Review: Redemption In Ten Dimensions, Stefan Herheim’s Bayreuth 'Parsifal', 2010

Bayreuth Parsifal 2008

By Dr Jim Leigh
A three part exposition and introduction for audience members of the current Bayreuth production


Part 1
The Bayreuth Parsifal performance of 27 August 2009 was the tenth time I had seen a staged performance (not counting the 1982 Syberberg film or the Sydney 1977 concert performance under [Carlo Felice] Cillario). This time I saw the production from the centre of Row 1 in the stalls. These were the best seats I have ever had at Bayreuth. The current Bayreuth production was first seen in 2008 (Director - Stefan Herheim, Conductor - Daniele Gatti, Stage Design - Heike Scheele, Technical Direction - Kark-Heinz Matitschka, plus a very long list of other technical acknowledgements). This was the most complex opera production I have ever seen, even more complex than the Schlingensief production, with which it shares some features.

Indeed, the production is so complex that books have been written about it, to explain and analyse it. One of the best is that of Susanne Vill Professor of Theatre Science at the University of Bayreuth. This was published in the middle of the Festival in 2009 and relies heavily on interviews and correspondence with Herheim and the dramaturg Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach. Much of this review will be based is based on Vill’s detailed analysis, but before going further into this, some background material may be helpful.

Wagner’s road to Parsifal

The main message of Parsifal is the rejection, in favour of fellow feeling with man and nature and of our tendency to think in terms of power and self-assertiveness. Wagner saw Parsifal as the cosmic culmination of the Ring, a recycling of nature- death and a better rebirth. He arrived at Parsifal after a long genesis, dating from his earliest familiarity with the Wolfram epic in the early 1840s in Paris, via the unwritten music dramas Jesus of Nazareth(1849) and Die Sieger (1856). The former espoused the concept that Jesus had overturned the law of history that violence could only be defeated by further violence, the latter the Schopenhauerian concept of redemption through denial of the will, specifically the will of sexual love. Schopenhauerian denial of the will for power alone (and its replacement by erotic love) is not enough to redeem the world. Denial of the erotic principle itself is also demanded. Parsifal can thus be seen as the summation of all of Wagner’s lifework. This is clear from a reading of the second volume of Cosima Wagner’s diaries, which is saturated with discussions on Wagner’s creation of Parsifal.The final writing and composition of Parsifal took place in Wahnfried, Wagner’s house in Bayreuth where he lived and worked from 1874 until his death in 1883 and which was the first house he had ever owned after years of wandering and renting.

This is not an ordinary opera and not even an ordinary music drama. It was designated a Bühnenweihfestspiel, that is, a stage dedication festival play. It was written precisely with the Bayreuth Festival Theatre in mind, after the first successful performance of the Ring there in 1876. It was a summation of all Wagner’s thinking and from 1882 –1914, with one or two exceptions, could only be seen at Bayreuth, in a production barely changed from the original. Until the 1930s and Cosima’s death, the production barely changed. Productions elsewhere in the world followed the Bayreuth model. Even the1971 Parsifal at Covent Garden (the first I saw) was absolutely traditional, with the famous rolling scenery. This was actually a great production, with Jon Vickers, Donald McIntyre, Norman Bailey and Kiri Te Kanawa making her debut as a lead Flowermaiden; conductor Reginald Goodall). Attending Parsifal was more like attending a religious ceremony and even today it is customary not to clap at the end of Act 1.

In his late philosophical work Religion and Art (1880), and subsequent addenda to it, Wagner reveals a lot of his thinking that informed Parsifal. I believe some background knowledge of this work, as well as a familiarity with the Herheim and Schlingensief productions is necessary to interpret this production.

In a famous formulation, Wagner claimed that when religion became artificial it was the role of art to preserve its essence by apprehending its mystical symbols which religion believed literally true and to present their inner meaning in idealised form. When pure Christianity had become the religion of the rich and more used as a tool of political and military power and property, it was the duty of art to redeem it through music, the only art which corresponds to the true Christianity that is concerned with compassion and recognition of the frailty of the world. Wagner saw the need for the removal of racial inequality by partaking of Holy Communion, drinking the blood of Jesus and the need for regeneration following the degeneration of humanity as a result of world historical processes, mainly capitalism. In an addendum to Religion and Art, written two days before his death in 1883, Wagner had written of female emancipation, saying that it would only occur after ecstatic spasms by women in society, predicting the suffragettes.

“Erlösung den Erlöser”

The famous key phrase in Parsifal “Erlösung den Erlöser” (“redemption to the redeemer”) has been subject to many interpretations. Taken as being in the present tense (ie someone or something which itself is a redeemer has himself or itself been redeemed), the following have been proposed:

1. The Grail (Christ the Redeemer’s blood) redeemed from its weakened power due to its sinful guardian,  Amfortas, weakening it by contamination with Kundry.

2. Parsifal is redeemed from lack of pity, while himself redeeming Amfortas and Kundry for their sin, by denying Kundry’s sexual advances).Christianity is itself redeemed from non-Aryan influences (Klingsor-Jews). Although in the text “The Redeemer” is usually to be taken as Christ, there are some points at which Gurnemanz identifies Parsifal with Christ.

Taken in the future tense (ie someone who has redeemed something will be redeemed in future or will do further acts of redemption) the following have also been proposed:

3. Parsifal, (now King of the Grail) must now seek redemption for his fellow knights in a new Grail community which will abandon masculine self- sufficiency

4. Wagner himself will redeem the world and himself with his art.

Herheim takes the concept of redemption even further, moving from redemption of the individual to the redemption of the entire German nation from its past and I think is trying to say that we, the Bayreuth audience, can redeem German history, by coming to terms with it and by so doing are redeemed from having been a party to it. Yet another interpretation will emerge later in this review.

Like Syberberg, Schlingensief and Eichinger, Herheim superimposes several different levels of meaning at the individual and social or national level. These concepts are only indirectly related to Wagner’s Parsifal. Where Herheim greatly improves on these models is in his logic and consistency, and his much closer adherence to the score and text in his stage “happenings”. He even provides linkages to guide the audience between the different levels.

The main features of the production are

  1. Wagner’s Parsifal told with much more stage concretisation of events past and present. This is normally only narrated or implied in the music.

  2. The history of Germany 1870-1951, depicted in stage action and film.

  3. The history of Wagner’s creative and personal life, the establishment of the Bayreuth Festival and the building of Wahnfried are depicted in stage action and film.

  4. The reception history of the opera Parsifal.

  5. The unconscious, psychological development of Parsifal and Wagner is depicted on stage by symbolism, both with actors and physical symbols.

  6. Direct confrontation with the audience by making them part of the production.

  7. Use of parallel actions and multiple characterisations to depict the individual and collective unconscious.

  8. Use of dream sequences and magical set trans- formations.

  9. Use of simultaneous hybrid sets and stage sym- bolism to interrelate the Parsifal, German history, psychological and Wagner history lines.

    10. Use of theatre within a theatre.

Herheim, in an analogy to a melody being transferred between different orchestral instruments in a complex score, constantly transfers the emphasis of the production between 10 dimensions. [For ease of reference the list of the Top 10 Grail Symbols has been moved here from the Appendix at the end of Dr Leigh’s review.] [The film director Bernd Eichinger (“Downfall’, “Elementarleichen”, “Fantastic Four” and recently “The Baader Meinhof Complex”) directed the 2006 Deutsche Staatsoper Parsifalthat Dr Liegh reviewed in September 2006 Newsletter No.106 – or at the website www.wagner-nsw.org.au/ reviews/index.html - that “overlaid world history with psychological development”.]

10 Dimensions

1. Wagner’s Parsifal, both the music drama itself and its reception history
2. Personality development of the human
3. Psychoanalysis, both Freudian and Jungian
4. Male/Female gender relations both individual and societal
5. Religion, in relation to society, war, race.
6. The Grail and Spear as symbols. (There are at least ten different Grail symbols)
7. Contrast between dreams and reality
8. Wahnfried
9. Bayreuth Festival
10. German History

The Top 10 Grail symbols

1. Actual grail vessel in red, rose, and white 2. Bed
3. Wagner’s grave
4. Bathtub
5. Fountain
6. Altar
7. Heart of Federal German eagle
8. Speaker’s desk in parliament
9. The search for immortality
10. Womanhood

WHAT HAPPENS AND WHAT IT ALL MEANS.

Prelude

The prelude to Parsifal, usually preceding the rising of the curtain, is accompanied in this production by much action on stage. The set is the downstairs main living room of Wahnfried. Today his is the library where concerts and lectures are given: I had heard the Sven Friedrich talk onParsifal there only four hours before the performance I experienced and seeing this room again represented on the stage created a strange feeling of intimacy for the listener/spectator in the Festspielhaus.

Wagner‘s grave in the Wahnfried garden is in the centre in front of the Bayreuth stage (it is the prompter’s box). I could almost have rested my feet on it, as it came across the orchestra pit cover. This cleverly suggests Wagner himself is running the whole production from the grave. It was also Cosima’s grave after she died in 1930. On the wall on the left (from audience perspective), over a fireplace, is the painting by Kaulbach, Deutschland 1914, depicting Germania the ancient female warrior. On her shield is the German Reich eagle. Under the painting is an elegant mantelpiece clock. The German Reich eagle is also hanging above the stage. A set of winged doors is on the right. The use of Wahnfried itself alludes to the fact the Parsifal was largely created here, and the first rehearsals were held here

The painting of Germania alludes to the warlike atmosphere in Germany in 1914. The contrast between the warlike painting and the elegant clock suggests an attempted sublimation of warlike feelings into a search for artistic beauty. Wagner after his revolutionary violent activities in 1848 sought sublimation in his new music dramatic creations

In the centre of the room is a double bed in which lies Herzeleide, Parsifal’s mother, in the form of Germania. This bed is to become a central feature of the whole production. It is in bed that we give birth, make love, sleep, dream, get sick and die. The bed is also here a symbol of embrace, motherhood, womanliness, sacred love, conception and regeneration through sleep and is thus a Grail symbol (one of many as we will see)

Herzeleide is dying. A doctor, a priest and Gurnemanz (in the form of a butler) stand beside the bed. The priest is offering communion. A child, Parsifal, is on the right playing on a rocking horse. This symbolises his childhood fascination with knights. A servant, Kundry, takes Parsifal to Herzeleide who embraces him. She dies. He then runs out the door to Wagner’s grave and starts to build a little wall with building blocks on it. This is projected to the back wall of the set. This symbolises Cosima’s restriction ofParsifal productions to Bayreuth up to 1914. While Parsifal is building this wall, the whole room expands in size and darkens. This is the first of the many magical scenic transformations (which require massively complex stage machinery.). These scene transformations are used to shift between the conceptual domains of good and evil, dream and reality, life and death and Grail and Klingsor.

A fantasy scene now begins. Herzeleide comes to life again. She is seen dragging the Parsifal child into bed with her and making love to him. She has a red rose in her hand. The red rose is also back- projected. This scene has obvious Freudian significance in relation to Parsifal’s later rejection of Kundry, but in addition it implies vampirish allusions to the blood brotherhood of the Grail knights. The red rose represents passion. There are allusions to the Love-Death of Tristan and Isolde and the connection Wagner made in his creative process between the sufferings of Amfortas and Tristan. In an early draft of Tristan, Parsifal was to have met the dying Tristan in act 3.

The building of the wall also alludes to Wagner’s own childhood loss of his father and sublimation into the world of theatre and the pseudo-family of theatre folk. It may also be a reference to Ludwig’s escape from the real world in castle building. Whew! That’s just the prelude. I had hardly heard it because I had to take in all of the above.

Act 1

This takes place in the garden of Wahnfried. Five blonde boys in sailor suits are sitting on the ground. They are knights and esquires. This is a picture of happy family life at Wahnfried, firstly with Richard and Cosima and Eva, Isolde and Siegfried plus Daniela and Blandine (Cosima’s daughters by von Bülow), then later Winifred and Siegfried’s four children, and finally Wolfgang and Wieland’s’ broods. Gurnemanz comes in through the winged doors. He is wearing big dark wings.

The wings, which other characters will also wear, have many-sided significance. They can be seen as angel’s wings: guardian angel, fallen angel or surrounding angel. They represent the fantasy life of humans, as in the dream of being able to fly. The Wright brothers’ first attempts to fly occurred at around this time.

Birds in Wagner’s Parsifal form a contrasting pair, the eagle and the swan. The eagle symbolizes strength and bravery of both men and gods. It is a Christian symbol for God’s concern for Christ, for renewal of youthful power and for spiritual power. For ancient Germany it was Wotan’s escort and an oracle. In 800AD, the eagle was adopted as the German emblem, as it was again in 1919 by the Weimar Republic and in 1951 by the German Federal Republic.

In the text of Parsifal, when the swan is shot, Gurnemanz asks Parsifal where he got his bow and Parsifal tells him he made it himself to shoot wild eagles. The swan is a symbol of beauty, peace, purity, true love, and the female side of men (the Jungian anima). As the only bird with a penis it has a special significance in relation to man. In the production, the eagle and swan symbols are often interchanged.

The characters with dark wings are all prepared for death. Kundry, who also wears dark wings and later dark (male) evening dress, is associated with the “Blue Angel” as played by Marlene Dietrich. She was the first German to act in anti-Nazi films in Hollywood and sing for US troops. The contrast between Dietrich in seducing US soldiers for good purposes and Kundry in seducing Grail knights for bad purposes is established.

A further dimension of the angel wings is the idea of “the angel of history”. This angel restores the memory of the past to the present. However, the force of progress blasts his wings and forces him into the future, requiring a revision of the past. The wearing of wings by characters signifies that history is not unalterable and that there are ways that Germany can come to terms with its past.

Children with little bows are seen kneeling on the grave and the child Parsifal, in sailor suit, is now seen in the bed. The German eagle above the stage has changed into a swan.

The sailor suits illustrate the dress of the time, but also allude to the sailors on the battleship Potemkin, associated with the outbreak of the Russian revolution in 1917. The appearance of the swan alludes to the change in emphasis in the Grail knights from warlike behaviour to spirituality and also to the future Lohengrin as son of Parsifal.

A doctor and priest, both with dark wings, enter in preparation for the arrival of Amfortas. Gurnemanz bows towards Parsifal. Women enter. Normally no women, apart from Kundry, enter the Grail realm. However, the appearance of women here symbolizes the overtaking of Grail legends by later Celtic rites involving women as mother gods and fertility symbols. It also alludes to Wagner accepting women into his household as intellectual equals at a time when this was not common, illustrating his early support for female emancipation (eg Mathilde Wesendonck, Malwida von Meysenbug, Judith Gautier, and of course Cosima).

Kundry comes in wearing large dark wings and goes to Parsifal, protecting him with her wings. More men and women enter in the costumes of the late 19th century. They also have dark wings. They bring Amfortas, wearing a bloodstained white smock, and cover him with the royal cloak of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The smock shows Amfortas as a perverted Christ. A connection is made of the suffering, sexually ambiguous Ludwig, with the genitally wounded Amfortas. Ludwig’s role as Wagner’s patron at the time is emphasized.

A bathtub is bought out of the fireplace on the left. The bathtub, where Amfortas will soothe his wound, is a domestic symbol of a lake of spiritual rebirth, a uterus, or a holy lake. It also alludes to the little lake in the Bayreuth, 1999, Keith Warner Lohengrin production where Gottfried reappears. It relates to Wagner’s own predilection for taking the waters at numerous spas. Wagner first read the Wolfram Parsifal legends in depth at the spa in Marienbad. The bathtub is also a Grail symbol.

Amfortas then sits on the wall around the fountain behind the bed. In the centre of the fountain there is an altar, piled with cannon balls. This is a reference to the practice of religious knightly orders (eg Crusaders, Knights Templar) to justify the rightness of their military activities on the basis of their faith. It has modern resonances in “Indiana Jones” and the “Da Vinci Code”. Pure fools justify themselves in wars for economic gain or religious conversion.

Amfortas goes to the grave and sings for the first time the words “Durch Mitleid wissend...der reine Tor” (‘the pure fool, made wise through pity’). Gurnemanz gives him the balsam. Kundry gets into the bed. As Amfortas sits on the bed, Kundry covers him with her wings. The 1st and 2nd knights, in student fraternity costume, draw their swords against Amfortas. Kundry protects Amfortas by attempting to seduce the knights, lifting her skirt and exposing her breasts. The knights then attack her.

This scene is a reminiscence of Kundry’s original seduction of Amfortas when she served Klingsor and of her guilt in this. It is also a flash-forward to the cowardly behaviour of Parsifal’s companions in the Magic Garden of Act 2. Kundry uses woman’s weapons to combat the knights’ aggression. Kundry is torn between her two roles although she always has knowledge of them, in spite of the death- like trances she goes into.

The child Parsifal washes himself in the bathtub. Kundry goes to the grave and makes ecstatic, wild hand gestures to the grave. This is a reference to Wagner’s late writings on female emancipation (see above) where ecstatic behavior of woman must precede emancipation.

As Gurnemanz sings of Titurel, the child Parsifal in the bathtub disappears and is suddenly replaced by an old man (Titurel). This symbolizes the life sustaining power of the Grail and has allusions to the ending of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey where the recycling of life occurs. It also alludes to Kundry’s reincarnations.

As Gurnemanz sings of the lost spear, Kundry shrinks from the look of Titurel as she recognizes her duty to him and exits. Titurel points past Gurnemanz to the picture of Germania, alluding to his (Titurel’s) magical powers and presaging the imminent magical appearance of his opposite, Klingsor, here in Act 1 (not where he usually appears).

The picture now is reflected in a mirror while a bridge appears on which Klingsor enters as a transvestite wearing male evening coat and shirt, black frilly female undies, fishnet tights and a red cape (think Dr Frank’n’furter, “Rocky Horror Show”). He is carrying a spear, ready to throw. Gurnemanz’ narration of Amfortas’ original loss of the spear is acted out.

Amfortas enters through the winged doors dressed as Germania, carrying the holy spear and wearing the German Kaiser’s crown and Ludwig’s cloak. Kundry appears in the bed and drags Amfortas into it and they embrace, sinking down into the bed. Klingsor takes the holy spear and disappears. Gurnemanz takes the Ludwig cloak from the bed.

The men, women and children now gather again around the bed. In the bed is now the child Parsifal. With his words “How is the King going?” Gurnemanz puts the Ludwig cloak around the child. He is to be the future Grail King. The “other” Parsifal steps out of the bathtub and goes to the grave. This sequence reflects both Gottfried in Lohengrin, with Lohengrin as future king of the Brabantians plus the establishment of Parsifal as a uniquely Bayreuth opera and the beginning of the Bayreuth mythos. It also illustrates the first use in this production of multiple depictions of the same character, a device used extensively by Syberberg in his 1982 Parsifal film.

At this point it is worth noting that all these magical transformations were very smooth and silent, even from row 1, and totally convinced the eye.

As Gurnemanz sings of Titurel’s creation of a shrine to protect the Grail and Spear in Montsalvat, a Christmas tree appears in the Wahnfried window and snow falls inside Wahnfried. Gurnemanz stands behind the child Parsifal at the grave and a row of women carrying red lights form around them. Light shines on the theatre audience. We are the Bayreuth faithful.

This scene equates the establishment of Montsalvat with the birth of Christ and the birth of the art religion of Parsifalat Bayreuth. The Christmas tree in the room is an allusion the Christmas celebrations at Wahnfried in Wagner’s time when the Parsifal prelude was played by Wagner to Cosima. It represents 6 or 7 dimensions of interpretation at once.

As Gurnemanz goes on to tell of Klingsor and his Magic Garden, the fountain starts to throw water and flowers appear in the window of Wahnfried.

When he sings of the spear being now in Klingsor’s hands, Gurnemanz pulls the Ludwig cloak from Parsifal, revealing him in a white sailor suit. Amfortas now appears on the fountain and another Parsifal, a youth of nineteen or so, appears on the Wahnfried balcony. The child Parsifal shoots at Amfortas. As the swan falls into the bed Amfortas disappears. The child Parsifal is now in the bed with a mortal wound. The youth Parsifal comes down to collect his booty. The esquires threaten the child Parsifal with their bows, while the youth Parsifal also raises his bow.

This action is a good example of Herheim’s vision of all the male characters representing a part of each other, as in Jungian psychology. Parsifal’s shot at Amfortas is an attempt to eliminate guilt. The two different Parsifals allude to Parsifal’s personality development. The artificial action of the child Parsifal shooting at Amfortas uses two different characters to draw together the guilt of both.

As Gurnemanz sings of the swan, the women around the fountain make flying movements. A doctor brings the now dead child Parsifal to the youth Parsifal. This is interpreted as a reference to Lohengrin’s failure to enter the world of men, the end of Romantic opera for Wagner and the beginning of his new music drama, and the end of Parsifal’s childhood. The death of the swan in the bed refers to Parsifal’s original psychosexual relation to his mother. Ludwig II of Bavaria (the swan king) had great belief in and (? sexual love ) for Wagner as a composer but gradually became disillusioned with him when he (Wagner) became progressively involved with Cosima von Bülow while the first prose draft of Parsifal was being written in 1865. The dead swan in the bed symbolises the loss of Ludwig’s confidence in Wagner because of Wagner’s sexual relation to Cosima. When Gurnemanz asks Parsifal whether he understands the sight of the dead swan, a film projection of a waterfall is seen inside Wahnfried. Water is the source of life and a symbol of the unconscious. It relates here to Parsifal’s developing sense of guilt.

The priests come in with Ludwig’s cloak. The youth Parsifal goes behind the child Parsifal who is now carried off in procession. The youth Parsifal gets on the bed. As he recalls his mother Herzeleide, Kundry, as a serving girl, brings food and a glass of milk to him, just as she did to the child Parsifal in the prelude. She gets into bed with Parsifal and they fall into a death-like embrace. This provides a link between the mother love of Parsifal in the prelude and the later seduction by Kundry in Act 2. It relates to the social history of the time when upper class young men often got their first sexual experience with servant girls. The death-like embrace relates to Herzeleide’s death, the anxiety of love, the love- death of Tristan and la petite mort of orgasm.

When Parsifal sings of his shame he gives Kundry the milk. She drinks, thanks him and sinks back in the bed finding the red rose that Herzeleide had in the prelude. Kundry gets up and exits robot-like through the winged doors with the rose in her hand while Parsifal lies on the pillow. This symbolizes the automaton-like switch in Kundry’s allegiance between the Grail brotherhood and Klingsor.

As Gurnemanz sings of the difficulty in finding the way to Montsalvat he leads the youth Parsifal to the grave. Projections of Gurnemanz and Parsifal at the grave are seen projected in the Wahnfried room. Amfortas leaves the room wearing the Ludwig cloak. The whole set now transforms from the exterior garden to an interior room. In the window is a picture of the child Parsifal, dead. Images of the youth Parsifal playing with the little bricks on the grave are superimposed on it. This action symbolizes Parsifal’s turnaround from the past and the necessity of obtaining a new awareness in the future.

As Gurnemanz sings “zum Raum wird hier die Zeit” (“here time and space become one”), the set transforms again and the cupola of the Grail temple, as in the original Bayreuth 1882 production, descends over the room. In the bed, a woman, Herzeleide, is giving birth. All the men and women surround the bed. Kundry is the midwife. This birth scene is projected on the wall and the birth is timed to the transformation music. As Kundry delivers the bloody newborn, Herzeleide reaches her arms out for her baby. However, it is Gurnemanz who takes the baby from Kundry.

This birth scene, with all society looking on, is a reference to the functionalisation of women in a religious society at the time—to produce males as future soldiers for the state and to the later role of women in Nazi society to produce a child for Hitler. This is further explored in Act 2. It is also obviously the beginning of Parsifal’s psychic rebirth in becoming wise and, with the descent of the cupola, also represents the birth of Christ. As Gurnemanz sings “you are a pure fool” to Parsifal, Gurnemanz lifts the baby high and takes it to the grave. Amfortas is now in the bed. The doctor and priests lay out white towels on the altar/ tabernacle while the Grail community protects the altar with their wings. Gurnemanz raises the baby’s arm. This is a reference to Siegfried in Götterdämmerung, raising his arm after death to show supernatural power.

Amfortas, with his bloody wound visible, cries out. The altar begins to shine. The towels are lifted and three communion vessels are seen. The Grail community is dressed in late 19th Century uniforms, some in tropical wear. This, as in Schlingensief, is meant to suggest the era of African Colonial expansion and the later use by the Nazis of African specimens as a basis for their Aryan anthropometry policies.

As Titurel sings “my son Amfortas, do your duty,” Parsifal, still at the grave, lifts up his head. Amfortas now stands on the ramp leading to the grave and Parsifal goes to the bed and replaces him in the bed. The ambivalence between the grave and bed as Grail symbols alludes to the contrast between sacred love and sexual love, so typical of the period and very dear to Wagner in his early operas.

Amfortas goes to Parsifal, lifts up his gown, and places Parsifal’s hand on the wound. He then drags him back to the grave. Amfortas’ great cries of “Erbarmen” are uttered with Amfortas directly superimposed on Parsifal.

This whole sequence of direct physical juxtaposition of characters, to show the acquisition of feelings of pity and sympathy for one another, is in direct contrast to Wagner’sParsifal where Parsifal just sits on the side and watches the Grail ceremony and in contrast also to Wolfram’s original Fisher King who just quietly waits for events to happen. It is a confrontational technique of Herheim that is seen again in Act 2 when Parsifal himself is seen to have a wound as he recalls Amfortas during Kundry’s seduction.

Parsifal goes back and stands behind the bed. The Grail community disappears and only Parsifal is left. Amfortas uncovers the Grail (which he takes from the grave). It emits a rose light. He goes to the bed, which now contains Herzeleide. She drinks from the Grail. Parsifal goes to the bed and embraces Herzeleide passionately. They have the red rose. A red light shines on the lovers, but the Grail shines white. As the pair in bed disappears, Amfortas places the now rose-coloured Grail on the altar and staggers toward the bed. His wound bleeds.

The actual Grail in this production emits three colours, red for passionate love, royalty, fire, war, danger and power; rose for tender, brotherly love and white for purity, peace, innocence and goodness. This is a further development on Wolfgang Wagner’s two-coloured Grail in his last Bayreuth traditional production, which I saw in 1998 (twice) and in 2000. The changing colours of the Grail mirror Wagner’s leitmotif technique in the music, acting as visual leitmotifs.

We now see film of World War 1 projected on the window. There are marching soldiers, soldiers in trenches, Big Bertha cannons, Zeppelins, a Fokker triplane and extracts from Eisenstein’s 1925 film “Battleship Potemkin”. Troops also enter on the stage, in naval uniforms. The intertext here is the anxiety of the Grail knights for their renewal through the food of the Grail compared with that of the Russian sailors on the Potemkin starting the revolution through their strike over their mouldy meat rations. Amfortas kneels at the altar. The Grail glows rose. Further images of World War 1 are projected and the troops on stage take their “bread’ from the altar and embrace each other. They then file out. This is an allusion to the idea of the “goodness” of war. Tolkien used it in his “Lord of the Rings”. War can create brotherly love and friendship between men.

The Grail temple cupola vanishes and the room is transformed back to the Wahnfried living room. Amfortas puts the Grail back in the grave. He disappears into the bed. The Reich eagle emblem descends. In the bed now lies the child Parsifal with the Ludwig cloak. Gurnemanz has lost his wings. The child Parsifal gets out of bed and taking his bow and arrows, exits through the winged doors. As the pure fool motif sounds in the orchestra, Gurnemanz gets into the bed and covers himself with the cloak.

This whole Grail scene has all been a dream of Gurnemanz. The audience was stunned and did not know whether to remain silent, as is customary, or to give some acknowledgement of the incredible theatric happening that it had just been part of. There was in fact some modest applause but there were no curtain calls.

The above analysis is perhaps over-detailed, but I believe necessary to give an idea of just how ambitious this production really is. It won 2009 production of the year inOpernwelt. The mechanics of it are enormously complex but, unlike the Schlingensief production, it does hang together and is closely tied to the music. The first Act is the most complex and it certainly puts a new light on Gurnemanz’ sometimes tedious narrations.

However, taking it all in still distracts one significantly from appreciating Wagner’s Bühnenweihfestspiel. To give concrete visualizations of things which can be imagined from the poem or the music is a bit of a dumbing down, in much the same way that TV news cannot say “the car went to Lindfield over the Bridge” without showing pictures of a car, Lindfield Station and the Bridge”. It demeans our imaginative sensibilities.


Part 2

Act 2

The scene is again the Wahnfried living room. Gurnemanz is in the bed and the war films are still showing. Gurnemanz is the linking narrator of the events involving all the active characters so he can be in the same bed that they have all been in, if only to dream. Gurnemanz disappears and is replaced by Klingsor in the bed, dressed as in Act 1, but wearing a blonde female wig and big dark wings. Klingsor and Kundry come to the bed. Wounded and gassed World War 1 soldiers come in and the room is transformed into a military hospital, with beds and nurses...

The identification of Klingsor’s magic garden with a military hospital provides an intertext between the decadence of the Hapsburg empire, the association between sickness, sex, death and creativity apparent in the literature of the time (Freud, Mann), Wagner’s own death in Venice and his use of Italian models for Parsifal ( Siena, Ravello)Tristan and the Ring. In the place of the altar there now appears a huge old fashioned film projector. The war films continue but the picture of Germania in now multiply mirrored throughout the room. The mirror is a symbol of self- knowledge. Multiple mirrors confuse and drive one to introspection, disease and retreat into an artistic paradise away from reality.

This happened to Wagner, Ludwig and Germany itself after Versailles where the crushing reparation demands were made. The multiple mirrors allude to the hall of mirrors at Versailles and its slightly larger imitation at Ludwig’s Herrenchiemsee in Bavaria.

Leaves are now seen hanging from the roof of the stage. This is an allusion to the fact that military hospitals were often set up in damaged buildings, that nature will move in to protect that which “culture” has destroyed, and that Wahnfried itself had roof damage in World War 2. As Klingsor calls for Kundry, she is now seen in the bed , dressed in red and surrounded by smoke and red light, which changes to blue and violet and fills the whole room. This is to show that Klingsor and Wagner’s phantasmagoric effects are really shabby transparent stage smoke- and- mirrors (see Adorno’s critique in “In Search of Wagner”). Kundry’s multiple representations mirror in womanhood the multiple sides of manhood depicted in the two (or three) Parsifals, Amfortas, Klingsor and Titurel... Kundry gets out of the bed.

As Klingsor and Kundry narrate the story of her curse and the original seduction of Amfortas, they act this out together by embracing passionately by the bed. Wounded soldiers come up to the bed seeking comfort but nursing sisters pull them back. The projector disappears.

This alludes to the 19th century theatre practice of overacting and clear declamation so that the words could be clearly heard. The removal of the projector symbolizes that we should not need surtitles if the acting is good enough (!). (Unfortunately, there were many non-German singers in this production and words could not be clearly heard.)

Next, the child Parsifal is again in the bed. Klingsor and Kundry come to the bed and as Kundry asks “are you chaste” Klingsor’s hand shakes. At Klingsor’s “furchbäre Not” he covers his groin with his wings, recalling his self- castration.

The child Parsifal gets up in the bed and pulls the Ludwig cloak with him. As Klingsor sings of his shameful dismissal from the Grail community, and his dream of getting the Grail for himself (his delusion of grandeur), he pulls off his wig.

After a recapitulation of past events, Klingsor shows his true face. He wants both Spear and Grail. The removal of the wig symbolizes this. Stage actions comment on persons’ characters in much the same way that Wagner’s leitmotifs do in the music. Klingsor’s dreams of world domination as a delusion of grandeur parallel those of Hitler.

Kundry kisses the child Parsifal as Klingsor recalls her kiss of Amfortas, presaging the later seduction of the youth Parsifal. The child Parsifal goes to the grave. Kundry sinks back into the bed. As Klingsor sings of the approaching knights, showgirls of the 1930s (the Flowermaidens) come out of and from under the beds. Thick smoke comes through the door.

Klingsor is creating an atmosphere of general seduction, not just of Parsifal, but of all men, embodied in the wounded soldiers. The smoke signifies World War 1 poison gas. As Klingsor sings “er ist Schön, der Knabe” he kisses the child Parsifal, suggesting homosexual affiliations not present in Wagner’s Parsifal, but related to Ludwig or characters in Mann’s novels.

Dead soldier dolls are thrown on the beds, while the child Parsifal acts out a fight with his sword. This doubling of action shows both the present struggle of Parsifal against Klingsor’s knights, but also recalls the previous futile efforts of the Grail knights against Klingsor’s realm. The back wall of the room opens, revealing the Wahnfried garden. On the balcony stands the youth Parsifal. Klingsor takes the child Parsifal on to the bed, covering him with his wings. The showgirls go out of the room and form up in cabaret style rows. The wounded men make love to the nurses.

Parsifal jumps off the balcony onto a mattress, as a gymnast. The gymnastic reference is to the Nazi health and fitness movements leading up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The altar in the fountain is piled with cannon balls. The nursing sisters and the showgirls tease Parsifal. We now see costumes of the 1940s as well as earlier ones.

With Kundry’s “Parsifal, stay” we see her as Marlene Dietrich in male evening dress as in the films The Blue Angel and Morocco. Both films were used in the 1930s as propaganda against the German people’s seduction by Nazism.

The garden transforms back to an inner room. Parsifal is on the bed. The girls throw red flowers at him... Kundry enters through the winged doors, still dressed as Marlene Dietrich, but wearing wings which have on one side a white rose. The white rose is the obverse of the red rose of Herzeleide and signifies innocence, which Kundry’s future failed seduction of Parsifal will achieve. It is also a link to the White Rose movement (cf Sophie Scholl) who opposed Hitler.

With Kundry’s Herzeleide narration, Parsifal goes to the rocking horse. As Kundry tells of his naming and Herzeleide’s death, he goes to the bed and Kundry embraces him. As Kundry’s seduction proceeds, the whole room contracts. Parsifal has become alone with his insights. It then expands again as Parsifal’s private sphere re-enters into the public domain as he increasingly gains wisdom. Parsifal seeks the wound on his own body. The cupola of the Grail temple descends again. With his recollection of Amfortas: the “redeemer, saviour’ Parsifal goes to the grave. Lights shine in the tree. This is an allusion to the use of tacky Christmas decorations in celebrating Christ’s birth and also to the tacky souvenirs that were (and still are) sold at Bayreuth to celebrate Wagner’s “religion of art “at Bayreuth.

Kundry appears out of the altar as Herzeleide. Parsifal sits on the bed and Kundry passionately kisses Parsifal. Jewish refugees appear carrying suitcases. One carries a menorah. Kundry stands in front of them, with arms outstretched, showing bloodstains on her gown. This signifies Kundry as Ahasuerus the Wandering Jew, Wagner and Cosima’s anti- Semitism and the Nazi treatment of Jews in World War 2. When Parsifal sings that he is going to redeem Kundry (as well as the Grail) from her curse for having laughed at Christ on the Cross, the Jewish refugees stop, as if seizing on a new hope.

With her second seduction attempt (“only one hour”), Kundry pulls her skirt above her knees and embraces Parsifal. He runs again to the grave. This recalls the Herzeleide incest scene in Act 1 and indicates that Wagner is not going to let the second attempt succeed. At Kundry’s curse, Nazi swastika flags and armed SS soldiers appear from right and left. On the newly visible altar a boy in Hitler youth SA uniform stands, holding a spear. Klingsor is seen in the bed with outstretched wings. The boy throws the spear at Parsifal. (This was the only magic effect that did not convince from row 1!) He catches the spear and plunges it in Wagner’s grave. The insertion of the spear in the grave is a symbol that it is to be desired that Wagner’s anti-Semitism and its consequences should be expunged from history.

The Hitler youth identifies with the young Parsifal, and through him, the seduction of German youth by Nazism. The SA uniform also alludes to Himmler’s costly searches for the real Holy Grail and Otto Rahn’s researches in this area. The SS men and Nazi emblems identify with the Wagner family’s personal hospitality to Hitler in Bayreuth. The magical properties of the spear, equate to the “wonder weapons’ of the last years of the Hitler period which would hopefully win the war against the odds, eg Messerschmidt 262 jet fighter, A4 (V2) rocket, atomic weapons.

The Reich eagle falls onto the bed. The SS men shoot. . Parsifal is not hurt. He pulls the spear out of the grave again and lifts it high. He exits with the spear. Kundry stays in front of the grave. The wound of German history must stay open and never be forgotten.

Act 2 is very confrontational and addresses issues not previously put on the Bayreuth stage, although such dramatization has appeared in many other places, in Germany and elsewhere...

I believe Wolfgang Wagner, knowing he is old (90) and retiring as director, thought such a representation was now possible and hence he engaged Herheim. Wolfgang had “come clean” about all the Hitler and Nazi connections in his 1994 autobiography “Acts”. In 1998, he approved and opened an academic conference on “Richard Wagner and the Jews” in Bayreuth. This was organized by the Universities of Bayreuth, Heidelberg and Bayreuth and sponsored by the Richard Wagner Foundation Bayreuth and the Howard Gilman Israel Culture Foundation. I went to some sessions. Professors Rose, Vaget, Large, Katz, Friedlander and others of the new predominantly Jewish school of Wagner interpretation were there. The concluding consensus seemed to be that, while all Wagner’s works have some anti-Semitic elements, they are acceptable as great art, but in listening to them we must feel guilty. Rose, the most extreme anti-Wagnerian, even referred to the “hatred’ we must see in Wagner’s music, and claimed that a production that did not emphasise anti-Semitism was “false.” Vaget, and other moderates, did take issue with Rose on a number of points. I am not sure if Herheim or his dramaturg were there at the conference, but Susanne Vill gave a paper and co-edited the proceedings. I did, however, notice many of the delegates apparently enjoying themselves at the Festival performances.

It is also probably significant that, in handing over the Festival direction to his daughters Katharina and Eva in 2008, Wolfgang was conceding that new directions would be taken and the current production resonates also with this concept of reconciliation.

In this Act the action for me did not distract so much from the music as it did in Act 1. Perhaps I was getting used to this production. This was really classical Bayreuth music drama. Christopher Ventris as Parsifal was outstanding and I thought the timing and weighting of Daniele Gatti’s conducting was very appropriate to the production.

The Herheim production would not have worked with the faster tempos that Boulez used in the Schlingensief production (and which only enhanced its incoherence).

The main features of the production are

  1. Wagner’s Parsifal told with much more stage concretisation of events past and present. This is normally only narrated or implied in the music.

  2. The history of Germany 1870-1951, depicted in stage action and film.

  3. The history of Wagner’s creative and personal life, the establishment of the Bayreuth Festival and the building of Wahnfried are depicted in stage action and film.

  4. The reception history of the opera Parsifal.

  5. The unconscious, psychological development of Parsifal and Wagner is depicted on stage by

    symbolism, both with actors and physical symbols.

  6. Direct confrontation with the audience by making them part of the production.

  7. Use of parallel actions and multiple characterisations to depict the individual and collective unconscious.

  8. Use of dream sequences and magical set transformations.

  9. Use of simultaneous hybrid sets and stage symbolism to interrelate the Parsifal, German history, psychological and Wagner history lines.

  10. Use of theatre within a theatre.

10 Dimensions

1. Wagner’s Parsifal, both the music drama itself and its reception history
2. Personality development of the human
3. Psychoanalysis, both Freudian and Jungian
4. Male/Female gender relations both individual and societal
5. Religion, in relation to society, war, race.
6. The Grail and Spear as symbols. (There are at least ten different Grail symbols)
7. Contrast between dreams and reality
8. Wahnfried
9. Bayreuth Festival
10. German History

The Top 10 Grail symbols

1. Actual grail vessel in red, rose, and white
2. Bed
3. Wagner’s grave
4. Bathtub
5. Fountain
6. Altar
7. Heart of Federal German eagle
8. Speaker’s desk in parliament
9. The search for immortality
10. Womanhood


Part 3

Act 3

The prelude begins with the curtain closed. At its climax, the curtain opens on a replica of the Bayreuth stage, also with closed curtain. This curtain opens revealing war ruins with a cloudy background. The theatre-within-a-theatre effect stands for the artificial nature of theatre in contrast to the stark reality of war. The scene of destruction will later make the contrast between the beauty of organic growth on Good Friday with the perversion of art under Hitler (compared with Hitler’s own watercolours).

Instead of the bed, only a mattress remains. It lies against the fountain wall. Gurnemanz lies on the mattress. Kundry kneels in front of the grave (still dressed as Herzeleide/ Germania). Both her arms are behind the little stone wall on the grave. This scene recalls Syberberg’s Act 3 image of Kundry lying on Wagner’s death mask in a pile of snow. Gurnemanz awakens Kundry with a kiss. She cries out, goes to centre stage and points to the ruins, which actually include an image of a ruin in Hiroshima today kept as a memorial of the atomic bomb destruction. With Kwangchul Youn (Gurnemanz) and Mihoko Fujimura (Kundry) on stage, this is all the more poignant.

Parsifal enters. He is now a mature adult, dressed as Germania. He has red hair, carries a sword and a shield, but no spear. He wears the imperial German crown. This is a recollection of Amfortas entering dressed the same way as King in Act 1. Parsifal will become the new King. As Gurnemanz reminds Parsifal it is Good Friday, Parsifal lays down his weapons and crown in the fountain. This alludes to the Celtic and Germanic myths of a dead hero’s weapons being thrown into the sea after his burial. As Gurnemanz sings “the spear, I know it,” a white spear rises magically out of the fountain.

As Parsifal sings of the difficulties of his wanderings, Kundry rushes out of the inner theatre to the grave. As Parsifal sings of the return of the spear, Gurnemanz seizes the spear in the fountain and pulls it out. Water gushes forth. This alludes to the idea of spear and the Grail as the renewer of life. The return of the spear, from a violent zone to a peaceful one, has the effect of recreating the renewing source of life, symbolised by water, and thus is acting as a surrogate Grail for the Grail kingdom.

In Liebermann’s 1982 Geneva Parsifal, the Grail was the last water vessel remaining after a nuclear war. Gurnemanz bows to Parsifal and offers him the spear. As he sings of the death of Titurel, Parsifal sticks the spear into a ruined tree. This is a clear parallel with Wotan (in the Ring), damaging the world ash tree by cutting a spear from it, and plunging the sword into the tree for Siegmund, to give him a false hope of victory. The spear in the Ring is the source of law that creates all Wotan’ difficulties. It is possibly a reference to Parsifal as the fifth part of the Ring,although Schopenhauer is not really a significant feature of the production.

Parsifal takes his clothes off, and a huge wound is seen on his back. Kundry bathes him. Gurnemanz puts a long white gown on Parsifal. A blue waterfall is now seen behind the action. As Gurnemanz sings of Amfortas a large projection of Amfortas is seen in the waterfall. He wears a dark suit and a crown of thorns. Kundry washes Parsifal’s feet, dries them with her hair and applies ointments. Parsifal is anointed as the Grail King. The cleansing is meant to represent reconciliation with the historical past.

At the “Good Friday magic” stage lights come on outside the inner theatre. This is meant to transfer the theatre to us, the audience, as if we, the German Wagner loving folk, ourselves caused the scene of destruction we are looking at (presumably by continuing to support Bayreuth during the Nazi era). This is a reference to a 2002 Munich production of Das Rheingold, (Herbert Wernicke) where the Bayreuth auditorium was represented on the stage and the actors in the production sat there, reversing the role of actors and audience. The lighting and reversal effect is meant to represent the “weih” [dedication] in Bühnenweihfestspiel” ie a dedication of the stage by an alteration of our relation to it.

As Parsifal sings of how beautiful the flowers in the meadow are, post World War 2 “clean up” women come in, outside the inner stage, with buckets, shovels and mattocks. This dramatic contrast is significant in several dimensions of interpretation. Equating the flowers in the meadow with Parsifal’s recollection of the flower maidens in the Magic Garden, we have (1) the clean-up ladies as doing the clean- up work that the Flower maidens might do after the destruction of Klingsor’s magic garden (reduced role of women); (2) Kundry’s double role when serving Klingsor or the Grail; (3) The punishment for the complicity of German womanhood in Nazism in their blind love for and faith in Hitler.

As Gurnemanz sings “That is the magic of Good Friday, my lord” to Parsifal, the clean up ladies look at us, the audience, asking us to share in the purification, but also telling us that we, the next generation, must also suffer. Kundry helps one woman up the steps to the inner stage. The others then help each other drag their tools along.

Gurnemanz is now at the grave. Kundry and Parsifal are on the ramp to the inner theatre. As Gurnemanz sings “nature, absolved from sin, gains its innocence,” the inner curtain opens to reveal a stage-wide mirror in which we, the public, are reflected. The houselights go on and the lights around the stage shine brighter. We cannot easily be freed from the collective guilt (of the knowledge of the happenings in the Nazi era), but making allowance for and defending our role in these happenings is not in itself deserving of blame.

As Parsifal sings of his imminent redemptions of Kundry, Amfortas and the Grail and, metaphorically, of the German nation and us, he points to the audience. As the bells for Titurel’s funeral ceremony sound, Gurnemanz pulls out the spear from the tree and gives it to Parsifal. With a magic gesture, he uses the spear to close the curtains of the inner theatre. Kundry, Parsifal and Gurnemanz stand on the grave and on the curtain a large video image of them appears. It fades and cloudy shadows obscure them.

Wagner’s magic stage tricks and synthesis of the arts (music, acting, poetry, dance, painting, and stagecraft) were revolutionary in his time, but now new technologies like video have broken his spell and the ability to control things from his grave. History moves on.

To the Titurel motif in the music, Wagner’s death mask is projected on the curtain. Superimposed on it is a blown up image of the little wall on the grave being constructed. This is a reference both to the Syberberg film, where similar imagery was used, and to the idea of Wagner’s gigantic influence on the production through his idea of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk.’ The building of the wall refers to the post-war rebuilding of Wahnfried and the 1951 reopening of the Festival.

During the march to the Grail temple, the text of the advice of Wieland Wagner given in 1951 at the festival, “to refrain from political discussion in the interests of the smooth running of the festival, which is concerned only with art”, is shown on the curtain. This advice has since had the opposite effect. The style of opera production, especially in Germany, has since taken on a much stronger political aim as in, for example, the present production.

The curtain opens on the Bonn Bundestag of the new Federal Republic of Germany soon after its creation in 1949. The German Federal eagle on the floor is reflected in the mirror over and behind the parliamentary seats. Six members of parliament bring in the sarcophagus of Titurel, draped in the German Federal flag. They place it on the stage where the bed used to be. Parsifal stands on the left of the inner stage proscenium, Gurnemanz on the grave and Kundry on the right column. This image symbolizes the search for redemption of Germany in democracy, rather than dictatorship, but, in equating Amfortas with the new German parliamentary leadership, his still open wound is equated to residual stains of Nazism in the members, in spite of the Nuremberg trials and the de-Nazification tribunals.

The identification also resonates with the Arthurian Knights of the Round Table as the source of European democracy. The sword in the stone (Excalibur) equates to the spear in the tree, while the Round Table knights’ search for the Grail equates to the Grail knights’ search for the spear. The return of the spear can be identified with the re-arming of Germany.

Amfortas enters, in dark suit and wearing his crown of thorns. The members rustle their papers aggressively and demand that he uncover the Grail. Instead, he opens the lid of the sarcophagus. Smoke comes out of it. The members recoil. They equate the sign of death with Amfortas’ refusal to open the Grail. At “Mein Vater Hochgesegneter der Helden,” Amfortas reaches into the sarcophagus and pulls out ashes that he scatters on the floor. This is supposed to be an allusion to the spiritual and bodily healing power of the sacred ashes of the dead in Hindu mythology, as promulgated more recently by the modern guru Sathya Sai Baba. In the mirror, we see inside the sarcophagus a mummy wearing the German Kaiser crown. The speaker’s desk is seen, reflected in the heart of the Federal eagle. With the order “uncover the Grail,” Parsifal moves to centre stage. Amfortas takes off his shirt and singlet. With his words “slay the sinner in his agony, then the Grail can shine clear again,’ Amfortas grips the spear and lays it himself on his wound. With “O blessed be your suffering,’ Parsifal touches the head of Amfortas.

In the heart of the Federal eagle a great red hole appears. The blood in the Grail is a source of life as well as suffering.

The heart of the eagle is a further Grail symbol. The Grail as a source of sustaining food for all equates to democratic government with a voice for all. The bleeding heart is again the history of the Third Reich. Parsifal points the spear at the public (us). The point glows red. He then points it into the heart of the eagle. With “open the shrine,’ the eagle glows red, the eagle is flooded and smoke rises from the heart. Parsifal merges unobtrusively into the parliament.

A child appears on the grave. Gurnemanz and Kundry stand on the ramp with him as a little family group. With “Erlösung dem Erlöser”, the mirror tilts to reveal the Festspielhaus orchestra and the audience. A dove rises over the stage. Redemption to all at last!

This final scene has several dimensions. By pointing the spear at the audience, Parsifal has made us a form of Grail as well. The tearing out of the heart of the eagle (Grail ) to nourish the young recalls the Christian Pelican myth where pelicans apparently feed their young their own blood from their chest (they don’t actually, they just reach into their pouch ).

The replacement of the aggressive heart of the eagle by an innocent gentle family scene again suggests the emergence of a new non-aggressive Germany. Parsifal’s quiet disappearance into the parliament suggests yet another interpretation of “Erlösung dem Erlöser” Berthold Brecht’s play Galileo has a significant exchange:

Andrea: unhappy is the land that has no heroes;
Galileo: unhappy is the land that needs heroes.

Germany having now become a free well-ordered democracy, needing no heroes, will be “redeemed’ from the requirement of further redemption and we the public, can now enjoy Wagner without guilt feelings. Certainly, the Jewish conductors Daniel Barenboim and James Levine, who have conducted extensively at Bayreuth in recent years, would not be too concerned. Indeed Barenboim’s Israeli-Palestinian west-Eastern Divan Orchestra played at Bayreuth this year.

Conclusion

This complex, incredibly ambitious production of Wagner’s final summative, and in my opinion, real masterwork was a challenge in the theatre. From row 1 I still did not, and could not take it all in at once. I had even read the detailed analysis a few days before. However, I did find it much easier to absorb than Schlingensief’s version and the actions were much better synchronised to the text and music. I think this production needs to be seen several times for full comprehension. After all, this is not opera, it is not even music drama - it is a Stage-Consecration-Festival-Play, and all four of these elements were emphasised.

The actual singing, acting and conducting were generally very good. The Flower maidens were a bit weak, but Parsifal (Christopher Ventris), Gurnemanz (Kwangchul Youn}, Kundry (Mihoko Fujimura), Amfortas (Detlef Roth) and Klingsor (Thomas Jesatko) were excellent.

As soon as I got back to Sydney, however, I turned out the lights at home and played right through the beautiful, spiritual, perfectly played Herbert von Karajan 1981 DGG studio recording with the incomparable Berlin Philharmonic, just so I could listen to Parsifal by Richard Wagner and, using the mind’s eye, imagine the ideal stage picture.

The main features of the production are

  1. Wagner’s Parsifal told with much more stage concretisation of events past and present. This is normally only narrated or implied in the music.

  2. The history of Germany 1870-1951, depicted in stage action and film.

  3. The history of Wagner’s creative and personal life, the establishment of the Bayreuth Festival and the building of Wahnfried are depicted in stage action and film.

  4. The reception history of the opera Parsifal.

  5. The unconscious, psychological development of Parsifal and Wagner is depicted on stage by symbolism, both with actors and physical symbols.

      6. Direct confrontation with the audience by making them part of the production.

      7. Use of parallel actions and multiple characterisations to depict the individual and collective unconscious.

      8. Use of dream sequences and magical set transformations.

      9. Use of simultaneous hybrid sets and stage symbolism to interrelate the Parsifal, German history, psychological and Wagner history lines.

    10. Use of theatre within a theatre.

10 Dimensions

1. Wagner’s Parsifal, both the music drama itself and its reception history
2. Personality development of the human
3. Psychoanalysis, both Freudian and Jungian
4. Male/Female gender relations both individual and societal
5. Religion, in relation to society, war, race.
6. The Grail and Spear as symbols. (There are at least ten different Grail symbols)
7. Contrast between dreams and reality
8. Wahnfried
9. Bayreuth Festival
10. German History

The Top 10 Grail symbols

1. Actual grail vessel in red, rose, and white
2. Bed
3. Wagner’s grave
4. Bathtub
5. Fountain
6. Altar
7. Heart of Federal German eagle
8. Speaker’s desk in parliament
9. The search for immortality
10. Womanhood