Parsifal, Bayreuth Festival, July 2011Posted on 30 July 2011
There’s a lovely moment in Act I of this opera when Gurnemanz takes Parsifal to the ceremony of the Grail. As they journey, Parsifal says he hardly steps yet swiftly moves apace, and Gurnemanz replies, my son, here time is one with space. As a space the Bayreuth stage is vast, and in Act I of this production by Stefan Herheim we fall forwards and backwards in time. This allows Herheim to do more than simply let Kundry tell us of Parsifal’s long-dead mother Herzeleide, but actually see her with her long reddish hair, rather like Parsifal’s, and strangely too like Amfortas. We even go back to the moment of Parsifal’s birth, on a bed that serves as a point of transformation between characters and different regions of time. It’s confusing but at the same time extremely powerful.
The main set is Wagner’s Bayreuth house Wahnfried, with his grave in the foreground, and in Act II a bat flits across the stage, representing the spirit of Wagner’s wife Cosima. The imagery is enormous, but the production concept is simple. It’s the history of Germany from before the First World War until after the Second. Military strength and the need to cure its defeat in Act I, the sorcery of Klingsor — and by extension, Hitler — in Act II, and the desperate need for new leadership now that the old Germany, in the person of Titurel, is dead.
Titurel’s coffin at the end is draped in the German flag showing the German Eagle. On a shield above the stage the insignia of an eagle changes to a dove — it started as a swan, before going through various forms of the eagle, including the Nazi one. The production is on a vast scale, and I cannot possibly do justice to the multiple levels of Act I without a second viewing, but at the ceremony of the Grail we see video projections of cavalry, infantry, biplanes and submarines, and as the chorus sways I thought of the Kaiser and Fatherland. Then when Gurnemanz finally rejects Parsifal we see the young boy who appeared earlier in the Act, well before the swan shooting incident occurred.
Parsifal’s killing of the swan in Act I was done from the balcony of the house, the same place Klingsor stood at the end of Act II as destruction reigned down, and his magic realm vanished forever. Earlier in that Act wounded soldiers from the Great War were hospitalised and cared for by nurses who, along with scantily dressed girls, become flower maidens, and get on top of the soldiers in their beds. Klingsor himself is dressed in white tie and tails, with stockings, and a blond woman’s wig. And for the seduction of Parsifal, Kundry is dressed like Marlene Dietrich, with blue wings, recalling the film Der blaue Engel, which first brought her to stardom. Later in the Act she reappears as Herzeleide. It’s powerful stuff and at this point a woman two rows in front was carried out.
During the prelude to Act III we see images of urban devastation, and I thought of my father-in-law’s remarks about the sight of Berlin when he came through in a train from Colditz in 1945. Despite the unusual production, Parsifal is dressed in armour when he reappears, and after Kundry washes his feet, she welcomes sorry-looking people who pass by, and gives them hope. They represent the population of post-war Germany, and the music speaks of redemption. Das ist … Karfreitagszauber, Herr! (Good Friday magic). The final scene is a debating chamber, cleverly seen from above as well as the front, using a vast circular mirror that later tilts to reflect the audience itself. Leadership is needed for a new Germany, and Parsifal supplies it, blessing and healing Amfortas as representative of the Germany that was so wounded by the populist magic of a sorcerer.
This brilliant vision by Stefan Herheim, with sets by Heike Scheele, costumes by Gesine Völlm and wonderful lighting by Ulrich Niepel deserves a fine musical rendering, and got it. Daniele Gatti conducted with wonderful light and shade, and the singing was uniformly excellent. Kwangchul Youn was a sensitive and powerful Gurnemanz, and Susan Maclean was a terrific Kundry showing multiple levels of mood and characterisation. Detlef Roth was a hugely sympathetic Amfortas, Thomas Jesatko gave a sinister, cabaret-like performance of Klingsor, and Simon O’Neill sang beautifully as Parsifal. The voice of Titurel by Diógenes Randes came over strongly, and the chorus was excellent.
Watching this production, I felt in some confusion in Act I, and at the start of the interval found myself thinking of the enormous power of Germany that has produced single-minded creators of great music and political ideology. I thought of Hitler in particular, which is slightly surprising as that aspect of Germany only appeared later in Act II. But the producer had done already started his magic, and by the end I was overwhelmed with admiration.