Richard Wagner, Parsifal, directed by Stefan Herheim and conducted by Daniele Gatti, Bayreuther Festspiele (2010 Performance Reviewed)

Parsifal (Christopher Ventris) and Amfortas (Detlef Roth) before the Bundestag in Act III. Photo Enrico Nawrath.

Parsifal (Christopher Ventris) and Amfortas (Detlef Roth) before the Bundestag in Act III. Photo Enrico Nawrath.

Richard Wagner, Parsifal

Daniele Gatti, Conductor
Stefan Herheim, Stage Director
Heike Scheele, Set Designer
Gesine Völlm, Costume Designer
Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach, Dramaturg
Momme Hinrichs/Torge Møller, Video
Eberhard Friedrich, Choral Director

Cast 2010//2011:
Amfortas – Detlef Roth
Titurel – Diógenes Randes
Gurnemanz – Kwangchul Youn
Parsifal – Christopher Ventris//Simon O’Neill (2011)
Klingsor – Thomas Jesatko//Martin Snell (8.9.2011)
Kundry – Susan Maclean
1. Gralsritter – Arnold Bezuyen
2. Gralsritter – Friedemann Röhlig
1. Knappe – Julia Borchert/Jutta Maria Böhnert (8.27.2010)
2. Knappe – Ulrike Helzel
3. Knappe – Clemens Bieber
4. Knappe – Willem Van der Heyden
Klingsors Zaubermädchen – Julia Borchert/Stephanie Hanf (8.26.2010)
Klingsors Zaubermädchen – Martina Rüping
Klingsors Zaubermädchen – Carola Guber
Klingsors Zaubermädchen – Christiane Kohl
Klingsors Zaubermädchen – Jutta Maria Böhnert
Klingsors Zaubermädchen – Ulrike Helzel
Altsolo – Simone Schröder

Ritual is everywhere in Wagner’s operas and music dramas. He even has his way of transforming crucial events in his stories into quasi-rituals through symbolism. Ritual is even more pervasive in his final work, his Bühnenweihfestspiel, Parsifal, which is in itself a ritual. The highly ritualized routines of the Grail knights connect their lives and the events of the drama with the continuum of the Grail’s history, back to the Last Supper. Their actions are highly deliberate, replete with the significance of faith and tradition. This creates a quasi-monastic environment in which life unfolds slowly, largely ceremonially, on the structure of a time-honored schedule, in which history and precedent are always present. The narrative unfolds with notable simplicity in terms of what occurs on stage, while beneath it, the backstory related in monologues seethes with incident, conflict, and misfortune. In addition to this dramatic foreground purified of trivialities, there is the pure transparency of Wagner’s score, consisting of simple thematic material set with surpassing clarity, delicacy, and harmonic subtlety. In this way Parsifal lives up to what we have been conditioned to expect from the late work of a great artist, and this is what we see and hear on the stage, if Wagner’s stage directions are observed.

William Kinderman in his introductory essay, “The Challenge of Wagner’s Parsifal,”  in A Companion to Wagner’s Parsifal, (1) has most compellingly shown how Wagner’s works developed out of one another, most significantly Parsifal from Tristan, another work with a relatively simple, linear action on stage, but a complex array of people and events leading up to it. Both are operas in which the characters’ actions on stage constantly point back to past events, experiences, and feelings. In Parsifal this is so richly developed that it looks ahead to the twentieth-century construal of consciousness and time, expressed so magnificently in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu and Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. One of Wagner’s great achievements as a poet and dramatist lay in his pioneering of the twentieth century’s organic perception of time and memory. Parsifal is haunted by his mother’s death as Amfortas is crippled by his wound, and Parsifal finds redemption in making himself worthy of the more remote history of the Grail, by winning and preserving the spear that wounded Amfortas. The flow of music and language which expresses this interaction of past and present—enhanced by an attentive reading of the text beforehand, as the creator indicated—has moved many people in a most profound, life-altering way, one which resembles or even takes the place of religious or mystical experiences.

Through much of the first act, as I saw Stefan Herheim’s production of Parsifal for the first time (and I must thank the Bayreuth Press Office for making a second viewing possible), I was simply taken aback by the sheer complexity of the settings and the action. Multiple environments and multiple costuming of the characters, as well as a large, extremely active chorus, created just about the busiest staging I have witnessed on any opera or play—a direct contradiction of whatever ideas I had about late masterpieces and Parsifal in particular. It didn’t take me long to appreciate the sheer ability and precision with which the massive campaign was executed, but it seemed entirely wrong-headed. Above all, Herheim seemed afflicted with the epidemic now current in all the arts—the all-pervading fear of losing what modicum of attention contemporary audiences are capable of, causing directors to seize it and hold it with a constant bludgeoning with striking effects and obvious gimmicks. Only the power and quality of the musical performance under Daniele Gatti seemed to stand between Herheim’s concept, with its tidal wave of detail, many of which are relevant only to Herheim’s historicizing concept, leading to a level of distraction that reaches the pathological. And then, I became fascinated by the spectacle. Inspired to some degree by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s film, Herheim has introduced tissues of superimposed narrative drawn, most prominently, from the composer’s life and German history subsequent to Parsifal‘s creation, as well as numerous other elements from disparate sources. If the production stood on its own without some degree of transparency that allowed us at least a shadowy image of Wagner’s original, it would be nothing more than a hollow parody of it. (By contrast the parodistic elements of Katharina Wagner’s Meistersinger proceed from an acute critique of the original and its reception. Herheim is more concerned with the reception.) But we can in fact see some ghost of Wagner’s dramaturgy, shadowy in detail, but rather vigorous in its effect. If we can keep the original in our mind’s eye and see Herheim’s production as a counterpoint on it—as both a commentary and an oneiric fantasy, then it can be richly enjoyed as a spectacle in itself. If it were not so well realized or so magnificently accompanied (SIC!!!) by the orchestra and the singers, to be sure, it might have been an even greater waste of time than Achim Freyer’s Ring.

In truth, attending Herheim’s Parsifal was a schizoid experience. One half of my senses was occupied by what I saw on stage and by my responses to it, and the other half by what I heard, but, in considering my own consciousness, by far the greater part of it was filled with Richard Wagner’s music. This may seem remarkable, in view of the intensity of the spectacle on stage, but Parsifal is powerful medicine, and it’s not so easily buried. For that reason, I’ll begin with the music, which was in truth magnificently sung and played throughout under Daniele Gatti’s direction.

Gatti’s Parsifal has all the breadth and textural delicacy of Knappertsbusch at his best, balancing gravity with a singing, “Italian” line and a flow that continues to be active even in the slowest tempi.(2) Balance, clarity, and ensemble were impeccable. It is everywhere apparent that his passion for this score equals that of Kna and Goodall. Parsifal is for Gatti something very different than what it is for Herheim—a transcendent mystery play which should, without inhibiting true dramatic performances from the singers, be as perfectly executed and as beautiful as possible in every respect. On the other hand, both Gatti and Herheim have said in interviews that they got along well, and that the conductor’s slow tempi rarely if ever got in the way of their individual lines of work. In fact Gatti provided an otherworldly current which helped draw Herheim’s imagery into the subconscious realms where it could act most potently. Gatti has specifically observed that Herheim is a musician, knows the score, and makes a point of coordinating events on stage with the music, even paying special attention to solo instruments.

This is only Gatti’s third experience with Wagner on stage. Previously he has conducted only Der Fliegende Holländer and Lohengrin, and he is aware that he is entering Wagner’s mature work from the end, from a score which marks as radical a transformation as the mature style that emerges in the middle of Siegfried. There is certainly nothing facile about Parsifal or about Gatti’s approach to it, but it is well known that it is technically easier for orchestral musicians and conductors than the Ring, Tristan, and Meistersinger. James Levine, in fact, cut his Wagnerian teeth on Parsifal, along with Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and the Dutchman. In any case, with this Parsifal, Gatti has established himself as one of the great Wagner conductors.

The singers were of the same high caliber as the other 2010 casts. Detlef Roth sang a most humane portrait of a suffering man who knows only too well his own role in the cause of his illness. His struggle is as much moral and metaphysical as a fight to survive infection. His warm, golden baritone was the perfect instrument for such a portrayal. Diógenes Randes, on the other hand, one of the weaker singers of the season, sang Titurel with a suitably dark tone, but a somewhat undifferentiated characterization. Thomas Jesatko sang magnificently in his masterly Klingsor, a cold and malevolent being of calculating evil and intense hatred, brought about by his own self-inflicted misery. Kwangchul Youn, who won resplendent applause for his imposing, fearsome Hunding in Die Walküre and all his other roles, outdid himself as Gurnemanz, and achieved one of the great interpretations of the role—appropriately recognized by the the Bayreuth audience. Both he and Herheim seem to have resonated creatively in this earthy interpretation of the role. Susan Maclean, in this production, had to face a much larger array of challenges than most Kundrys, since Herheim’s multilayered treatment of the narrative and character give her an even wider range of personae than Wagner himself. These she met with resourcefulness as an actress and a splendid voice of many rich and brilliant colors. Christopher Ventris as Parsifal was able to reveal many sides of his complex character, as he follows his groping path from childish destroyer to king and redeemer. Tending to break up his lines into shorter, expressive phrases, he sang with a bright, strong tenor with a handsome, tawny lower register. The lesser roles and the chorus sang splendidly, by no means compromised by their complex activities on the stage.

These activities amounted to one of the most ambitious stage spectacles one will ever see—dramaturgically and theoretically. Herheim here practised Regieoper of a kind which not only brings with it a commentary and an interpretation, but free invention as well, in his recreation  as drama of his views about Parsifal and its place in cultural history—above all in his attention to German history from the Gründerzeit to the present day. Herheim is of Norwegian nationality, but he was trained in Germany under Götz Friederich and his career is firmly established there. This is his first production at Bayreuth, where, we mustn’t forget, Wagner’s own production of Parsifal was preserved, largely unchanged for over a generation. It was, in fact, the only theater where one could see a complete, fully-staged Parsifal until 1914, the “stolen” Metropolitan Opera performance and a few others being significant exceptions. Changes were made only when parts of scenery wore out or in parts of the original production, like Act II, which were obviously unsatisfactory. Bayreuth remained true to itself, and outside productions, whether legitimate or not, remained true to Bayreuth, employing Bayreuth conductors, singers, and directors, and even having important props, like the Grail, made in the same workshop as the original. Respect for tradition was strict and literal. The innovations which appeared with increasing prominence in the 1930s were met with horror, and Wieland Wagner’s postwar productions with fierce controversy. At the time they seemed like radical innovations, but in retrospect, we may be inclined to take them as distillations of Richard Wagner’s original concepts, which were drastically limited by the theatrical conventions and technology of his time, as he himself understood only too well. Herheim’s work goes directly against the movement towards simplification which characterized Wieland’s and Wolfgang’s productions, but his motive is not to overturn stylistic traditions on the Green Hill, but to work with the Festival’s eminent place in German culture to speak directly to the German people about their past and their relation to it, above all Wilhelmine nationalism and the First World War, and the Third Reich and the Second World War. The Third Reich and the Final Solution lie very much at the center of Herheim’s historical perpective, with both subsequent and prior events observed through that lens.

One may well ask what this kind of anachronism brings to the presentation of a work that premiered over fifty years before the accession of the NSDAP to power. (One could equally well question whether hindsight is valid as a historical method, as common as it is, but of course we can’t expect a stage director to be expert in the historian’s craft, that is, beyond the requirements of his own discipline. Contemporary issues may well inspire a historian or enliven his or her understanding, but that doesn’t mean that they provide an appropriate heuristic method.) In approaching Parsifal in this way Herheim is acknowledging opinions about Wagner and his thought which have gained currency since the 1970s, commanding considerable authority among some and sharp disagreement among others. Whatever side one takes, or whether one chooses to observe the fray from a distance, these theories hardly eliminate the concerns of early interpreters of Parsifal, which revolved around whether it was a truly religious work or not, and if it were really Christian, or syncretic, above all reflecting Wagner’s study of Buddhism. Beyond Herheim’s political perspective, which leaves us in the Bundestag, contemplating a reflection of ourselves, Wagner, at the end of an ethically compromised life, left a powerful, if not easily decipherable, message for the individual as well, and without it, Parsifal, taken as a purely political drama, cannot move us as deeply as it so often does.

In my opinion, Herheim diverts our attention too far from the text and score Wagner left us for it to be a true and successful treatment of the music drama. He has superimposed his own perspective and that of his/our contemporaries for that. On the other hand, one would have to be rigidly doctrinaire to deny that it is effective theater. If Herheim prefers to see Parsifal through a distorting glass, he is keenly sensitive to the feeling of overwhelming awe Wagner wished to inspire, although he manifests it not through the emotions of a faithful follower of a religion, but through feelings of strangeness, horror, and just plain creepiness. The redemption which comes at the the end moves us deeply on a humanistic level, not because of the religious weight of the concept, but because of the transformative suffering Amfortas, Gurnemanz, Kundry, and Parsifal have experienced in finding it.

Without giving a moment by moment account of the details of the production and its shifting locations in history, conveyed by the sets, projections, and Gesine Völlm’s virtuosic collection of costumes, I should at least indicate where the journey begins, which is at Wahnfried, where the death of Herzeleide is enacted during the Vorspiel in the context of Wagner family life. Above the chimney to the left, hangs Kaulbach’s Germania, “Deutschland—August 1914,” which has nothing to do with the Wagners or Wahnfried. The cast first appears in late nineteenth-century costume, the principles dressed somberly, with Kundry as a proper housekeeper, then nanny. The adults wear black wings trimmed with satin, or a satin-like fabric, to unite them with the period costumes. Lighting and  a scenic transformation in the background move us from the interior of Wahnfried to the garden, where the ill-fated swan hovers over the proceedings. An impressive, precisely executed scenic transformation moves us from Wahnfried to a space resembling Joukovsky’s original design for the Hall of the Grail. In another typical moment, Germania and her supporting wall collapse downwards to form a bridge, on which Klingsor appears, his torso dressed in male evening clothes covered by a flowing, brightly colored robe, his lower parts in black panties, fishnet stockings, and high heels, as he he threateningly holds up the lost spear, as Gurnemanz relates the story of its loss. Then he retreats and Germania returns.

Herheim communicates above all through complex threads of visual metaphors and symbols, most notably the wall the young Parsifal is constructing at the beginning of the work, and which remains prominent throughout. It would demand too much space to discuss these here—and I am still more concerned with Wagner than with Herheim—and two viewings of the production are insufficient to note every detail. During a performance, in reality, attention given to such details is, in part, attention taken away from the music drama. An intelligently filmed DVD—one which doesn’t direct the viewer’s attention too specifically—would be worthwhile. It is far more enlightening to contemplate these devices concretely, rather than than to have them explained literally, in prose, as Susanne Vill does in her often useful booklet, which presents her analysis and commentary on the production. (3) It is interesting that a need was seen for a publication of this nature.

Meanwhile one can admire the virtuosity of Heike Scheele’s imposing sets and impressive transformations (not the ones Wagner indicated), let oneself be stimulated by Herheim’s imaginative flights, and be moved by his sympathetic vision of a humanity, which has so deeply suffered in the twentieth century. Now, at forty-one, he has shown himself to be an extraordinary talent. One can only wonder when he will begin to invent his own material. On the other hand, the current Bayreuth Parsifal may be most memorable for the conducting of Daniele Gatti, who consciously set out to serve the score and brilliantly succeeded in his endeavor.

This production will return in 2012, but under the musical direction of Philippe Jordan, whose handling of Das Rheingold at the Opéra national de Paris I found to be truly outstanding.

(1) Kinderman, William., and Katherine Rae Syer. A Companion to Wagner’s Parsifal. Camden House companion volumes, Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2005.
(2) See Robert Jungwirth’s interview with Gatti on Klassikinfo.de (http://www.klassikinfo.de/Interview-Daniele-Gatti.545.0.html).
(3) Vill, Susanne. Richard Wagners Bühnenweihfestspiel in der Inszenierung von Stefan Herheim. Eine Inszenierungsanalyse mit Kommentaren. Bayreuth 2009.

See also the several interviews with Stefan Herheim on Wagneropera.net: http://www.wagneropera.net/Interviews/Stefan-Herheim-Interviews.htm

Michael Miller

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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