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Bayreuth Redeemed

Bayreuther Festspiele
07/29/2012 -  & August 5*, 11, 16, 22, 28, 2012
Richard Wagner: Parsifal
Kwangchul Youn (Gurnemanz), Susan Maclean (Kundry), Detlef Roth (Amfortas), Burkhard Fritz (Parsifal), Diogenes Randes (Titurel), Simone Schröder (alto voice), Thomas Jesatko (Klingsor), Arnold Bezuyen (first Grail knight), Christian Tschelebiew (second Grail knight), Julia Borchert (first equerry/flower maiden), Ulrike Helzel (second equerry/flower maiden), Clemens Bieber (third equerry), Willem van der Heyden (fourth equerry), Martina Rüping, Carola Guber, Christiane Kohl, Jutta Maria Böhnert (flower maidens)
Bayreuther Festspiele Orchestra and Chorus, Philippe Jordan (conductor)
Stefan Herheim (director), Heike Scheele (sets), Gesine Völlm (costumes), Ulrich Niepel (lighting designer), Momme Hinrichs and Torge Meller (video)

(© Enrico Nawrath)

Since its premiere, Stefan Herheim’s production of Wagner’s last and most spiritual opera (which the composer called a “sacred stage festival play”) has stood as Bayreuth’s best answer to critics of the festival, who charge that its stagings are too outlandish, dull, or otherwise flawed to be admired or taken seriously. Herheim responded with a mise-en-scène so infused with symbolism, meaning, and pure poetic beauty that it is hard to grasp everything he meant to say, even in a second viewing. The difficult path of Germany’s recent history intertwines with the opera’s intense Christian mysticism to address all manner of questions about faith and redemption.

Discussing the Herheim production’s entire content in full could fill an entire volume. In fact there is such a book, by Antonia Goldhammer, which runs to 168 pages. But to summarize briefly, Herheim uses each of the opera’s three acts to show Germany’s progression from imperial times in Act I to doomed Weimar Germany in Act II to a traumatized postwar Federal Republic in Act III. The director has publicly described the darker parts of this progression as a trip to hell. The action unfolds in the milieu of Wagner’s villa, Wahnfried, his Bayreuth home. Atop the historicism rests the opera’s quest for redemption through suffering, a trope that Herheim interpolates as universal. Since Wagner apologists passionately argue for the human universality of his music, the statement is a profound one. If Parsifal is about achieving wisdom through compassion and compassion through suffering, then in this production Germany moves through its own suffering in war to a democracy that contributes to the universal culture of mankind. Indeed, the third act finale culminates in a projected globe of the world over a gigantic circular mirror that reflects the audience. The image of a dove then shines above the proscenium. Wagner originally intended for a real dove to descend into the temple of the Holy Grail, but Herheim uses it here to resolve his general theme: it replaces the double-headed Hohenzollern eagle that rests above Act I and the Nazi eagle that menaces the action at the end of Act II. As for Parisfal’s inescapable mysticism, the entire first act is interpolated through the Rosicrucian myth, which held that Jesus’s second coming would become manifest in the biological descendant of a child born to Mary Magdalene. Here we see Parsifal as that child. Stage action during the ethereal prelude, which unites sentiments of faith, suffering, and hope, shows the child hero at his mother’s dead bed, ignorant of her pain and loss. When he is transported to the Grail temple, the myth unfolds in full, with the high mass centering around the new Christ child’s birth, an event connected with the unhealed Amfortas, who is presented as an unredeemed Jesus. The chorus of knights emerges clad in World War I uniforms, completing the rite with a regimental mass on the eve of the war to end all wars.

In the opera’s intense second act Klingsor’s realm appears as a military hospital in which the wounded knights are tended by his flower maidens, all done up like cabaret girls of the 1920s. The introduction music, which perverts the music of the knights, is accompanied by video projections of harsh battlefield scenes. Kundry struts in wearing a tuxedo and top hat with a blond wig, an undeniable reference to Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s pre-Hays Code film Morocco. In keeping with the mysticism, she transforms into the ailing Herzeleide, thus becoming both Parsifal’s mother and the Magdalene whose womb will give the world its redeemer. By the end of the failed seduction scene, when the spurned Kundry angrily calls upon Klingsor to destroy Parsifal, the Weimar fantasy yields to machine gun-wielding Nazi storm troopers and a brown shirted Hitler Youth – a hint of what Parsifal could become, -- who parade under swastika flags. The stage effect combined with Klingsor’s music produces a visceral revulsion in the spectator. Parsifal’s purity enables him to withstand their assault, not only catching the Holy Spear as convention dictates, but causing the whole edifice of Nazism to crash down around him. In a hint of Kundry’s conversion and third act penance, she spreads her arms to shield him as the machine guns fire away.

The third act shows the aftermath of the battle, a metaphor for World War II. Gurnemanz emerges from the ruins of Wahnfried (which actually was bombed and seriously damaged in an April 1945 air raid) to find a repentant Kundry, still clad as Parsifal’s mother. The anointing scene unfolds traditionally, but the Grail temple has now become the Bundestag, the West German legislature, as it appeared in 1951, the year of the first postwar Bayreuth Festival. The scene’s angrier choruses of knights, which begin as a conversation, are presented in the manner of a parliamentary debate. Amfortas appears in ministerial guise; his inability to perform the rite unites all factions against him. Parsifal appears, heals the wound, and takes charge of the order as the orchestra resolves all the harmonies. Gurnemanz, Kundry, and the child Parsifal stand at stage front as a reconciled family, while the projected globe and mirror declare human universality. The effect is breathtaking.

Hearing Wagner in Bayreuth may be the greatest pleasure for any serious operagoer, and the musical performance was a truly stunning achievement. Burkhard Fritz lacked charisma, but his steady vocal performance in the title role was nevertheless an inspired work of art. Susan Maclean’s Kundry rightly received the loudest ovation. An engaging actress as well as a superb Zwischenfach singer, she endowed the role with superb musicianship and a dramatic sensibility that mixed its essential eroticism with intriguing dimensions of guilt and self-loathing. The long bass role of Gurnemanz requires enormous resilience. Kwangchul Youn imbued the part with a superb line, gorgeous low notes, and an uncommon lyricism. The fine baritone Detlef Roth was an effecting Amfortas. Thomas Jesatko carried off Klingsor’s role with a fascinating perversion that positively made one enjoy a role that is rarely if ever costumed in fishnet stockings.

The dynamic young conductor Philippe Jordan brought a lighter touch and somewhat faster pace to the score than Daniele Gatti had in the production’s presentation in earlier years. The chromatic effect was not always as emotionally pronounced but the lyrical touches to the Grail temple scenes that end Acts I and III were a wonder to hear. Both visually and musically, it is a welcome sign that the opera will be Bayreuth’s first international broadcast, with the August 11 performance beamed into movie theaters around Europe. And every Wagnerian in the world should buy, savor, and relish the forthcoming DVD recording.

Paul du Quenoy



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