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Bayreuth 2012: Parsifal, a Gift of Greatness

In 2008 I was stunned by Stefan Herheim’s Bayreuth Parsifal, into that year’s last performance of which year I had stumbled through dumb luck. Although underwhelmed by the hit-or-miss maestro’s—Daniele Gatti’s—conducting, I was mesmerized by the Parsifal-as-Germany-and-Bayreuth-through-the-ages superstructure that Herheim fits so seamlessly onto the opera. Five years later, in its second-to-last run at the Festival house, this well possibly greatest of Bayreuth productions since Chéreau’s Centennial Ring, impressed even more, with its impossibly ingenious blend of macro-, micro-, and meta-structures.

Herheim was unhappy with the means (rehearsal time, money) at his availability for his productions’ last revival (which is, strangely but tellingly disliked by the current Bayreuth administration), and he nearly didn’t come. Thankfully he did come, and he produced—again, with little touches and flourishes added while generally streamlining the production—something absolutely great. Grown men left the Festspielhaus after act 1 with tears in their eyes, so powerfully moving was the story of Parsifal, Herzeleide, and Gurnemanz (as the nucleus of the German family), and that of Germany mid 19th century to the outbreak of World War I, told. After Christmas celebrations at Wahnfried (‘looking for the redeemer’) towards the end of act 1, the Kaiser’s optimistic soldiers gather and march out into war, depicted with original footage at the back of the stage, to Wagner’s words of “Faithful until Death”. Making soldiers march off into a suggested or historical real war is not a novel idea for opera productions, it just hasn’t been made to work as powerfully. What would be camp in Aida, or unbearable kitsch in Giulio Cesare (more of Salzburg’s shockingly distasteful production later this week), becomes overwhelming here. Loss of innocence, calamity, and redemption turn out to fit like a glove on both, the Parsifal-, and the German-history narrative. At least if it is cunningly enough designed.

Profound humor and tangible drama are always at hand with Stefan Herheim, as are the bucket loads of German symbolism he throws in. What makes the production great, not just brilliant, is that you can miss a good lot of those allusions—Blauer Engel, Charlemagne, Palatine Chapel, Wagner’s original Parsifal set, Wieland Wagner’s neo-Bayreuth Parsifal set, Trümmerfrauen, Wilhelm Buschean archetypes, etc. etc., thanks to both Gesine Völlm’s inspired costumes and Heike Scheele’s ingenious sets—and still get the powerful drift of the production.

After the swastika flags of the second act (loss of innocence) unfolded and fell, Eva Pasquier-Wagner and Katharina Wagner appeared before a small group of eager, submissive American music critics. Seated at last, belatedly, they were ready to answer two, three questions, all on the deferential side of the potential spectrum. The sisters succeeded in saying very little per word spoken, cleverly exposing wanting questions for their inherent contradictions along the way, and spurning any suggestion of intra-sibling acrimony. They believably suggested, too, that their work was really a continuation of what Wolfgang Wagner had done, by similar if not exactly the same means. That’s plausible, but deserves the caveat that Wolfgang Wagner knew how to throw his conservative clients the occasional bone (by directing himself, if necessary), and never picked directors who were out to scandalize gratuitously (even if scandalize they did). Appointing Jonathan “My-Hitler-salutes-and-my-swastika-collection-are-cool-because-I’m-such-a-rebellious-intellectual-leftist” Meese as the next Parsifal director, or complete novices like J.P.Gloger for the current Dutchman, suggests at least a shift of emphasis. An interesting question to ask might have been whether the Wagner sisters—in light of the Wagner family’s history, Meese’s anointment, Herheim’s Parsifal, and the little Dutchman scandal earlier this summer—could elucidate the difference between a good swastika, and a bad swastika.

Instead, Herheim’s third act attempts to answer that question when it lowers a vast mirror, nearly as wide as the stage, and shows the audience, now facing itself, that they are the future, and thereby the answer to the questions that are still open. (This is an ending that, slightly transformed, Hans Neuenfels’ Lohengrin mirrors (as it were), when he makes the title character walk toward the audience, not away from them.)

Musically, Parsifal was in very good hands with Philippe Jordan, whose fluid and subtle musical direction fit right in with those of Thielemann and Nelsons. Kwangchul Youn’s Gurnemanz started slightly wooden, but already by the end of the first act he so embodied his figure, and sang with such quiet command and regal authority, that any wistful memories of a Nostalgia-Gurnemanz of choice (Kurt Moll, in my case) were eradicated. Susan Maclean’s Kundry, much like her Ortrud, made more of her character dramatically than vocally… to which her voice, frayed on top notes but with luscious mezzo-lows, contributes on both ends: If that rawness makes Waltraud Meier’s Kundry/Ortrud/Klytemnestra great these days, why not Macleans’? She hasn’t, granted, Meier’s letter-perfect diction, but unlike her more famous colleague, she throws herself into productions in a way that place the director’s intentions well before her ego. The overall result is mesmerizing, which is what counts when viewed in the house. Burkhard Fritz valiantly performed the singing adult incarnation of Parsifal, for whom three youngsters do much of the excellent acting which was timed to fit notes and text exactly—such as Boy-Parsifal’s limp little hands slumping on the floor right on the double bass pizzicati to “Matt hängen die Flügel”.

This Parsifal is a gift, Wolfgang Wagner’s legacy from beyond the grave, and one of the truly great moments of Wagnerian drama. For the foreseeable future, any Parsifal at Bayreuth will do well if it can only avoid comparison to Herheim’s.

Pictures (below) courtesy Bayreuth Festival, © Enrico Nawrath

(Recommended) recordings:

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Parsifal,
H.Knappertsbusch (1962) / Bayreuth FO
H.Hotter, I.Dalis
J.Thomas, G.Neidlinger
G.London, M.Talvela

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Parsifal,
C.Thielemann / Vienna State Opera
F.J.Selig, W.Meier
P.Domingo, W.Bankl
A.Anger, F.Struckmann

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Parsifal,
R.Kubelik / BRSO

K.Moll, Y.Minton,
J.King, F.Mazura
B.Weikl, M.Salminen