Bayreuth Festival 2012 [5]: Beautiful and Emotionally Compelling Parsifal

GermanyGermany Wagner, Parsifal: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival / Philippe Jordan (conductor). Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 28.8.2012. (JPr)

I began a 2010 review by writing “Stefan Herheim and his dramaturg Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach along with designers Heike Scheele (sets), Gesine Völlm (costumes) and Ulrich Niepel (lighting) take Gurnemanz’s line ‘zum Raum wird hier die Zeit’ almost literally. What we see often really does melt into space. Both of the first two acts are some of the most beautiful and complex things I am ever likely to ever see on an opera stage and fully reveal the wonders of Bayreuth’s technical capabilities and machinery to best effect – unlike the new Lohengrin production which employs stagehands in turquoise hazard suits to move – and remove – props around from time to time.” By 2012 I tended to ignore what went on during Lohengrin but I couldn’t help but notice all the wobbles and creaking and possible mishaps that occurred during this final performance of Herheim’s acclaimed 2008 staging that suggests it probably has run its course. Parsifal will be next put on in 2016 directed by artist Jonathan Meese and conducted by Andris Nelsons.

In my time going to Bayreuth Wolfgang Wagner’s monolithic production was put on thirteen times though more recently Christoph Schlingensief’s version only had three revivals after its 2004 première. Herheim’s 2008 version now has been consigned to history but was widely broadcast this year and recorded for future DVD release.

This latter point might have been the reason why some of the detail – particularly in the always more confusing Act I – might have been simplified for the cinema audience. Certainly there seemed to be things I hadn’t noticed before – but perhaps that was just me. Herheim followed Schlingensief by giving us a similar feast for the eyes that was hardly less confusing in the first two acts even though it does benefit from an historical setting. Though what time period it is set in and which character is which has always puzzled me … and others I suspect. During the Prelude I do not remember so much emoting from whatever bed-bound ailing Kundry incarnation Herheim wants us to see here as she dies of a broken heart just because her young sailor-suited son appears to shun her and goes out to play. Everyone will know by now that most of the characters in Act I have wings and certainly Kundry and Gurnemanz brandish them more than before. Did Kundry really offer a couple of members of the Imperial Court we see “a good time” by lifting her skirt provocatively – I must have missed that in previous years.

So there are more wings seen than in a Berlin Gay Pride event or a Kylie Minogue concert and we get even more high camp when Amfortas – appearing as King Henry I of Germany – is seduced on the almost ever-present bed resulting in the loss of the spear. Voyeuristically looking on is Klingsor as a transvestite Marlene Dietrich-inspired cabaret MC. Did the young boy – the young Parsifal or young Wagner – always appear briefly as a mini-Amfortas who is more often seen as the rather Christ-like figure with the hint of a crown of thorns? Were the houselights always brought up part way through Gurnemanz’s Narration – at least this allowed many of the audience a chance to glance at their photocopied synopses?

Some of this probably did happen before, yet question still follows question even though there is undoubtedly some stunning imagery. We move from an Imperial bedroom to the Wahnfried garden, then possibly via a synagogue to the Siena Cathedral that inspired the designs of 1883 Bayreuth Parsifal to the salon back at Wahnfried. The grieving over the “swan” – here a dead boy – is sensitively staged and the circumcision of another new born child is a powerful moment. The passing of German history, despite much use of videography, only really begins with the arrival of WWI soldiers for Amfortas’s unveiling of the Grail. In answer to Gurnemanz’s “Weisst du, was du sahst?” (Do you know what you have seen?), even after repeated viewings I would have to shake my head like Parsifal, “Du bist doch eben nur ein Tor!” (So you are only a fool then!) … quite possibly!

Now it really no longer matters what Herheim is trying to show us but it is possible that the boy who never grows up in Act I – and is often shown playing with toy bricks on the Wahnfried grave – is Richard Wagner himself. The wings could be a reference to his Ludwig Geyer (or Geier) step-father as the surname refers to a vulture! There is the possibility he might have been Richard Wagner’s father and it has not been entirely discounted – as far as I am aware – that he might have been Jewish. For me Herheim gives the game away in Act II as the grown-up ‘Parsifal’ who is still in his sailor suit sings “Dies alles hab’ ich nun geträumt?” (Have I just dreamt all this?). As the rest of Act II enfolds against the history of the twentieth century only one Wagner actually lived through all this – and that was Wolfgang! It makes for the intriguing possibility that Parsifal/Wolfgang is attempting to ‘redeem’ his grandfather.

Although the events of Act II seem to be the figment of the young boy’s vivid imagination we are in a palatial hospital for WWWI casualties with the wounded being ‘entertained’ by girls from a cabaret, as well as, the nurses. When it comes under attack stuffed dummies land on the stage and then Herheim cranks up the “camp” as the flower-maidens are shown as part Rio carnival and part girls from a Busby Berkeley musical. The Weimar cinema is never far away as Kundry appears to Parsifal also as Marlene Dietrich from “The Blue Angel”. They play out their scene with the poor from the inter-war years looking on and with their kiss Kundry receives Amfortas’s wound. (Parsifal is often checking himself for that wound which is not really a pretty sight as Burkhard Fritz is a typically rotund German heldentenor.) Although supposedly shocking for the German audience the film/musical The Producers – complete with its fictional play ‘Springtime for Hitler’ (‘Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party!’) – is brought to mind as Herheim has Nazi soldiers strut about on stage amid unfurling Swastika banners. There was then a case of “premature capitulation” as Klingsor’s Third Reich collapses before Parsifal got to use his newly-won spear.

Act III has always had the clearer narrative and the kitsch is played down somewhat. We are in the garden of a bombed out Wahnfried after WWII – almost looking like it does now while being renovated for 2013. Parsifal enters in the guise of King Henry I, the spear reappears from the broken fountain and water flows again. This not only retains the Wagner connection but it is reinforced as everything takes place behind a false Bayreuth proscenium. Gaudy lights across the front heralds in spring and is quickly followed by some refugees who come onto the stage. Somehow I missed the post-War Bayreuth statement “Hier gilt’s der Kunst” (Our aim is art) – or it didn’t happen as I don’t remember a large mirror during the transformation music before. Finally we are then in the post-war Bundestag, the Federal Republic’s flag drapes the coffin brought on – but who is in that coffin, could it be Richard Wagner? Amfortas reappears and Parsifal enters to heal a divided nation. A huge mirror forms the rear wall and reflects the Bayreuth audience underlining Herheim’s possible conclusion that a nation’s future doesn’t depend on any one Wagner but on its people. However if this year’s Festival audience is a typical cross-section – it will be what it deserves! Nevertheless at the end of the opera we see the silhouette of a small white dove above the stage and this is a fitting metaphor for what Herheim wants us all to strive for.

Detlef Roth (Amfortas), Thomas Jetsako (Klingsor) and Diógenes Randes (Titurel) have been singing their roles since 2008. Roth was stolid, Jetsako a bit more blustery than before and Randes suitably portentous – none were really any better or worse than in previous years. Though I thought another ever-present, Kwangchul Youn as Gurnemanz, was better, he has always seemed to have a keen understanding of the text but often hasn’t communicated this very well. This time he was very moving and sang with real penetration, warmth and consistent authority.

Kundry has always had a lot to do in this production with several “characters” to play including Herzeleide (Parsifal’s mother) and a servant girl. I did not write much about Susan Maclean when she sang Ortrud because it might have influenced me about her singing Kundry. She acted both roles reasonably well once again singing them with emotional truth, however her voice is definitely a mezzo and to sing Ortrud and Kundry convincingly the singer needs to soar into soprano territory; but for Ms Maclean all high notes were hard won. She was not as good as her ovation suggested and neither was Buckhard Fritz as Parsifal. He had problems too with his higher phrases and these sounded a bit tight and tired. Fritz was never less than totally competent but in voice and stage presence he was unable to transcend the routine and elevate the significance of the role in the way better Parsifals can.

The flower-maidens were excellent and I’ve run out of superlatives for the Bayreuth chorus. The audience’s reaction to Philippe Jordan suggest he might soon form a new triumvirate – along with Christian Thielemann and Andris Nelsons – who could be conducting at Bayreuth for years to come. I know of no plans yet for Maestro Jordan but I’m sure he must come be back. He took over the baton from Daniele Gatti for these final performances. I always felt Maestro Gatti was constrained somewhat by needing to provide a soundtrack to the often ever-changing stage pictures. Philippe Jordan gave me a greater sense of spontaneity and his emotionally-compelling account had dramatic momentum never seeming less than one great span despite pauses that – in the confident manner of the best Parsifal conductors – were a nanosecond short of the music stopping entirely. He is not a Knappertsbusch, Goodall or Haitink yet but who knows what time might bring. Remember his father Armin provided his own “soundtrack” for Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s famous 1983 Parsifal film.

Jim Pritchard