Parsifal and religion: a conversation

I went to the final performance of Parsifal at the Met last Friday night,
in the company of an old friend and great Wagnerian who also happens to
be a religious studies and South Asian scholar. Since religion is a part
of the production that I didn’t mention at all in my earlier review, I chatted
with him about it a bit.

Since we don’t talk about the musical side of things: Asher Fisch conducted this performance instead of Daniele Gatti. I found him perfectly fine but not as compelling. I think he was obliged to more or less follow Gatti’s tempos (the performance was a mere five minutes shorter), and I don’t think that conducting at Daniele Gatti’s tempos is advisable for anyone who is not Daniele Gatti (and, in some cases, perhaps not even then). I was actually more conscious of the slowness this time around, since he didn’t find the same amount of detail and shape inside those very drawn-out phrases. The Flower Maidens’ scene, however, was noticeably less hard-driven than it was under Gatti.

Now for the conversation. You may remember “Pelléas” from our earlier post on Die Walküre.

Pelléas: Let’s talk about balance. Because that’s what I think the big theme of the production is. The balance of men and women is the most obvious way that the theme is expressed, but it’s much larger than that.  We can think of balance between humanity and the natural world, but also a proper balance in the religious sphere that the protagonists of this opera operate in.

Zerbinetta: I agree that’s the theme but I want to hear more. Because honestly I hoped that I would see the production differently this time but I really didn’t. This may be due to the thought processes required to write my review of it, organizing your thoughts like that kind of fixes them in place.

Pelléas: Basically we’re in this post-apocalyptic world and the knights (men) have no idea how to deal with it, so they retreat into their own world. But they don’t just separate from the women, they also practice this strange version of Christianity that is wholly centered on the Eucharist, which they also pervert. But they forget everything else that is part of Christianity. The Eucharist is but one sacrament, sexual asceticism is but one lifestyle, men are but one gender. The production seems to be saying that the knights have gone down this greatly restricted path (and in so doing they’ve also forgotten even what they deem most important) but that they must more fully embrace the world, even the aspects that they may find to be sinful.  One image that perfectly represents this balance is Christ being pierced on the cross.  Both blood and water flow from the wound, the two central symbols of the production.  Now the piercing can seem like the most sadistic, vindictive act of violence, yet it also leads to the conversion of Longinus and is therefore celebrated.

Zerbinetta: Who is Longinus?

Pelléas: The Roman soldier who pierced Christ’s side on the cross. With the spear that is central to the opera.  The blood from the wound represents the Eucharist, whereas the water symbolizes baptism (I’m not reading anything into that; it’s standard Christian symbolic interpretation of the image).  In this production the blood is associated with the men, whereas water, and therefore baptism, is associated with women.

Zerbinetta: Which is why there isn’t very much of it. I thought the production could have done a better job telling us what Kundry’s deal was, too. Anyway, go on.

Pelléas: The dried-up river bed separating the men from the women represents this lack of balance.  Yet there’s memory of water flowing through the river (when Gunermez first goes to the bed the river briefly flows with water).  But the water will only actually flow through the river when Parsifal baptizes Kundry in Act III, beginning the process of joining men and women, eucharist and baptism, asceticism and sensuality back together. But the majority of the time the river only flows with blood if it flows with anything.

Zerbinetta: Remember, the riverbed is also the wound!
Pelléas: Yes. But in the knight’s lack of balance they only are concerned with the Eucharistic aspects of Christianity: the blood. If they participated in the balance of Christ then Amfortas’ wound would pour forth with both water and blood, but instead it is only blood, and it never heals. The choreography of the Eucharistic scene makes it clear that the knights remember some aspect of the ritual, but they don’t really know it. Their hand gestures mix Christian aspects of prayer with vague new-agey Eastern motifs. Additionally, the way they participate in the feast has this strange melding of the Kiss of Peace, with the men dipping their fingers into the grail, touching their mouths, and then bringing their fingers to the mouths of other brothers. But while the knights are busy pressing their fingers to each others lips the women are miming a more traditional Eucharist, lifting an imagined chalice to their lips. They remember the proper aspects of this ritual.

Zerbinetta: I got that it was a new Eucharist but I sort of assumed that was because the production wanted it to be abstract and not built on specific Christian doctrine.

Pelléas: I saw too much literal, traditional Christian symbolism to think that the director was trying to distance himself from Christianity.

Zerbinetta: But the wound isn’t a natural condition, it’s the cause of their problems! It’s because Amfortas was enchanted by Klingsor and gave in to Evil Woman.

Pelléas: Amfortas was enchanted by Klingsor to give in to his version of Evil Woman. The flower maidens don’t represent real femininity. They represent the overly sexualized, virginal fantasy of men.  (Come on, white dresses [more like night gowns] gradually bloodied by dancing around in the pools of blood; you can’t represent an imagined or fantasized deflowering any more literally than that!)  They’re under Klingsor’s control. It’s because of this idea of women that the knights separate themselves from other women, but the only place that this fantasy actually exists is in Klingsor’s domain. The actual women are normally sexualized (they leave on their high heel shoes whereas the men take off their dress shoes) but they aren’t hyper sexualized.

Zerbinetta: So my next question is, I guess, what prompts Parsifal’s turn towards Mitleid? And why does he have to wander however many decades between Acts 2 and 3? Did not really come up with an answer to this myself. 

Pelléas: Water represents the form of balance that the knights lack. It is the water that comes from Christ’s side, the water of baptism, to complement the blood. There are projections of rippling water throughout Kundry’s seduction of Parsifal in Act II. It starts out rather small and subtle and then builds in intensity. The fact that her seduction is NOT sexy is important I think, it’s enough to be believable, but not as over the top as the flower maidens. Her costume as both flower maiden (in Act II) and normal woman (in Act I) represents her ability to be a bridge between the unbridled sexuality of the flower maidens and the unrealized sexuality of the normal women. When she kisses Parsifal the water images begin to be broadcast around him. They’ve never been projected for him before.

He’s been exposed to the proper balance of sexuality, but he’s so startled that he can’t accept it yet.  So he wanders. But then in Act III he has finally come to accept it. He’s able to embrace water for himself, most importantly in his baptism of Kundry which brings water to the stream again.  Only after he baptizes Kundry can he step into the women’s realm. Although he and Kundry have been the two characters who have been able to really approach the border and pass things across it, no one has actually crossed that border until this point.  (As a total aside, for a wonderful book on the many valences of water as a female symbol, especially for female sexuality, that is both celebrated and denigrated in the Christian tradition, check out Catherine Keller’s Face of the Deep.)

Zerbinetta: I did notice that was when he crossed the river! That’s also a key point in the musical development–the pure fool diminished seventh that represents Parsifal is heard with the grail rhythm underneath it for the first time–so I really appreciated the timing.

Pelléas: Well, I can’t comment on that bit of music theory 😉

Zerbinetta: In general this was not the most Leitmotiv-conscious production but they did get that one perfectly. You said that balance is the most important thing, but I think of this as a more Buddhist concept than a Christian one. In a similar category, there’s the Schopenhauerian negation of the Will which you haven’t really mentioned but still seems to me to be very important element of the work, though perhaps not of Girard’s interpretation of it. (Also in the Eastern category, there is a LOT of obvious yoga in Act 3.) But the symbols you are discussing here are all very specifically Christian. What do you think of this mixture?

Pelléas: It strikes me very much as a 19th century orientalist looking at Buddhism or The East.  A lot of philosophers at the time viewed India as this pristine, primeval abode of uncorrupted man.  None of this really had much to do with India, but with projections of what these Westerners wanted their present, future, or past to be.  I think it’s appropriate to have all of the symbolism be Christian in this context, because it’s honest about what Wagner and a lot of other philosophers were doing with India at the time; the philological study was excellent but the philosophical understanding was a mess.  So we’re getting at this concept of balance, but balance such a vague idea that it could be Western, it could be Eastern, it could show up anywhere.  The wound in Christ’s side is just as good a metaphor of balance as Buddhist equanimity or Vedantic absorption of the Self into the Ātman.  But even if we’re using Eastern ideas to get there our aims are fully grounded in Western sensibilities and desires, in this case to realize an authentic, historical, dogmatic, balanced Christianity. 

The moment when Parsifal tells the women to intersperse with the men he comes closest to giving an authentic sign of the cross as he does in the entire production (and blesses not only those on stage, but the audience too). So even in this cathartic moment Girard is opting for something akin to Christian orthodoxy. 

Zerbinetta: On a more basic note, do you have any comment on the interplanetary projections? I wasn’t sure about them and some people in my comments section were as well.

Pelléas: I have no clue. It seemed rather lame to me. Definitely not symbolically interesting.

Zerbinetta: They didn’t bother me too much one way or another. OverallI I thought the production was very clean and elegant and modern. It might be a little too minimalist for its own good, though.

Pelléas: I still have questions about the production. It seems that the men are the ones who are reacting baldy to the ecological disaster. They separate from the women. They become ascetics while convinced that women are hypersexualized (when they aren’t), they misremember the Eucharist (whereas the women remember it but can’t perform it), they forget baptism. Yet why are the women basically passive the entire time? Why do they wait calmly for Kundry to seduce Parsifal and then have Parsifal convince the men of their folly? Why aren’t they more active in trying to restore the balance that the production says that they hold the key to?

Zerbinetta: Yeah, that is a problem. I am tempted to say “because Wagner didn’t write them in the score, and Wagner’s music is so gestural that it’s pretty hard to add that much” but then you look at Herheim’s Parsifal and, like, NO. You could. That’s what the ladies in Act 1 and Act 2 have in common, passivity, and it’s why I didn’t really think that there was an existential difference between the two (as in one group was real and the other was enchanted or projections of Amfortas’s or Klingsor’s desires).

Pelléas: Well, the lades in Act I are simply passive, but not under anyone’s control. The flower maidens are definitely in control of Klingsor. The way they all writhe in unison is like a creepy anime film. Whereas in the prelude I believe the men separate from the women, but it’s only when the men depart that the women move to coalesce into their own group. They passively accept their rejection, but aren’t actively controlled by anyone.

Zerbinetta: Also it occurs to me that, intellectually, this production is very French. Is it OK to say that? I mean, it gives you these big ideas that are kind of vague but immensely evocative, it’s like reading Zizek or something. (I am aware that Zizek isn’t French. And that Girard isn’t either.) You like it and it’s kind of inspiring but at least for me you try to really process its meaning and it ends up like mist, or, well, Wagnerdampf. I can’t help it, I’m intellectually Germanic, I want everything to be logical and add up.

Pelléas: I feel that it’s important to try to point out the deep symbolic nature of the production. Because when you approach it in that respect it’s all actually quite coherent and logically argued. It’s quite ingenious actually, because so much of this symbology is in the libretto itself, so Girard isn’t upsetting the traditionalists.  But he supplements it in subtle ways and makes it much more intellectually compelling than they would be otherwise.

Zerbinetta: Well, I like your reading, but it’s relatively narrow. While I find it overall more convincing, ingenious, and detailed than Opera Cake’s, I’m not sure about treating these things like puzzles, and this one in particular seems almost actively resistant to specific interpretation. Kind of like Parsifal itself, I guess. You used to have to haul out to Bayreuth just to see it. It does a lot to present itself as a mystic, precious artifact that is full of meaning–but just try explaining exactly what all of that meaning is!

At the same time this production leaves open so many ways of thinking about it, and I think most of them are on the whole progressive and positive. There are poisonous, dangerous messages in most traditional readings of this piece (arguably the most Wagner-adjacent ones), whatever the beauties of the music, and this production seems to avoid those pretty much entirely. That’s important. To salvage a message like this out of it seems to be a significant achievement.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met

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Parsifal: the Met’s knights to remember

The most enthralling section of Met’s new production of Parsifal is a portion that, in most productions, is the most dreaded: the first two-thirds of Act 3. Too often it’s a bore, but here it’s hypnotic, sinking the audience deeply into the ritualistic and the very slow, from the music to the movements onstage. It is drama like this–grave and mysterious–that this production does best.

In many ways this performance was a big win for the Met. This is a musically outstanding Parsifal with great performances that balance the human and the mythic. There are many disturbing and sad things in it. The production is beautiful and has some striking visual moments. But these moments aren’t quite enough to make an interpretation, and I was left moved but with some big questions.

Wagner, Parsifal. Metropolitan Opera, 2/15/2012. New production premiere directed by François Girard, conducted by Daniele Gatti with Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal), René Pape (Gurnemanz), Katarina Dalayman (Kundry), Peter Mattei (Amfortas), Evgeny Nikitin (Klingsor)

The setting of François Girard’s production is quite abstract. Before the performance, an undulating reflection of the opera house’s lights on the curtain informs us that this is a story about us. The staged prelude shows a lineup of anonymous men and women. Only Parsifal stands out, smack in the middle but not participating. The men take off their jackets and ties and separate from the women. This is not very much to occur during the 14 or so minutes of prelude (bless you, Gatti), and it goes by, like the music, with ceremonial gravity.

The lights come up on a brown-orange desert wasteland bisected by a dried-up river (Michael Levine is the set designer). On the cyc, projections show, for now, a serious of scary storm-is-a-comin’ clouds. These evolve later into a series of planets, vague plumes of smoke, and what looks like extreme closeups of naked skin (the Met should hire the designer, Peter Flaherty, to do a makeover on the Lepage Screensavers). The men form a single tight circle on the right, the women loiter on the other side of the river on the left. All the male knight characters emerge from this circle; Kundry never crosses the river.

(actually Act 3)

The stage pictures are fairly static but the acting gives the characters real humanity and vulnerability–Amfortas is dragged around by two knights, unable to stand alone, and Parsifal collapses when he hears of his mother’s death (whether Parsifal should have as much Mitleid for the swan and Act 1 Amfortas as he shows… well, I’m not as sure about that). But there’s also a ritual quality to the knights’ choreographed prayer movements and occasional simultaneous reactions, preserving (along with the abstraction of the setting) a sense of mystery. This combination is the best thing about the production. Other things are quite traditional: Kundry is given a conventional crazy lady interpretation, and the grail is a glowing golden goblet in a box. The swan is a swan, though also a symbol of femininity, brought on by a Flower Maiden and kept only on the women’s side of the stage.

At the end of the act, the dried-up river opens up into a chasm and Parsifal looks down into it. In Act 2, we’re down there, and it’s Klingsor’s lair, and it’s also Amfortas’s wound, which we get because of the enormous pool of blood covering most of the stage (the looming walls with a gap upstage center it also look like a giant vagina–somehow Act 2 of Parsifal is the locus classicus of vaginal set design). While the first act mixed the aesthetic with the symbolic, here the aesthetic takes over nearly completely. Klingsor is a bloody version of the knights, the flower maidens a mixture of dancers and singers with knee-length black hair and white dresses and their own spears (the very effective choreography is by Carolyn Choa). Everyone splashes around in the blood, Kundry attempts to seduce Parsifal (none too sexily here, it comes across as maternal if anything) on a conveniently appearing bed that also starts seeping blood, and finally Parsifal claims the spear with a gesture that I couldn’t quite identify and a straightforward grab from Klingsor.

Act 3 returns to the wasteland, this time pocked with waiting graves for the dying knights. Parsifal reappears, first as a decrepit, unidentifiable (meaning that he is wearing a cloak over his face, in lieu of armor) pilgrim, walking only with the assistance of the spear, then gradually turning into a (shirtless) ecstatic mystic. He also, after baptizing Kundry, crosses the magic river onto the women’s side, and gets the white shirt that marks him as a Grail knight. The return to the Grail Temple reveals knights who can no longer stand together in a circle (or apparently notice the male-female divide). Amfortas ends up in Titurel’s grave, when Kundry (!) finally appears with the Grail box. Then Parsifal shows up, indicates to the women to intersperse themselves with the men, restores the Grail’s power by sticking the spear into it. He lifts up the grail, Kundry collapses lifeless (Wagner says “entseelt”–her soul has finally departed), and all are blessed. (No dove.*)

So it is in many ways a very moving production, with Peter Mattei’s agonized Amfortas and Jonas Kaufmann’s messianic Parsifal taking acting honors. Some of it feels familiar from Syberberg and Lehnhoff (particularly the post-apocalyptic atmosphere), but that’s OK. It is, for the most part, enthralling to watch. But I have to say I have grave doubts as to the Meaning of it All. I think preserving a sense of mystery and wonder is crucial to Parsifal’s appeal. But this production does make several big gestures towards having a vision of the drama’s allegorical meaning, too. They aren’t plentiful, as a maximalist who has watched the Herheim Parsifal too many times I find it intellectually quite sparse. Since it doesn’t venture too much, I’m not inclined to cut the production a lot of slack for things that don’t make sense, and I think it has some big issues.

The production’s thesis seems to be that the world–as exemplified by Monsalvat– is out of joint, the men and women separated and the knights closed into themselves. By making them mix it up and giving Kundry a role in the Grail ceremony, Parsifal restores balance. But by choosing gender as the signifier of spiritual imbalance, Girard makes things very hard for himself. The production ignores the really crucial and pernicious portrayal of women in Act 2. Inside the wound or not, they’re still women. (It’s a too infrequently noted hypocrisy of Parsifal that the opera argues that women are the source for the evil from which the knights have to be purified, and yet indulges the work’s audience in a prolonged scene of women singing together and besieging the male hero. Lord, make me chaste, but let me spend a long weekend at the Venusburg first.)

Girard’s idea of the women’s exclusion from society as the source of the knights’ problems really appeals to me. But I’m afraid that if you stage Act 2 as a conventional male gaze sensual extravaganza, which he does, it doesn’t really convince. Parsifal is a confusing work, sure, but it has some central themes that are pretty clear: the knights have been tainted by sensual temptation. Redemption can only come from a pure fool (Parsifal), who first needs to learn compassion. He becomes a sexual ascetic after refusing Kundry’s seduction. So Girard’s idea of inverting this demands some serious intervention in the portrayal of seduction as the source of the knight’s problems as well as Parsifal’s awakening to asceticism, something that he does not do.

The production is largely, sorry, redeemed by the strength and humanity of its performances, and the music. Conductor Daniele Gatti gave a lyrical, mournful rendition of the score, with very slow tempos (a bit faster than his even slower Bayreuth ones). Gurnemanz’s Act 1 monologue, Amfortas’s Act 3 speech, and “Nur wine Waffe taugt” were particularly extreme: the first static, the second spent, the third majestic. “Hier war das Tosen”–the first Flower Maiden section–was, on the other hand, hard-driven. Gatti impresses more through his subtlety than his brilliance, but this was a rendition with a great deal of dramatic gravity. The orchestra sounded better than they have in some time, with the exception of some unfortunate clams in the brass, including a very prominent one in the prelude.

The cast is probably one of the best you could assemble today. Jonas Kaufmann is a fantastic Act 3 Parsifal and an excellent Act 1 and 2 one. He sings and acts this score with remarkable subtlety and musicality, evolving from a bright-sounding and curious boy to an exhausted and finally triumphant mystic, the latter with remarkable stage presence and a darkened sound in which the years between Acts 2 and 3 were audible. He was audibly pacing himself, but sounded great at the biggest moments, most memorably the final section of “Amfortas! Die Wunde!” (you can see a video of the first part of this below). Peter Mattei is a highly unusual Amfortas. This role is usually barked and spat out, but he sings it with warmth and somewhat Italianate style, and acts it with enough agony that never became aimless flailing. He also can cope with Gatti’s extreme tempos, and make them meaningful. René Pape is a Gurnemanz of depth and honeyed tone, who makes those monologues go by as quickly as they could, and with rare authority and nobility.

Katarina Dalayman as Kundry had a rough Act 1, with a rather unruly dramatic soprano that didn’t always sound quite when it needed to. But lack of control isn’t always a bad thing in a Kundry (nor is trouble with high notes, and she had that as well), and she actually managed the lyrical moments in Act 2 very well, building up to the dramatic high points with excellent timing. It’s a shame that the production didn’t do more with her character. Evgeny Nikitin (he of the Bayreuth tattoo scandal) was a suitably nasty Klingsor. As Titurel, debutant Rúni Brattaberg sounded cavernous, but it’s hard to judge as I believe he was amplified from above. The Flower Maidens were a good group, and the minor knights were fine. The Voice from Above experienced some intonational issues.

It is well worth seeing, first and foremost for the music. The production provides an engrossing sensory experience that should be accessible for those not familiar with the opera, but more experienced Wagnerians may be somewhat troubled by the logical gaps and selectivity of the production. It remains, however, a big win for the Met.

More photos below the video. Parsifal continues through February and early March; the inevitable HD broadcast is on March 2.

*Wagner literalists: I want to see someone stage Amfortas’s vision exactly as he describes it in the libretto, with the letters in the air.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met. 


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A Parsifal Leitmotiv guide

they left out the Ni-Motiv.

The Met’s new production of Parsifal, premiering on February 15, is one of the most-anticipated events of the season in New York. (For me, at least. See also.) In my continuing quest to be useful, and as a sequel to my Ring Leitmotiv guide of last year, here is a guide to the motives and other recurring themes of Parsifal for your reference and appreciation. This one I did not make myself, it is from an old public domain piano-vocal edition of the score. Not all the terms and associations are really up with current thinking on this piece, but if you’re just getting started it should suit you fine. After the jump you can find it as an embedded PDF (which you can download here as well), with my translations of the German terms following.

This table lists the motives in approximate order of appearance. Since some motives appear only very briefly in Act 1 and are far more prominent in Act 2 (all the magic garden stuff), they might seem out of order, but they aren’t.

Note for newbies: Parsifal won’t appear on anyone’s Most Accessible Operas list, but if you have patience it rewards your efforts. It was my first Wagner opera, er, music drama, er, Bühnenweihfestspiel, which I don’t advise for others but it just… happened and I got into it eventually. Don’t expect it to necessarily be immediately appealing, though, you need to let it sink in. Though maybe you’re a Parsifal idiot savant, a Parsifal Parsifal. Who knows? (Also, you could try reading this book chapter, and I am recommending in part for its title, which is “Strange Love, or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Parsifal,” and also for the phrase, “a kind of Armageddon cocktail with large twists of Schopenhauer and Buddha,” but mostly because it is very clear, informative, and thought-provoking.)

Here is the key to all that archaic German, in painfully literal translation.

  1. Liebesmahlthema: theme of the love feast (i.e. Last Supper), Leidens-M.: motive of sorrow, Speer-M.: motive of the spear
  2. Grals-M: motive of the Grail
  3. Glaubenstheme: Theme of belief/faith (Umgestaltungen des Glaubensthema: transformations of the theme of belief/faith)
  4. M. der Schwermut: motive of melancholy
  5. Heilesbuße-M.: motive of the healing/salvation-giving kiss
  6. Amfortas-M.: Amfortas motive
  7. M. der Verheißung (Toren-M.): motive of promise (fool motive)
  8. Ritter-M.: rider/knight motive (Kundry)
  9. Kundry-M.: Kundry motive
  10. M. des Dienens: motive of servitude
  11. Waldesmelodie: forest melody
  12. Zauber-M.: motive of magic
  13. Leidens-M.: motive of sorrow (see theme of the love-feast)
  14. Speer-M.: motive of the spear (see theme of the love-feast)
  15. Charfreitags-M. (i.e. Karfreitag): motive of Good Friday
  16. Klingsor-M.: Klingsor motive
  17. Kose-M.: motive of caressing
  18. Mädchenklage: maidens’ plaint
  19. Minnebegehr-M.: motive of the desire for courtly love (sorry, not so translatable -ed.)
  20. Streit-M.: motive of conflict
  21. Schmeichel-M.: motive of flattery
  22. Schwan-M. (Lohengrin): swan motive (Lohengrin)
  23. Parsifal-M.: Parsifal motive
  24. Herzeleide-M.: Herzeleide motive (Parsifal’s mother -ed.)
  25. Gralsglocken-M.: motive of the grail bells
  26. Hingebungs-M.: motive of devotion
  27. Schmerzensweh-M.: motive of suffering (Herzeleide)
  28. M. des Sehnens: motive of yearning (Kundry)
  29. Verführungsfigur: figure of seduction
  30. M. der Öde: motive of desolation
  31. M. des Irrens: motive of deception
  32. Entsühnungsmelodie: melody of atonement
  33. Blumenauethema: theme of the field of flowers
  34. Segesspruch: indication of blessing
  35. Totenfeierthema: funeral theme
  36. Weihegruß: salutation of consecration
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Parsifal from Bayreuth–watch online

This year Stefan Herheim’s revelatory Bayreuth production of Parsifal was taped and broadcast on TV. You can now watch it online. Don’t miss this one.

Herheim takes the story of Parsifal as the story of Wagner and Bayreuth
themselves, a journey from isolation to disaster to the possibility of
redemption. It’s challenging but will make you see the piece and hear
the music in many new ways. I saw this production live last year, with a slightly different cast and, from what I hear, slightly different production (I am watching this video tonight, so I can’t yet say how different). Here is what I wrote about it then. I also recommend’s short introduction, which has links to many more reviews.

To be a ridiculous elitist, I expect the video is a poor substitute for the live experience. Camera direction is a problem with filmed Herheim–there’s always a lot going on and the camera strictly controls what you see, including some things and excluding others and governing when you move from one part of the stage to another. (I think Rusalka in particular was far more exciting live.) But this production is also about the journey you took to get to Bayreuth, and why you made that not uncomplicated trip.

That’s not meant to discourage you from watching this, indeed it would have been a travesty had this production not been filmed. (This is the last year it will be seen in Bayreuth before being replaced.)

The videos are on YouTube; I recommend downloading them because who knows how long they will stick around.

Act 1

Act 2

Act 3

Postscript: I warn you against listening to Parsifal and Bohème in close proximity. At some point you will hear, in your head only, Rodolfo crying out “Mimì!” followed by the Heilesbuße-Motiv (the descending arpeggio), and it will be really weird.

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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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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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The ENO’s Parsifal: Knights of the living dead

Regietheater is by definition non-canonical but Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s well-travelled 1999 staging of Parsifal is one of the few productions that can be said to have achieved iconic status. Last Sunday I caught its current revival at the English National Opera. It’s still worth seeing. The cast is almost universally fantastic, and the orchestra and conducting are good too. There was only one hitch, and that was that it is in English. (Maybe this wouldn’t be a big deal for you, but it turns out that I hate Wagner in English, or at least I can’t stand this translation.)

Wagner, Parsifal, English National Opera, 2/27/2011. Production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth with Stuart Skelton (Parsifal), John Tomlinson (Gurnemanz), Jane Dutton (Kundry), Iain Patterson (Amfortas), Tom Fox (Klingsor). English translation by Richard Stokes.

As well as in London, this production has been seen in Baden-Baden, San Francisco, Barcelona, and Chicago, supposedly making it the most-seen Parsifal production ever. This is supposedly its last appearance in London. It is also on DVD (from Baden-Baden). This was my first time seeing it and I can understand its popularity. While it looks a little dated today, it mixes a clear basic idea with a collection of more elusive (and allusive) images that illuminate this challenging work without oversimplifying it. It’s good, and I can handle some ambiguity in Parsifal, but yeah, it beats me as to what Lehnhoff is saying some of the time.

The setting is your basic post-apocalyptic wasteland, of the indoors sort. The knights of the Grail are already encased in their own cement tomb, a decaying order (whose first appearance alludes to the terracotta army of ancient China. The Grail is a beam of blinding light, an empty signifier of a religious cult of devotion without purpose. Parsifal enters through a meteor hole in the fortress; he and Kundry, the only outsiders in the first act, are both wild creatures dressed in reddish brown, contrasting with the grayish white robes of the knights. Amfortas is almost a mummy already, and we actually see Titurel this time around, looking like a zombie.

Act 2 is basically the same set, which is a problem. Klingsor, looking like a Japanese warrior, hovers in the sensitive area of a giant pelvic x-ray (castration, we get it, OK). Kundry gets a succession of ruffly and colorful costumes whose shedding may suggest a butterfly, but whose first shell was obviously a giant vagina (perhaps this interpretation is a sign of Anna Nicole’s lingering influence on my mind). The staging of the seduction is a little on the routine side, and the buttoned-up flower maidens are more like nuns behaving badly than seductresses (albeit with, um, balls on their heads).

Act 3 is the most enigmatic. The knights have disintegrated into a disorderly mess, all now dressed in rags, and the curved train tracks and mass grave suggest a famous image of Auschwitz. But I’m not sure exactly what Lehnhoff is getting at here. The lack of a scenic transformation with the Karfreitagszauber and Parsifal’s departure from the group at the very end of the opera don’t quite add up. Amfortas dies, Kundry leaves with Parsifal and a few of the knights, and the rest seem to hail Gurnemanz as their leader and start worshipping the spear instead. This group doesn’t seem to be saved at all, but Parsifal’s retreat confuses me.

This is an addition to my growing collection of Christian God-free Wagner productions (see also this one and this one), but a non-Christian Parsifal is rather a larger challenge than a Tannhäuser or Lohengrin. As someone with limited interest in religion in general I thought it worked surprisingly well. However, this does add complexity to the reading of the libretto, and I’m afraid that this was already dealt a severe blow by the English singing text. The dense network of allusions and rhythms of Parsifal are impossible to translate. Beyond this, this translation simply suffers from many problems of tone, sounding too often like low doggerel (and I believe it contains many more rhymes than the German). For example, and I may be paraphrasing in word order:

Du siehst, mein Sohn,
zum Raum wird hier die Zeit.

You see here, my son
Time and space are one

It’s close to literal, but still presents problems of meaning–the Verwandlung from time to space is made into an equivalence–as well as adding a rhyme where one is really not called for. I can’t say I find “A single weapon serves” a satisfactory translation of “Nur eine Waffe taugt,” either. The emphasis is right, but “taugen” is so much more noble than the utilitarian “serve.” (It also creates a connection with Kundry’s “Dienen, dienen,” translated here as “to serve, to serve,” which is something different.) The obvious solution is to forget about it and do it in German, if you ask me. The enunciation of words was done with a conscious correctness that was not always musical, but I could always understand it. Unfortunately.

I’m sorry that the translation interfered with my enjoyment of the music so much, and hope this isn’t true for everyone else. Because the musical performance was really good! The orchestra sounded thoroughly excellent and well-rehearsed if a smidgen less than world-class in sound. Mark Wigglesworth proved an able conductor with beautiful balance and coloring, though I sometimes missed the larger sweep of the score. It didn’t do anything so crass as drag or rush but it didn’t quite hover in timelessness either.

Stuart Skelton is a fantastic Parsifal, with a large, forceful, yet still beautiful and clear Heldentenor. I missed a certain fragility at first, but it is lovely to hear a role like this sung with such security and passion the whole way through, and acted with both naïveté and dignity. John Tomlinson’s august Gurnemanz got the largest share of the applause, and his wisdom and authority pays great dividends despite some severe wobbles in Act 3. Iain Paterson threw himself into Amfortas’s tortures with mostly touching and occasionally awkward results, and sang with nobility and Textdeutlichkeit. (OK, screw it, I’m going to throw in as much German here as possible to make up for the lack of it onstage.) Jane Dutton was the biggest disappointment as Kundry, with blowsy, scharf tone. Tom Fox sounded at times recht ausgesungen. Chorus and small roles all solid.

More than worth seeing. Especially if you have a greater tolerance for Wagner auf Englisch than I.

Photos copyright Richard Hubert Smith.

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