Parsifal - Bayreuther Festspielhaus, 29 July 2010
Stefan Herheim's Bayreuth Parsifal is that rare thing, a production which succeeds on just about every level. Intellectually stimulating, imaginative, theatrically compelling - and entertaining. In a single design concept he explores the work on several levels - the nominal plot, the festival's history within Germany's own development from empire to federal republic, and the religious search for salvation. It's dazzling and technically virtuosic.
With the wizardry of designer Heike Scheele and the impressive technical resources of the Festival Theatre, visual transformations are seamless. Pillars seem to stretch, walls recede, paintings turn into forest vistas. Cinematic techniques of zooming and cutting shift the events between the entrance hall and garden of Wagner's Haus Wahnfried. This suddenly expands into a magnificent Grail Castle and later serves as a hospital, brothel, parade ground and bomb site. The child Parsifal plays with a tiny replica of the set (viewed as a massive back projection) - Parsifal as puppeteer and creator of his own myth.
Although he respects the text and the stage directions - the swan and spear are unironically realistic - many of Herheim's most striking ideas are developed purely from the music. It's his understanding and respect for the overarching musical structure that really marks him out as a director. Repeating visual motifs and perpetually changing backgrounds reflect Wagner's own use of leitmotiv and shifting tone colours. If ever there was a Gesamtkunstwerk, this is it.
Circles, cleansing streams of water, blood-red marks return in varied forms. Parsifal's mother, Amfortas, Kundry and eventually Parsifal himself are visually united in flowing white robes and red hair. The settings and the characters themselves change as the drama progresses. The message - redemption via transformation - has never been expressed more elegantly or more clearly.
A huge mirror rises behind the stage; we the audience see ourselves reflected. We are here, implicated by juxtaposition in Germany's and Bayreuth's own dark past, where Wagner's artistic and ideological legacy still shapes the discourse.
Herheim has created an overwhelming theatrical experience that doesn't offer a tidily-packaged 'interpretation'. He reveals glimpses of multiple meanings, only to snatch them away and offer new ones. This leads to one drawback - there's too much going on to take in. It demands a number of repeated viewings that are unlikely given the scarcity of tickets.
A production like this needs top-class acting to sustain it, and the mostly non-German cast rose to the dramatic challenges. A ludicrously overgrown child in the first two acts and a saintly redeemer in the final one, Christopher Ventris made a brave and strongly-sung Parsifal. Susan Maclean gave striking expression and differentiation to Kundry's many transformations. The power and colour in her middle voice compensated for a degree of shrillness at the top.
Following a staged prelude featuring Parsifal's birth and childhood in 19th century Wahnfried, Herheim ingeniously shatters Gurnemanz's lengthy monologues into a series of illustrative scenes. Switching from servant to winged inhabitant of the infant Parsifal's nightmare, Kwangchul Youn responded with flexibility and a deep, sonorous bass that was to prove the most beautiful singing of the evening. These three were the drivers of the drama.
Detlef Roth was a lyrical but pallid Amfortas, sidelined to some extent by the production concept. Thomas Jesatko, swooping though a WW1 hospital-turned-brothel in tail coat, stockings and black swan wings, made Klingsor a bit too much of a cabaret turn. His transformation into a Hitler-figure, surrounded by fluttering swastikas, didn't carry the chill that a more authoritative presence might have done. It was enough for my (German) neighbour and his wife though; they left at the end of the second act not to return, muttering how 'disgraceful' the 'Nazi business' was (hadn't they read the reviews?)
They were an exception - the second act was only lightly booed, and Stefan Herheim was greeted with cheers and a standing ovation at the end of the night.
The only disappointment was Daniele Gatti's conducting. I did wonder how much his tempos were constrained by the constant, presumably micro-timed, scene changing. Nevertheless many of his choices seemed arbitrary, often fast yet lacking in internal tension. Over-held pauses and abrupt changes of direction interrupted the flow of the music. I felt more tossed around than swept along. On the plus side, the orchestra played beautifully for him, and he brought out many interesting details, but it was at the expense of line. A production of this stature deserves an equally memorable musical performance.
some production photos (see more here):
Rear view of Wagner's Bayreuth home, Wahnfried, the basis for the set:
My view of some the tallest men in Germany, from centre rear stalls: