Bayreuth Festival 2011 (3) – Memories of the Third Reich haunt Herheim’s Parsifal

GermanyGermany Wagner, Parsifal: soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival / Daniele Gatti (conductor). Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 21.8.2011. (JPr)

Parsifal Act I © Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

Stefan Herheim’s much-admired 2008 Parsifal production ( ) returns for the fourth revival and is still a wonderfully evocative look back at events in recent German history from the time of Bismarck till today, against the backdrop of the history of the Wagner clan and their Bayreuth home, ‘Wahnfried’. Meanwhile it attempts – if not perhaps succeeding fully – to do justice to the Parsifal story. The director, together with his dramaturg Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach and designers Heike Scheele (sets), Gesine Völlm (costumes) and Ulrich Niepel (lighting), take Gurnemanz’s line ‘zum Raum wird hier die Zeit’ as their inspiration and especially in Act I what we see often really does magically seem to appear from nowhere. As I have written before Acts I and II have some of the most beautiful and complex stage pictures likely to be found on any opera stage, it fully reveals the true wonders of the Bayreuth’s technicians to best effect: unlike Lohengrin that uses the stagehands in their blue hazard suits to move things around. I do not have the words to describe how imperceptible are the scene changes in this often-engrossing Parsifal.

It is not perfect – can anything like this ever be? For me in Act I it remains rather confusing as to who is meant to be what or whom. In its closing moments a boy – a young Parsifal or a Wagner – awakens as if he has been dreaming all that has gone before. Gurnemanz was previously been seen with wings – like many who peopled the opening scenes – but he conspicuously does not have them now. (I used to think these were the wings from the Imperial Eagle but I am more inclined now to believe they are swans’ wings.) I was left to ponder – as never before – whether anything we saw previously was meant to ‘have happened’.

The opera opens with Herzeleide seemingly dying in childbirth, an older boy is dismissed from the bed chamber; he goes out to play and clearly will become the truculent overgrown naïve schoolboy Parsifal we later meet in this Act when the swan is shot and he is actually shown possibly having killed his younger self. Everyone has ginger hair and is related in some way; Herzeleide/Kundry, the young boy, Amfortas and Parsifal. Yes, Herzeleide becomes Kundry and she also appears dressed as a maidservant to tell Parsifal about his mother’s death but then again it is Kundry (as Herzeleide) that he appears to commit incest with giving the story a wonderful Freudian twist. A further child is born in the Grail Scene and becomes the grail itself and this takes place in a magnificent recreation of the appropriate Siena Cathedral setting of the 1882 Parsifal première. The child is circumcised and the horror of the onlookers witnessing this is played out in front of video of the encroaching World War I and its burgeoning anti-Semitism. Amfortas is another martyr (a feature of both Bayreuth’s current Tannhäuser and Lohengrin) with the remnants of a crown of thorns around his head but there is only really room for one Christ-like figure and that must surely be Parsifal? Ever-present is the bed and – missed by many – is that at the centre front of the stage (cleverly masking the prompt box for once) is a replica of Richard Wagner’s grave that is used as the hiding place for the grail and where boys in blue, young or old, build – and rebuild when necessary – a wall from bricks.

After a confusing Act I, the second Act is an absolute triumph. Clearly (more than before?) it is the nightmare world of the Weimar Republic and WWI horrors conjured up by the young boy asleep in bed. The setting is possibly Wahnfried-as-field hospital and the transvestite Klingsor acts like the MC from Cabaret and the flower maidens are nurses and later, extravagant showgirls. The young boy playfully uses his bow to shoot arrows at the soldiers guarding Klingsor’s domain, only swopping later with his older self after a ‘double’ leaps from the balcony into the Wahnfried garden. There are several more striking images in this Act including a panorama of trees from the Bayreuth Hofgarten where Parsifal encounters the flower maidens. Very important has become the passage in the programme book from the Bible: ‘When I was a child, I spoke … understood … thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’ Obviously we are meant to see Act II as Parsifal’s rite of passage, the man-child who is taken by the ears by the flower maidens must grow up quickly and Kundry forces him to do that. Observing this are a number of – probably Jewish – refugees and Parsifal may even be a Jewish character in Stefan Herheim’s mind.

After Nazi stormtroopers round up the refugees and banners with Swastikas are unfurled, it is the Third Reich that is destroyed by the spear relieved from the hand of a brown-shirted boy, another young Wagner perhaps? In this Act Susan Maclean was a more compelling Kundry than last year though she lacked the total vocal abandon that was Petra Lang’s approach to Ortrud the previous night. Daniele Gatti’s tempi slowed somewhat during the Parsifal-Kundry encounter but after the many longueurs of Act I, this Act ended with a deserved storm of applause for the principal soloists involved.

Would Act III be an anti-climax? We start in a bombed-out and derelict Wahnfried, the frame of the bed remains there and the garden pond has dried up. Kundry is discovered prostrate on Wagner’s grave and Parsifal is dressed as if he came straight from a nineteenth-century Wagner production involving his eventual son, Lohengrin, with sword, shield and helmet. All these accoutrements sink below the ‘pond’, the spear is then revealed and the flow of water restarts. Parsifal ends up looking very Christ-like and offers succour to some starving victims of war. There is a false proscenium arch from the Festspielhaus behind which most of the action is taking place and during the final change of scene to the Hall of the Grail Knights and before we enter – as here – the modern-day Bundestag we see Wagner’s death mask and Wolfgang and Wieland Wagner’s words from the 1951 Festival, ‘Hier gilt’s der Kunst’, with their request that political discussion be avoided in the post-war New Bayreuth. As if this hasn’t happened? However it is clear that Herheim wants to suggest Germany, the Wagners and the Bayreuth Festival are redeemable for their indivisible recent history and collective past sins.

Amfortas is speechifying to the ‘delegates’ with the coffin of Titurel draped with the national flag, Parsifal enters, heals and absolves him (and all the German people?). Then for a second time a large mirror descends to literally throw the spotlight(s) onto the audience. The future is in our hands and the world is waiting it seems to ‘say’. The grail is revealed as another young boy – or is it the same one reborn? – as we really do see a symbol of a dove and the opera ends.

I am still convinced that Daniele Gatti’s reading of the demanding score would be even finer if he did not have to keep time with the scene changes and stage action. There remains an impressive assurance, coherence, and calm spirituality to the music and there are even some passages that have gained in momentum and purpose. It is time also to congratulate Eberhard Friedrich and his colleagues for their wonderful preparation of the chorus allowing them to sing finer than that in any other opera house.

Detlef Roth sounded more suitably anguished as Amfortas without ever seeming entirely comfortable in the role; Thomas Jesatko’s Klingsor looks scary in tights but does not sound quite as malevolent as he should and Diógenes Randes was a baleful Titurel. Kwangchul Youn always gets the approval of the Bayreuth audience but I find, however sonorously he sings, he has little stage presence and no real ability to retain my interest in his narrations. As Parsifal I was delighted to see the New Zealander Simon O’Neill have a great success replacing this year the Brit, Christopher Ventris. O’Neill was totally convincing when needing to appear a simpleton or be sympathetic and compassionate. His singing mixed good use of language with light baritonal colours, effortless power, as well as, a commanding and noble sound. His assumption of this role should grow and grow the more he sings it.

Jim Pritchard