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Easter WETA Redux No.2

Fresh back from a Easter Parsifal performance (review forthcoming), I figure it seems only (in)appropriate, on this Easter Sunday, to resurrect the two meandering 'Easter Pilgrimage bits' I wrote for WETA in 2008... which was a wonderful trip through Europe with the goal of getting as many Parsifal and Matthew Passion performances into a fortnight. (An unforeseen link: Attila Jun, then a Dutchman in Stuttgart, filled in this night as Gurnemanz.) Part 1 can be read here.

Easter Pilgrimage – Parisfal [sic!]

Classical WETA, Wednesday, 4.12.08

Easter—the word—and the Easter Bunny [pace a moronic graphic that's been making the Facebook rounds] have at its root the Nordic goddess of fertility Ostara, via the German “Ostern”. Or so we are told by the Angle-Saxon missionary Beda. The Brothers Grimm took that tale up because it came with an irresistible story: Happening upon a poor bird whose wings were frozen to its body, Ostara saved the poor creature by turning it into a bunny. Having once been a bird, it got to continue laying eggs. Voila: Easter eggs.

Those who follow reviews of new Wagner productions around the world will have heard about Christoph Schlingensief’s Bayreuth Parsifal (2004 – 2007). It was controversial, of course, and intriguing. Criticism and intrigue seemed to have the same source: this Parsifal had symbolism poured on it by the bucket; among them also a decomposing bunny.

Parsifal, with its themes of redemption and the explicit Good Friday references, is the Easter Opera. And since Schlingensief (apparently fighting lung cancer | Edit: he was fighting lung cancer; RIP) also includes an ‘eternal mother figure’ in this clutter, the bunny-symbol might just make sense.

Making sense of Parsifal, no matter what production, is always

tough. It is, frankly, a weird opera, even without decaying bunnies. A Bühnenweihfestspiel—a sacred stage festival drama—about the pure fool who is to become the keeper of the holy grail: the last opera Wagner finished, a mix of the philosophy of Schopenhauer, Buddhism, and mystically inclined Christendom that drove Nietzsche bonkers. Not surprisingly, there are about as many interpretations as there are stagings of this opera, always highlighting a new aspect or, more likely, obfuscating it.

Part of the European Easter Pilgrimage were three Parsifal performances: The new production at the Paris Opera (director Krzysztof Warlikowski [of Brokeback Onegin fame], conductor Hartmut Haenchen), Konwitschny’s Parsifal in Munich (conductor Kent Nagano), and the Christine Mielitz Parsifal in Vienna under Christian Thielemann. Not surprisingly, they were about as different as can be.

Konwitschny’s Parsifal in Munich was the first Wagner Opera I ever saw—and at the time I felt like a lobster thrown head first into boiling water. But that experience not having killed me, it made me stronger. And it significantly increased my ability to sit through—and enjoy—a Wagner opera, and ask questions later.

Questions, for example, like why the grail is represented by the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit (a live dove) walking out of a tree (Munich). Or why a young kid saunters aimlessly across the stage in all three acts in Paris. Or why a naked woman sprints across the Vienna stage at the unveiling (!?) of the grail.

Accordingly, there are at least two ways of judging the success of a Parsifal staging: How much thought the director packed into their dramatic development and symbolism (often impossible to figure out at just one viewing), and how effective the staging brings out the known, more superficial elements of the opera.


In Paris, Warlikowski stages Parsifal on a dark stage with a prominent semi-circle of amphitheater staging that looks as though pinched from the set of a Bayreuth Lohengrin first act. In what is fast becoming a modern tradition, a non-speaking role was added as a guide for whatever it is that the director wants us to come away with from this production. In Willy Decker’s Salzburg La Traviata it was the figure of Time/Death, in Claus Guth’s Le Nozze di Figaro (also Salzburg) it is Cherub, related to, but not identical with, Cherubino. In Konwitschny’s Flying Dutchman from Munich there is a Senta archetype whisking through the picture. Warlikowski has a kid, a young boy of perhaps six, eight years who doodles with pen and paper in the background during the first act (projected on a large screen at the back of the stage), scribbles during the second act, throwing the crumpled paper balls at Klingsor, and in the third act tends with painstaking care to a little vegetable garden. In addition, there is an older, genderless figure that leads Parsifal through the acts, at the conclusion of the opera sitting down with him at a table for a little chat. Is this a juxtaposition of the naïve and unknowing vs. the wise and all-knowing – a metaphor for the course that Parsifal takes over the three acts of this opera?

The atmosphere of Warlikowski’s production is academic, not mystic. A pre-med lecture at the Sorbonne in act 1 (hospital beds; Titurel in a wheelchair), a trip to Les Folies-Bergère in act 2, and an exploration of post WWII Germany in act 3. There were some very effective touches to act 2, apart from the ‘mirrors of self-awareness’. Finally a successful symbolized way of throwing the spear, rather than dragging the old javelin through otherwise modern sets: A lane of red lights ‘shot’ toward Parsifal. A second line then turned the thrown spear into the cross, the sign of which Parsifal makes to destroy Klingsor. Ingenious here the Brechtian trick of destroying Klingsor’s castle by turning the lights on and exposing the set: No more castle, no more make-believe—it’s just a stage-set with props and lighting rigs.

Redemption Through Advanced Agronomy

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Parsifal,
R.Kubelik / BRSO
Music & Arts

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Parsifal,
P.Boulez / Bayreuth O&Ch.

The third act is preceded by a screening of the last six minutes of Roberto Rossellini’s “Germany, Year Zero” which brought the Parisian audience to life: “Ridiculous”, “Wagner, please” and some exclamations less suitable for reproduction were hollered through the huge Bastille Opera. It was like a game of who could come up with the wittiest insult for a directorial interference that should have seemed mild and minor to audiences used to Gérard Mortier’s productions.

Interestingly enough, the scene of a young boy wandering alone and abandoned through the wreckage of Berlin, only to jump to his death in desolation, made perfect sense in the retrospective light of the orchestral prelude to act 3… as if the music had been written to follow a scene like that. And the young boy from the stage (and the film?) now took to tending to his garden in Germanic-meticulous, perversely dedicated ways. Every leaf some attention, every bit of gravel carefully aligned. It was difficult not to think of an allegory on evil Germany (Klingsor) awakening after destruction, after having its un-healing wound (Nazism) treated, and now putting the same single-mindedness it had shown in war to reconstruction. Redemption through advanced agronomy. Parsifal’s return to this scene is one of brokenness, not heroism—his character limps into view as someone who has seen too much to still be light of heart, taking care of the despondent, “Führer-less” (as explained by Gurnemanz) Knights.

Hartmut Haenchen’s take of the score took to de-traditionalizing Parsifal in order to attain something more akin to the original, rather than the Knappertsbuschified drag-and-crawl. (Admittedly, no one crawled with such glorious dignity as Knappertsbusch.) The premiere performance of Parsifal was reported to have taken just over four hours. Haenchen, like Boulez, his erstwhile tutor, manages in just under four hours. (Especially notable in the underplayed, de-romanticized Karfreitagszauber.) Haenchen has researched, and written about, the tempo relationships within the work and was not just fleet (without sounding rushed) but also relatively sparse, presenting Parsifal as a condensation of Wagner’s craft in which just the essential elements were retained. The result sounded neutral and subservient to the music. The orchestra was in fine shape (no more), the bells—amplified?—sounded synthetic.

Franz Josef Selig’s Gurnemanz was massive and very impressive, if not very nuanced. Stig Andersen jumped in for Christopher Ventris as Parsifal and had, apart from some brief (though serious) problems in act 3 and a few swallowed moments after “Die Wunde” in act 2, a good night. Evgeny Nikitin’s Klingsor acted well in his red, Devil-caricature velvet suit, but was a touch underpowered and difficult to understand. Alexander Marco-Buhrmester did not strike a cutting figure as Amfortas but neither was he memorably inept. Ditto Victor van Halem (Titurel). They might of course have suffered (or benefited) from neglect because of the presence—and what a presence it is!—of Waltraud Meier’s Kundry. Still, after so many years of making this role completely hers, she continues to fascinate with her ability of melting acting and singing into a wholly performed one. The vibrato gets wider, but Kundry—this Wagner hybrid of at least four figures—can take an earthier, grittier voice in act 1 anyway, and—if used in the service of fleshy seduction—too. A fascination and still well worth traveling for.

Invisible Fast Forward Button

[Edit: The following has been added since publication on WETA] The Munich
and Vienna Parsifals followed and offered great insight into the difference between excellent and inspired playing. Munich, with its aging but classic Konwitschny production, provided an orchestra that performed superbly, with technical aplomb, bar none. Experience certainly helps, and perhaps Kent Nagano at the helm did, too. But apart from being forced to feel for Michael Volle’s inspired Gurnemanz, there was little about the straightforward, un-sensual performance that was memorable. Although only the second Parsifal on this trip, the six hours (given Munich’s admirably extended intermissions) already seemed long.

Not so the Parsifal in Vienna. And it wasn’t Christine Mielitz’ production that was the primary cause of the diversion—although her second act with Kundry (Mihoko Fujimura) as the drug-induced prostitute-slave of Klingsor was brilliantly affecting—nor the rude playing of the Vienna Philharmonic, but Christian Thielemann’s conducting. It was one of those moments where, looking around, you realize that everyone else is also realizing—without words being exchanged—that something very special is happening. Granted, the Vienna audience is biased and largely uncritical of Thielemann, but this was special. After five hours I mentioned to my boss friend and partner-in-Parsifal-excess saying, with greater sincerity than it would seem: “I could do that one more time, right now.”

It was the moment that my theory on what makes Thielemann a great (opera—and specifically Wagner) conductor crystallized: Thieleman has the gift of the invisible fast-forward button where he can speed up a performance at will, without you noticing it… only to relish all the attention in the world on a moment of grandeur. You don’t get motion sick, because he’s subtle, you get the best of the glorious bits, and you skip zippily along the ‘dreadful quarter-hours’. (Incidentally, if you are annoyed by his Beethoven, it might just be because it sounds like a collage of moments that interest Thielemann, a serious of long-glowing spotlights rather than a straight line of light. But I digress.) This Parsifal, was a musical life-time highlight. Mielitz might have run out of ideas after the second act, leaving the third—in vague and hazy recollection—a bland dystopia in gray and green that did not pick up on what happened before with enough obviousness for me to get it. No one cared.

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