Parsifal in Bayreuth

That this production is the last performance I will be writing about in this European year is more or less accidental–I saw Die Frau ohne Schatten afterward but was obliged to file quickly on that one–but it is fitting, because I’m not sure if anything could top this.

Wagner, Parsifal. Bayreuther Festspiele, 7/28/2011. Production by Stefan Herheim (revival), conducted by Daniele Gatti with Simon O’Neill (Parsifal), Susan Maclean (Kundry), Kwangchul Youn (Gurnemanz), Detlef Roth (Amfortas), Thomas Jesatko (Klingsor)

The current Parsifal in Bayreuth, directed by Stefan Herheim and conducted by Daniele Gatti, premiered in 2008 and has since become the festival’s most acclaimed production (and one of its tougher tickets). Parsifal in Bayrueth has a special meaning like few other musical works–the theater and the opera were designed for each other and for decades this theater was the only place the Bühnenweihfestspiel could be seen. Herheim’s production is geared towards Bayreuth, too. Along with telling the story of Parsifal, Herheim traces the history of the opera’s reception and its place in Bayreuth in particular, including the issues that confront the festival today (this is a festival that considers its legacy sufficiently important that a brief production history is printed not in the program book but the paper casting pamphlet). Additionally, the production’s complexity enables the many Bayreuth regulars to see something new each year.

It’s a beautiful production of many striking and haunting images and seamless stagecraft. As in other Herheim productions, we shift cinematically through time and space (so to speak). There is no ready key to the profusion of images and narrative; their well of associations and interconnections, keyed more to the music than the libretto, multiplies and gradually comes into focus. And everything moves with the music in a natural, truly Gesamtkunstwerk way. It’s difficult to summarize or describe, because described literally the production would sound chaotic and scattered. And it is. It’s in your head where everything comes together. Not instantly, either–I felt quite confused up to Act 3, but then everything that came before somehow began to make sense, and in the next few days it was still changing shape. I guess I’m saying that summarizing what happened onstage in my usual fashion is very different from describing my experience.

But the thematic material itself does demand description, because it’s fascinating and brilliant. There are several plot threads. Simultaneously, we watch the story of Parsifal, sometimes seen quite literally, along with the reception history of Parsifal the work in the context of the Bayreuth Festival (from its premiere to sometime in the 1950s), and the path of German history itself from Bavaria’s entrance into the unified Germany through both world wars. All go through interconnected journeys of discovery, seduction, maturation and an ambiguous kind of redemption (or more accurately Erlösung). Parsifal and Parisfal grow through history.

The main set replicates the backyard of Wagner’s Bayreuth house Wahnfried. The prompter’s box is transformed into Wagner and Cosima’s grave, the center of the stage is taken up by a (functional) fountain, the house is in the back. Here is the set (the bed, site of birth, death, sleep and seduction, is where the fountain will appear) and below a picture I took myself of the house:

In the staged Vorspiel, we see Parsifal’s mother Herzeleide in a bed in the center of the stage. This red-haired woman resembles the militant figure of Germania in the painting hanging above the fireplace (where the mirror is in the picture above), Friedrich-August von Kaulbach’s “Deutschland–1914.”:

This gives you an idea of the kind of cultural references that go through this whole production. The women are all variations on the Germania figure, with Herzeleide and Kundry (considering their relationships to Parsifal, rather disturbingly) morphing into each other. In the prelude, Parsifal builds a small wall on Wagner’s grave. This is the theme that will dominate Act 1: repression and shelter. Parsifal is sheltered by Herzeleide, Parsifal is sheltered in Bayreuth by Cosima. There is even an allusion to the work’s anti-Semitic elements when Kundry in the form of a maid threatens to steal Herzeleide’s baby. (That’s in the transformation scene, in which we see Parsifal born. I’m sorry. I warned you that this summary would probably not make any sense. And I feel kind of dishonest writing this because it’s only the tip of the iceberg.)

At the end of Act 1, the boy Parsifal wakes in his bed and his guardian Gurnemanz and asks if he understands (at this point I would have agreed with him: no). Was this all a dream? The dreamlike quality is further emphasized by the giant black wings worn by most of the characters (but not the Christ-like Amfortas, who also carries echos of Wagner’s insane patron Ludwig II). They also prefigure the swan and (German) eagle that will dominate the work. The adult Parsifal shoots the boy Parsifal with his bow (a [Bavarian] swan crest simultaneously falls from the proscenium), ending his childhood and beginning his journey into the world. The Grail temple is a replica of the one from the opera’s premiere (see photo at top of this post), the dead boy Parsifal, symbol of sheltered, traumatized innocence, momentarily plays the part of the Grail. The knights are a collection of ordinary people, both men and women.

In Act 2, Germany and Parsifal have gone out into the world, and started a jolly tragic war. The scene is a World War 1 hospital (one also thinks of The Magic Mountain or of Freud), and Klingsor is a cabaret transvestite, an outcast of a decidedly fin-de-siècle/Weimar sort. The flower maidens are both nurses to comfort the dying war victims and a succession of showgirls. Parsifal is seduced by them and finally by a Marlene Dietrich-like tuxedo’ed Kundry, who envelops him in her wings. Then comes the biggest coup de théâtre of the production. Amid a crowd of suitcase-carrying refugees, Parsifal realizes he must purify the world and heal Amfortas, and enormous swastika flags unfurl and the hospital/castle collapses around him in a giant crash. A boy (the young Parsifal again?) appears in a brown uniform, surrounded by SS officers and bearing Amortas’s spear (the Nazi’s Wunderwaffe?). Parsifal points the spear at Wagner’s grave.

Act 3 opens with my favorite theater-in-theater effect, showing a miniature version of the Festspielhaus proscenium behind the main one (above). But this is a wonderful use of this device, because this is a deconstructive staging, and the history of Parsifal is bound up with the history of this theater itself. Wahnfried has now collapsed, the Wagner regime, German nation and Grail order are in ruins. Parsifal arrives in a heavy medieval outfit like a refugee from a traditional production, but is transformed into a red-haired Germania figure identical to Kundry. The staging, which up to this point had been tremendously busy, suddenly is almost drained of all activity. The work has stopped signifying anything outside itself; we seem to be inside a giant Wieland Wagner tribute scene. With the return of the spear, the Wahnfried fountain begins to bubble, an attempt to wash away the past. Parsifal, Kundry, and Gurnemanz sing This is finished off with another tribute: the Wirtschaftswunder in the form of a procession of workers in front of the stage (a reference to Götz Friedrich’s 1972 Bayreuth Tannhäuser).

As we move to the last scene, in a nod towards Syberberg’s Parsifal film, Titurel’s motive prompts a giant projection of Wagner’s death mask. He is still haunting the festival, but it, like the boy Parsifal in the prelude, is soon blocked by a wall. And we see a 1951 proclamation from then-Festspiel leaders Wolfgang and Wieland Wagner, requesting that audience members refrain from political discussion in the Festspielhaus. But politics, obviously, remain. In the last scene, we are in the West German Bonn Bundestag. The wings are gone by now, but the giant mirror reflects the West German eagle in the floor. Amfortas speaks at a podium where the Grail once stood. But Parsifal’s arrival is ambiguous. The giant reflected eagle, first turning red, is washed of its blood by the appearance of the grail, as water from the fountain washes over it and is seen in the reflection. But, the mirror finally shows the audience and, rather shockingly, the normally concealed conductor and orchestra. The magic veil of the temple of Bayreuth has been lifted. This isn’t a mythic, holy object, it’s something we create and participate in, and also have the power to renew. Or is it just something that we’ve made, our own neuroses?

Musically, the highlight was as expected the Klang of the orchestra, beautifully played and clear and balanced, and never overpowering the singers despite being by any measure pretty loud. Daniele Gatti took slow tempos judging by numbers (around 4 hours 10 minutes, I think Metzmacher in Vienna back in April was around 3:45), but it never felt slow. This was in part because there was so much going on onstage, but the pacing was excellent and variety in color and phrasing fantastic.

The cast was, for the most part, good. Simon O’Neill (above) as Parsifal was the weakest link. He has a fine upper range, with powerful and clear high notes, but his lower range has an unfortunate tinny and nasal tinge, and his singing was neither very musical nor idiomatic in its treatment of the text. His acting did not detract from the production but nor did it help–yes, Parsifal is largely a passive character, so this was OK, but it was not ideal. Susan Maclean’s Kundry was not beautifully sung either, but this is Kundry we’re talking about. It isn’t bel canto, it’s more important that she have scary intensity and shriek well, and for that Maclean was great, with spontaneous and clear singing and hair-raising moments of Crazy. Her Marlene Dietrich impression is really very good, so it seemed a shame she almost seemed to adopt a Dietrich tinge to her voice at that point as well.

While O’Neill and Maclean were new this year, the rest of the main cast remained from the premiere. Kwangchul Youn was a resonant and warm-toned Gurnemanz, but lacked something in gravitas and personality. Detlef Roth has a small voice for Amfortas, but in the favorable Bayreuth acoustic could still be heard, and offered a wonderful singer-actor type integrated performance with extremely physical acting. Thomas Jesatko was a Klingsor also more memorable for acting than singing, but likewise excellent. The chorus, flower maidens, and acting of the supernumeraries (particularly the unnamed Act 1 boy) were all great.

Herheim’s Yevgeny Onegin in Amsterdam
Katharina Wagner’s Meistersinger in Bayreuth
Nikolaus Lehnhoff’sParsifal in London
Christine Mielitz’sParsifal in Vienna

Despite the above being mostly about Herheim’s vision, this is a great production because it is such a Gesamtkunstwerk, a model not of artistic megalomania but of collaboration. And how wonderful to see everyone working together to create something so intellectually challenging, beautiful, and unique!

Per-Erik Skramstad at has a good essay about this production with a compilation of reviews from the premiere year.

The best way to get a taste of this production without going to Bayreuth is in these videos, first a longish story from German TV and then two short intros from dramaturg Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach. They’re only in German, sorry:

Photos copyright Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuther Festspiele (some from previous years)

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  1. Thanks, Radmila, that's what I was trying to do! I read a lot about this production before I saw it and I felt like the experience was very different from what I expected (because, I think, the fragmented and open-ended nature of the production makes everyone construct it very differently), and since few people get to see it I wanted to try to recreate what I saw, even if my impressions are necessarily subjective.

    It's a crime that there's no DVD of this production. That it is so inaccessible and sheltered seems ironically contrary to its own message.

  2. This is one of the best opera reviews I've ever read. I just saw my first Parsifal in Stockholm, which was life-changing. The themes of that opera are so bulky and easily obscured, even though they're accompanied by such majestic music; adding additional layers for interpretation (such as this production does) requires much contemplation and engagement, from the theater as well as from the audience. It was something of a revelation to walk though it with your review. Many thanks!