the season-opening Tannhäuser. Ingo Metzmacher led with transparent textures, monumentality when needed, and little sense of urgency despite fairly brisk tempos (I timed: Act 1 in 1:42; Act 2 1:04, Act 3 in 1:15 for a total of 4:01, closer to Boulez’s 3:39 than Toscanini’s 4:48). Details, coordination, and pacing were excellent and balances solid, which is something considering that I heard Metzmacher got all of two rehearsals with the orchestra (more than some productions get). I could have used with a little more stillness in Act 3, but the clarity was excellent. Why he was loudly booed by about three people on his entrance at the beginnings of Act 2, 3 and at the end completely mystifies me. It was good and uncontroversial work. Is there something I’m missing here?*

The singing was a somewhat mixed lot, but on the strong side. Waltraud Meier’s intensity and dramatic precision are captivating. She is vocally still very impressive and her attention to the text never flags. Somehow her Kundry is the same driven, compulsive woman in all three acts, despite the enormous differences in the drama. No one groans at the opening of Act 3 like she does. However, I did not find this performance to be as astonishingly demented as the last time I saw her as Kundry (in New York in 2007). In Act Two she seemed to find Parsifal a relatively easy lay.

Taking musical honors was Franz-Josef Selig’s Gurnemanz, in a vocally warm and dramatically perceptive performance. Christopher Ventris was a stronger Parsifal than he was a Siegmund. If only the clear, shining power he mustered at some points had been more consistently deployed. He had an unfortunate knack for coming up short at the biggest dramatic moments (both “Nur eine Waffe taugt” and “Amfortas! Die Wunde!” started off underpowered), and didn’t quite, um, redeem himself by singing well elsewhere. Acting was OK but unremarkable. Falk Struckmann also lacks a certain amount of vocal smoothness, but Amfortas doesn’t really require that too much of that, and his anguish was suitably emphatic and vividly expressive. Wolfgang Bankl, however, sounded sung out as Klingsor.

The supporting players were an unusually uneven lot. The flower maidens were disappointingly shrill and harsh, and the nasal Mime voice of Herwig Peccoraro stuck out among the Knappen in a very bad way. The male chorus sounded fantastically good, but the children were unforgivably squeaky and the women a bit uneven.

For Noises Off! Staaatsoper rep, though, not bad. Not bad at all.

*After the applause and boos died down at the start of Act 3, there was also some indistinct yelling from the orchestra section, the only words of which I caught were “raus” (out) and “Staatsoper.” I suspect this had to do with the production, which is extraordinarily unpopular. But such hollering is both rude and unusual. There was something at the end of Act 1 as well. Really, it was a weird spectacle.

Update: Apparently the end of Act 1 it was something about the clapping rule, and at the start of Act 2 it was Nazis who are to be evicted from the Staaatsoper. I should have known that audiences are far more interested in their own reactions than seeing what was happening onstage. Congrats, Staatsoper Publikum, you just Godwined yourselves.

There were also a good number of tourists in the standing room. In Act 1, at least. Very few made it through to the end. They should put a warning label on the standing room for this one.

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper

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  1. Zerb,

    "but I still didn’t expect the staid Staatsoper audience to make their Easter Parsifal into a circus of boos, incomprehensible yelling at inappropriate times, and no fewer than three cell phones in Act 1. Oh, throw in the usual clapping/aggressive shushing fiasco at the end of Act One"

    Out of curiosity:

    What was the average age of the audience at this performance would you say?

  2. I also attended this Easter Sunday-Performance and just to inform you about my understanding of the tumult: the boos were just against Metzmacher. Some people didn't like his conducting at all, but they had nothing to do with the staging (which is well known for years by the vienna audience).
    The "Nazi"-Calls concerned a different matter: they came from a person who clapped after the first act and were directed to those, who insulted him for clapping against the commandment of silence. He called: "this (he meant: the intolerant behaviour) led to the Nazis"…
    The repeated boos before the second and the third act were once more against the conductor. But then they were answered by the call "get out of the Staatsoper" (which was directed to the boo-fraction … but on the other hand the booers screamed: "Metzmacher – out of the Staatsoper"… and so on. A little audience-fight took place.
    Funny, I thing, and VERY austrian!
    And my impression of the age of the audience: It was NOT specially old, but very well mixed!
    My impression of the performance: musically overwhelming! Scenically very interesting. I think, Mielitz doesn't care much about gender-questions, but about the burdon of the holy heritage in general: is it just an oppression (as it is for Amfortas and his knights) or could it really be a rescue and liberation (as it is for Kundry and Parsifal)? And what kind of liberation then – a liberation from holiness to always unholy humanity? Things are reversed…

  3. Thanks for the helpful clarification. I was standing well behind all the yellers and couldn't quite figure out what was going on. I really don't understand what about Metzmacher they found so offensive. It wasn't eccentric or unusual conducting, maybe a little more logical and straightforward than misty and dreamy, but not exactly Gatti or Haenchen in extremeness. And there was more going on interpretively than a lot of the conducting we get at the Staatsoper. Any idea?

    The production thing was just a guess because multiple standing room line people have lectured me in how much everyone hates it. I do think it was supposed to be about gender, though I admittedly have a tendency to think that about everything. The treatment of the women in Act 1 made me think this in particular, and I have read some of what Mielitz has said about it and she saw it as an attempt at a feminist Parsifal. I don't think it really succeeds on that count, but I can see what she's going for at some points.

  4. I also couldn't (and still can't) understand the Metzmacher-opponents. I think it must have to do with complete other things that have happened before… not with this "Parsifal", that really gave no reason for protest. But I do not yet know exactly what it is –

  5. This performance sounds much more interesting than the one I attended! Certainly more decorum on Thursday, no Buhrufe for Metzmacher and applause was held dutifully after Act I (I was surprised how fastidiously this was observed). It's a really tiresome Wagner dispute and one I don't particularly want to wade in to, but re. the Act I no clapping rule there does seem to be something disturbingly wrong – trying very hard not to run afoul of Godwin here – about the hostility with which the 'cognoscenti' shush those who are either ignorant or dissent (I should add I'm indifferent to the rule in this instance). With the idiots who hush the clappers in Chaik 6 I detect superiority and self-righteousness, and in a sense it's all zu menschlich, but with Parsifal it can get really ugly, sometimes in a way that strikes me as a little sinister (all zu menschlich in a quite different sense).

    Metzmacher didn't deserve boos, but I wasn't impressed. It was competent and certainly in no way bad, and I know it's rare to get even that at the Staats, but neither the conducting or playing were particularly memorable for me. Ditto for Meier – she was very good, but the intensity and precision you mentioned just wasn't as unflagging as I expected it would be (jet lag?). Must agree about those primal groans though. Surprised you liked Selig – again, I thought he was OK, but nothing special.

    I whinged enough about Mielitz in the Fliegende Holländer comments and just can't be bothered this time. Suffice to say I don't see much depth in her work, and too often find it either unfocused or evasive.

    PS Just saw your comment above, doubt that the Viennese would know or indeed care about Metzmacher and Pfitzner (which I don't find much of an infraction anyway). Thielemann has never had any problems here as far as I'm aware, and Godwin be damned, I think it's fairly transparent which side he would have been on.

  6. I think I still see the applause Verbot more as another manifestation of reactionary conservatism than anything else. I mean, more or less of the school of the person I heard complaining after Anna Bolena that the costumes really shouldn't have been blue because that's a French color. Look how much I know and how sacred I hold the music! Combined with this weird booing, however, it does become more sinister. Wagner fans can be scary.

    My reaction about the Pfitzner business was also that it was unlikely Vienna would know or care about that (Metzmacher is a ridiculous target for such, and besides Wagner fanatics aren't known for their stringent Pfitzner hatred), but it was only a few people causing all the trouble, so I suppose it's a possibility.

  7. I saw Parsifal on 24 April and again on 27 April. The boos were definitely directed, unjustifiably, at Ingo Metzmacher. But, notwithstanding, the performance on 27 April was MUCH better. Maybe Ingo took some of the criticism to heart. On 27 April I sat in the third row left, watching all Ingo's facial expressions. It was amazing. At one point in the third act there was a squeek from the clarinets, and he made the ugliest face I've ever seen from a conductor. Unforgettable.