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Parsifal and the Flower Maidens by Henri Fantin-Latour (1893)
06 Sep 2009

Bayreuth: Multi-layered, Profound "Parsifal"

The Wagner Festspiel loves to provoke.

Richard Wagner: Parsifal

Bayreuther Festspiele


In the past decade or more, with attention-grabbing competition from an increasing number of world-class festivals, the annual Bayreuth season seems to have had given up on being “renowned” and settled a bit desperately on being “notorious” instead. It is therefore with a happy Herz I report that with the well-calculated, gorgeously conducted Parsifal currently on display, they have generated both excellence and cocktail conversation.

Young director Stefan Herheim is without question a highly talented craftsman. Last fall, his reputation having preceded him, I anticipated much from his Brussels Rusalka, only to find it theatrically vivid but utterly incompatible with the authors’ work. Not so with this Parsifal even if you may find it nutty as I start to expound on it.

In a brilliant stroke, Mr. Herheim chose to interweave the opera’s ritual celebrations and salvation theme with a sweeping history of the construction of the Festspielhaus and Wahnfried (and the premiere of the piece itself), the rise of socialism and the Nazi party, two world wars, and the progress of German/world politics to the present day. Yes, he successfully channeled all this through Parsifal. Moreover, for epic proportions, this extravaganza rivaled *Gone With the Wind *and its Civil War, burning of Atlanta, cotillion dances, and a radish-repulsed Scarlett swearing to rebuild the South, for memorable imagery.

During the prelude, the curtain parts to reveal a famous life-sized view of Wahnfried complete with practical balcony and with the sloping slate of Wagner’s gravestone in place of the prompter’s box. Center stage is a large circle, which rises to bring up a containing garden wall, falls to create a pond, and contains within it a sort of “bull’s eye” trap door that accommodates a fountain, reveals a character or two when required, or carries a tower that can extend to dramatic heights for some stunning effects (such as telescoping skyward surmounted by a Hitler Youth who hurls Klingsor’s spear).

Forefront at the edge of the circle is an omni-present brass bed, outfitted with a false bottom allowing for some truly magical apparitions and exchanges of occupants. During the prelude Herzeleide gives birth to Parsifal and expires. I lost track of who all ended up revealed in this bed but I do believe the next occupant was Kundry, whose swap-out was so smooth as to be discovered only with her first vocalized moan.

The set pieces and decor are all of the period of Parsifal’s composition. A huge fireplace stage right was topped by a framed mirror, which tipped open to stage center and became a menacing platform upon which Klingsor first entered. The stage left unit was rigged so that the double doors could eerily open and close by the themselves allowing all sorts of ghosts and spirits of Bayreuth Past to come and go.

And ghosts a-plenty there are in this visually dazzling production. The new-born baby Parsifal (the “grail”?) is soon re-imagined having grown into a blond Teutonic boy clad in a white sailor uniform. His image is mirrored by a number of other extra blond boys, identically clad in black and sporting black angel wings. In fact the entire adult cast of extras and Gurnemanz are attired in Gesine Völlm’s meticulously styled period attire and those chilling black wings, a populace of Purgatory’s dark angels in search of salvation.

A parallel concept is at work as our young hero “builds” the Wagner home/theatre with child’s blocks atop the grave down center. This is accompanied by some live video projections (by Momme Hinrichs and Torge Møller) of that feat on the large upstage scrim which were sometimes effective, and sometimes contrived. A swirling, meant-to-be-carnal red rose effect took on the look of a screen saver. Later historic footage was used to good result.

As the home’s walls retracted to the wings and returned; as the life-like (and comforting) tree units turned and re-turned; as the curtains parted to reveal one stunning effect after another, the GBQ (Goose Bump Quotient) would not have been nearly so great without the flawless lighting design from Ulrich Niepel. It is hard to remember a production with quite such a complicated plot, and with such a rewarding and effective execution. Kudos to the entire backstage production team. This was tech theatre as good as it gets.

Heike Scheele’s tremendous (in every way) sets were also a key to the show’s impact. It is impossible to convey in words the frisson of nervous electricity that ran through the house when the garish Nazi banners suddenly unfurled at the end of Act II, the newsreel footage of Nazi stormtroopers flooded the scrim, and that huge-ass eagle-‘n’-swastika crest flew in and oppressively dominated the stage picture. Although the effect of the hurling of the spear by the afore-mentioned Hitler youth was slightly marred by a mis-cue, when Parsifal nabbed it (okay, picked up the duplicate) and stuck it in Wagner’s grave, fireworks emanated from its shaft and all hell broke loose. I am sure I was not the only one who jumped in his seat when the massive suspended insignia came crashing down on the bed and smashed to pieces. Theatricality at its best.

Side bar: When I wondered aloud during intermission what Herheim would come up with next, a colleague quipped: “The Marshall Plan?”

The war ruins of Act III were eventually covered by a slowly drawn black curtain, but not before a replica of Wolfgang Wagner’s 1951 letter (when The Festspiel resumed) scrolled over the set, asking that politics be put aside and that this be a place to only discuss and experience music. When the drapes parted one last time for the final assembly, we were in an eye-popping evocation of the Bundestag, with tiered seating for the Chor, a podium, a flag-draped casket (Titurel), and a large round mirror tilted to not only reflect the performers from above, but also the round floor space decorated with a (later) glowing eagle drawing.

As the opera drew to a close, and Gurnemanz, Kundry and the young boy moved forward as a sort of Holy Family, the mirror tilted and moved to hang front and center, now defined as a globe thanks to a gobo projection. Soft Vari-lites began to gently pan the audience. And then, a stylized cut-out of a dove was illuminated over the “globe” that bathed the crowd in a golden light that reflected us in the mirror, all as world citizens. Has this effect been used before? Sure. But it was still powerfully deployed here for as perfect, as moving a close to this panoramic journey as I can imagine.

Best of all, within this “Konzept” Wagner’s tale of redemption always seemed well-served. Okay, okay, for a while it seemed that there were more savior role models than actually required for the task at hand. But there was much interesting subtext about false prophets and facile “spirituality”-of-convenience that had much resonance without being false to the piece. Did everything work equally well? No.

Klingsor’s Castle was a field hospital set up in an available mansion (with a nod to the work’s earliest original set design). Flower Maidens appeared as Hollywood fantasies (with a choreographic nod to Esther Williams) and that was fine, and they were joined by nurses who got pretty naughty with their patients. But when renewed fighting burst through the stage left walls and obvious, stuffed dummies were hurled in as dead bodies; and Parsifal was made to jump from the balcony rather gleefully onto a “cushion” of corpses, well, it just didn’t play with a consistency specific to the intent of that scene. And it has to be said, that the great attempted seduction scene in Act II lost some of its visual steam. However, this might have been in part because of the (only) decently competent performances from our two leads.

Forgive me, Bayreuth, for still having Christa Ludwig and Jon Vickers in my ears from my Met years. But I do. And, well, who wouldn’t? Here were two of the finest, and most distinctive artists/voices of their time. Christopher Ventris (Parsifal) and Mihoko Fujimura (Kundry) worked hard, had absolutely solid techniques, and were totally engaged. I have to say that they were rewarded with a generous and prolonged ovation at the Act II call. But…

Mr. Ventris has a pleasing, round, full, easily produced tenor of good weight, and he conveys the text with clarity and decent color. Overall, I found his vocal impersonation well crafted but rather anonymous. He was not visually helped by first being made to wear a black sailor uniform to replicate the look of the “dream boy Parsifal” which emphasized his age and apparent taste for multiple Steins of the local Lager.

Ms. Fujimara has all the steel needed for Kundry and has a commendable stage presence and commitment. The cruelly exposed high notes were accomplished by sheer force of will, and I longed for more richness in the languorous stretches. Still, her instrument had powerful presence, if not too much tonal variety. She did impart lots of fun, got up as a tuxedo-ed Marlene Dietrich with deep blue angel wings (yes, shades of Der Blaue Engel), before later changing into something a little more back-stage-dressing-room comfortable.

Unquestionably the vocal star of the night was the authoritative Gurnemanz of Kwangchul Youn. This is one of the richest, most dramatically complete traversals of this lengthy role that I have encountered (and yes, I still have Martti Talvela in my ears, too). Not only can this supremely accomplished baritone ride the orchestra with ease and burnished tone, but I was mightily impressed by his sotto voce singing and his complete, nuanced understanding of what this role is about. A consummate achievement.

Detlef Roth eventually won me over as the belly-aching (sorry) Amfortas. Although I first found his instrument a might on the small side, he was wholly vindicated with a warmly sung, heart-breaking “Mein Vater.” Diógenes Randes did all Wagner could have wanted as Titurel. Only Thomas Jesatko seemed curiously out of voice, or occasionally over-parted as a trans-gendered, fishnet-stockinged, Sally-Bowles-on-acid Klingsor (great legs, though, Dió).

The Festspiel choral work is rightly celebrated and the reason for the shouting is attributable to chorus master Eberhard Friedrich. The expansive, rolling sounds from the male chorus in the ritual scenes were matched by the superb ensemble work from the women’s Chor and Flower maidens in the second act. Breathtaking!

But perhaps the night rightly belonged to conductor Daniele Gatti who led a luminous reading of Wagner’s sprawling and (to me) repetitive “Buehnenfestpeiele.” The sounds from the pit positively glowed, and the sense of tension and forward momentum never flagged. Mr. Gatti pulled off the difficult trick of honoring the piece’s spiritual aspirations without ever falling prey to its pretensions. We are, after all, in the theatre, not at a religious ceremony. And our conductor ensured that dramatic propulsion and musical clarity were always the guiding force.

It is difficult to do justice to the many details and inventions of the physical production. So many characters and images overlap (Kundry/Herzeleide, Amfortas/Parsifal/Young Man, Klingsor/Young Man, etc.). What, or who, is the Grail? And yes, there are moments and even whole segments that could bear further refining.

But as it is, improbable as it may seem — ya hadda be there — Stefan Herheim’s multi-layered production of Parsifal is already a notable success. With further work, and some slightly re-imagined casting, I believe it could become a true Bayreuth legend.

James Sohre

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