Parsifal, Bayreuth Festival, July 2012

The present extraordinary Bayreuth production by Stefan Herheim portrays Germany from before the First World War to the aftermath of the Second, with Parsifal representing the true spirit of the country, and Amfortas the one that lost itself in Nazi times.

Parsifal and Gurnemanz, all images Bayreuther Festspiele/ Enrico Nawrath

It all starts during the overture, with Parsifal’s mother Herzeleide close to death. Lying in bed, she reaches out to Parsifal as a boy, finally managing to embrace him before he runs outside with his toy bow and arrow. As the other four people in the room follow him with their gaze, the faith motive rings forth and Herzeleide dies. Later in the overture she returns to life holding a red rose, embraces her son and falls through the bed with him. The bed plays a central role, allowing transformations forwards and backwards through time.

Parsifal and Amfortas

As we move into Act I the boy has returned, and both Gurnemanz and Amfortas, desiring renewal and exoneration from suffering, look penetratingly towards him at significant moments. Amfortas once made the great error of falling prey to Klingsor’s magic, acquiring a wound that will not heal, and that fatal incident was seen in flash-back during the overture when Klingsor himself appeared on a drawbridge wielding his spear, while Amfortas embraces Kundry on the bed and they vanish into the depths.

This production plays with time. In Act I during that wonderful orchestral interlude where Gurnemanz and the youthful Parsifal travel together to the ceremony of the holy grail, we see Herzeleide give birth, with Kundry acting as midwife. The baby is ceremonially taken away by Gurnemanz, Herzeleide becomes transformed into Amfortas, and images of real World War I soldiers appear projected on the backdrop. Their counterparts enter the stage as chorus, swaying gently from side to side in an immensely powerful scene where the German Eagle appears in place of the swan that Parsifal shot. Thus ends Act I after nearly two hours of music and remarkable stage magic.

Kundry and Klingsor behind

Act II starts with wounded soldiers, and ends with Nazi banners, storm troopers, and the appearance of Klingsor on the balcony of Wagner’s Bayreuth house Wahnfried, a design used here as the set for much of the opera. Klingsor, dressed in blond wig, stockings and suspenders, lifts his spear, the lights go out, and Parsifal breaks the spell. In the meantime Kundry has appeared in a red dress, a white dress and finally clothed like Klingsor but with blue wings — a blue angel ready to seduce Parsifal. The Nazi era seduced many, but the spirit of Germany lives on, and in Act III while Gurnemanz stands in military uniform near the devastation of a flattened city, Parsifal returns. The ceremony of the grail is now transferred to the Bundesrat in Bonn, and a huge circular mirror tilted behind the set allows us to see everything from above. Titurel’s coffin is draped with the German flag, and as Parsifal performs the ceremony of the grail the mirror slowly tilts so that we begin to see ourselves, the audience, participating in this huge cleansing and renewal of the German spirit.

Final redemption

Burkhard Fritz sang a strong Parsifal, Susan Maclean likewise as Kundry, and Thomas Jesatko was a sinister Klingsor. Diógenes Randes came over well as the voice of Titurel, the chorus was excellent, and Detlef Roth was a sympathetic Amfortas, hugely powerful in Act I. Kwangchul Youn made a commandingly strong Gurnemanz, portraying the role with fine gravitas, and Philippe Jordan conducted with a sure hand. The whole performance came over with an air of magic, and it is only regrettable that this intriguing production leaves the repertoire at the end of the season.

This year was my second visit to the production — see also my review last year.

Performances continue until August 26 — for details click here.

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