I saw Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal tonight via the miracle of the internet, a complex take on the opera that rewards the serious viewer/listener. I found it here, via links that may not be live much longer. If you want to see for yourself, don’t wait!
Herheim’s production isn’t new but is reprised this summer, rich with associations from history, from Wagner’s biography and the mythology of the story itself. Much in this production is self-reflexive, both as far as Wagner is concerned and German culture. Wagner’s home –known as “Wahnfried”—is referenced in the set design, as is the Bayreuth Festival theatre itself.
Gender is one of the key issues Herheim seizes upon. We had already seen gender as a focus in Syberberg’s 1983 film of the opera, where the protagonist changes gender from male to female partway through the second act. Herheim takes it further, likely influenced by the possibility that Wagner may have been a cross-dresser, emerging from the composer’s correspondence; Klingsor –the evil magician—is therefore portrayed as a flamboyant transvestite.
Several characters ambiguously conflate with others:
- Kundry and Parsifal’s mother Herzeleide are combined, as we see the birth onstage in the opera’s Prelude, again reminiscent of Syberberg’s film.
- We see a young boy in a sailor suit carrying bow and arrow in the Prelude who might be Parsifal, although as the opera begins, we meet several other young men similarly attired. Later we’ll meet Parsifal still attired as a boy in shorts & sailor suit even though he’s a full-grown man. We also see another boy who might be Amfortas, and a boy who substitutes for the swan (in one of the most powerful effects of the act).
Even so I would say that this production is relatively straight-forward in its approach to Parsifal. Much of the last act reads as a very conservative approach, particularly in context. Act II, which ends with the destruction of Klingsor’s castle, is staged so that the swastika banners are unfurled five minutes before Parsifal blows them all away: a moment that feels very cleansing considering the festival’s history.
When we get to Act III, amid the ruins of Germany and the festival in modern dress, the arrival of Parsifal in traditional garb is breath-takingly edgy, precisely because it employs the conventional costume. The moments in the final hour that are usually most powerful in audio recordings are also the most powerful in this production.
Amfortas, who at times has resembled Jesus Christ, comes in for the final eulogy over Titurel in modern dress among a partisan parliamentary chorus, some heckling rather than grieving. When he finally succumbs to his despair and rips his business suit open, revealing his unhealed wound, the effect is more powerful than you might expect, particularly when Parsifal arrives with the spear.
The musical presentation was stunningly good, leading me to hope there will be a DVD of the production. I was delighted to read that Philippe Jordan was the son of Armin Jordan, who was conductor in the Syberberg Parsifal. Both Jordans keep things moving briskly, which may not be to everyone’s taste, but definitely accords with my preferences.
Of the singers there’s a lot to celebrate. Kwangchul Youn creates a Gurnemanz of compassion, powerful at times, yet very delicate in the last act. Burkhard Fitz makes Parsifal completely three-dimensional, taking him from the clueless youth of the first act, to a very subdued, world-weary hero in the last. Susan Maclean’s Kundry is wonderfully detailed and committed, at times a bit strained at the top but never dull and often gorgeous in the lower register. Detlef Roth creates an Amfortas reminiscent of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, at times very lyrical, and with a conflicted dignity reminding me of Hugh Laurie (aka House). Thomas Jesatko is a thoroughly enjoyable Klingsor, at times played as if he were a music-hall performer rather than an opera singer.
Here’s Act One as of August 13th, although the link may not be live much longer.