Lehnhoff lays out a provocative, if encumbered reading of Parsifal that explores three peculiar notions, explained in the DVDís accompanying notes and in the course of Reiner Moritzís accompanying documentary Parsifalís Progress. First, Lehnhoff has an unorthodox view of Gurnemanz, whom he characterizes not as the sacerdotal father-figure familiar from conventional productions, but as a reactionary, unhinged authoritarian bereft of genuine human feeling. Second, Lehnhoff finds that if there is any redemptive message in Parsifal, it describes an enlightened humankind that has discarded impotent, atavistic religious ritual and doctrine. This notion is leveraged upon his view of Gurnemanz. Third, Lehnhoff assigns Kundry the role of redeemer.
From Moritzís film we know that Lehnhoff believes Parsifal is essentially a utopian work, where utopia is a dynamic principle that has nothing to do with religious tribalism or any other fixed identity. Lehnhoff advocates this notion of utopia in several ways. Most strikingly, he dampens Kundryís act 3 reconciliation with the Christian god through her baptism and death: she does not die, nor does her baptism bind her to the Grail or its acolytes. Instead, she finds in herself the strength to rescue Parsifal, and all humankind, from the thrall of that pernicious fetish object. Subtle adjustments to Kundryís behavior in act 3 hint at her evolved capacities. Wagner left to his successors the task of resolving the troubled dialectic of male and female in Parsifal, and Lehndoff takes up the challenge, claiming that Kundry ìrevokes the unnatural separation between men and women.î (Another interesting attempt to engage this problem is found in Hans J¸rgen Syberbergís 1982 Parsifal, where the sexual dialectic is embodied in a divided male and female impersonation of the role of Parsifal.) A kiss that Wagner instructs Parsifal to place on Kundryís forehead is followed by the pairís unauthorized cathartic embrace. Moreover, Kundry dispenses quickly with the servility that Wagner conferred on her in act 3, that trope of feminine submission summarily expressed by Wagner in her muttered ìdienenî (ìto serveî). At the end, her gaze as she observes the Grail knights and Parsifal is not passive, but reflective and critical. Much earlier, Kundryís act 2 verse ìOh! ñ Sehnen ñ Sehnen!î is delivered by Meier with uncanny calm and self-consciousness, so that her longing is partly erotic, partly spiritual, but self-aware, not hysterical. To authorize all this, Lehndoff appeals to Goethe: Kundry is das Weiblich, the feminine force celebrated at the close of Faust Part II, the creative energy that impels human progress. This new Kundry is a counterpoise to the new Gurnemanz, and she brings about an unexpected turn of events at the end of the opera, whereby Parsifal abdicates his kingship to follow her into an alternate, Grail-free redemption.
The set of act 1, scene 1, is a minimalist courtyard dominated by a whitewashed rear wall of stone, the battlement of Monsalvat. Pockmarks, fissures, and seeping piles of rubble record a long history of assault. Right of center, a boulder oróas the DVD notes tell usómeteor, has impacted the wall and remains lodged in it. This meteor is a memorable device but nevertheless forgotten in the subsequent acts; Meier fishes for its meaning in her filmed interview, but even being on stage doesnít help her find it. A visually interesting, if unintelligible use of the meteor is its slow spiraling during the transformation scene, when it has become detached from the fortress wall and courses once more through space on its axis. Recalling the medieval tradition that the Grail was a stone Iíd almost hoped the meteor was this productionís Grail, but it was not. The transformation scene is altogether an early disappointment: perhaps set on restraining effects (or costs), the transformation music, one of the glories of nineteenth-century orchestral writing, is accompanied by Gurnemanzís and Parsifalís ungainly swaying in place, to which the camera adds the insult of loitering at angles that betray the already weak illusion. Salminenís and Ventrisí earnest, slightly deranged facial expressions canít hide the incongruity of sublime music and deficient mis-en-scËne.
The Grail ritual of Act 1 takes place on a concave, twilight dreamscape dotted with unoccupied chairs placed on the sharp, inaccessible vertical slope of the rear stage. The stage offers egress only through the two apertures from which the Grail knights threaten to pour onstage. They arrive, augmenting Amfortasí distress, in disciplined military filings. Wagnerís heretical musings on the Eucharist are sung with militancy and certitude, but the production neatly underscores the chasm between the knightsí chorale and the womenís unwelcome Augustinian discourse on sin: the knightsí discipline is momentarily shattered by the chromatic female sounds, and they cast about nervously for their source. The point is effectively made: male and female, salvation and sin, are musically and visually in conflict, and this Grail community is frightened of women.
In act 2, Klingsorís magic garden is situated on the same flexed stage as the Grail ceremony, which suggests the coexistence rather than alienation of the two ethical worlds of Gurnemanz and Klingsor. Even some of the mysteriously unoccupied chairs remain on the rear slope. (Who was meant to sit on those chairs, which are never occupied?) The coup de thÈ‚tre at Klingsorís defeat is modest but effective: the law of gravity, suspended in the Grail ceremony and in the magic garden, is instantly restored, the precarious chairs of the rear slope crash to the ground, and the cinders of some unseen ruined canopy rain down on the stage.
The stage of act 3 is punctured by a large rectangular cutout through which train tracks emerge and curve downstage. The track bed is the path along which Parsifal finds his way back to the Grail, and the path he, Kundry, and others will take to leave it. Kundry had evidently used the tracks to find her way back earlier; she lies at their end in a heap, concealed by a white shroud when Gurnemanz wakes her.
Andrea Schmidt-Futtererís costumes suggest Asian inspirations: the monochromatic, pallid squires and knights of act 1 evoke the terracotta warriors of Xiían. Klingsor and the Parsifal of act 3 both seem inspired by shogun armorial design. Act 3 affirms the Xiían allusion: a shallow pit is occupied by child-sized clay figures representing long-dead knights. During the orchestral interlude preceding Titurelís funeral a camera lingers close up on the clay figures, like a fragment from a Last Judgment altar.
Offstage light plays an important role in the proceedings. Full-spectrum light cast from off-stage is used to suggest the peace of the lake where Amfortas will bathe, and later in act 1, spokes of light activate the transformation scene. Yellow light reflects from the skeletal Titurelís blood spattered armor. Only an opened slat of blinding white light indicates the presence of the Grail in act 1. And the emotional temper of act 2 is measured by the same rectangle of light. Instead of white light, pink and purple hues of Kundryís seductions give way to piercing yellow as Parsifal experiences anguish and guilt. Significantly, the Grail-light is missing from the act 3 liturgy, when another distant light draws Kundry and Parsifal away from the stage.
Kundry and Parsifal enter act 1 as a riot of sylvan color, wearing organic, primitive costumes of feathers, wood, and cloth, like figures from a Renaissance woodcut of New World Indians, though Parsifal, crouching with his little bow and arrow, might have wandered from pages of James Fenimore Cooper. Kundryís avian costume sports wings, so the squiresí sighting of her horse is absurd. Kundryís wings remain a prominent motif. In act 2, she appears behind the Flower maidens concealed in a chrysalis; when she emerges from this she is clad liked a winged insect. She loses those wings in the course of Parsifalís rejection, and with them her stiff arthropod body spasms.
Overall, singing and acting in this production are more than admirable. Matti Salminen seems to have understood Lehnhoffís conception of Gurnemanz, and a viewer may grow uneasy watching and hearing him on this account. Salminenís eyes betray roiling fanaticism, his posture suggests reservoirs of anger, and his first act narrations are delivered in accents better fitting an inquisitor than a lofty historian of the Grail. The listener will detect this in, among other passages, his angry ìJeder istís verwehrtî and his anguished ìO, wunden-wundervoller heiliger Speer!î Gurnemanzís single-minded obsession seems to sustain his character through act 3. He does not really decay like the rest of the Grail community, despite his self-description as ìtief gebeugtî by age and sorrow. Salminenís Gurnemanz always seems preoccupied; he delivers his long narratives not in long musical arches, but in halting, painfully remembers phrases.
Christopher Ventis is a fine, if not ideal Parsifal. His portrayal of innocence is ham fisted (this hopeless part of the role is almost always unwatchable, with even sexagenarian singers cavorting as the lanky adolescent), but atoned by his more convincing portrayal of Parsifal in third-act maturity. He is not inspiring as a Grail king, though, and we are not as surprised or disappointed as we ought to be when he surrenders the crown in the end. He can be frustrating to watch, as when he ignores Waltraud Meierís most volcanic looks in act 2 and stares determinedly toward the conductor or prompter. Distractingly, he habitually heaves his body to the musicís rhythms, almost bouncing to dotted-rhythms.
Waltraud Meier proves an exceptional Kundry. Her acting shows disciplined devotion to the productionís intentions. She is always captivating, and does not lapse into the commonplaces of operatic stage actingóshe acts with the camera in mind. Only as she begins her act 2 seduction of Parsifal do her blandishments briefly fall flat for lack of a convincing maternal tone. As the scene progresses and she asks Parsifal for compassion for her own suffering and promises him godly knowledge, her passion becomes sweeping. Her bodily gestures are never superfluous. Especially balletic is her pantomime of the seduction of Amfortas as Parsifal imagines it in his hallucinatory outburst ìJa, dies Stimme! So rief sie ihm.î (Lehnhoff takes Wagnerís stage instructions here very seriously.) Meier works earnestly with the directorís conception of her as an insect in act 2, and gives meaning to an otherwise unpromising costume. She eschews melodramatic clichÈ in favor of a more pathological rendition of Kundry. She is puppet-like in acts 1 and 2, her limbs pulled into improbably gestures by the sound of a meaningful word. Her convulsions climax in act 2, when she is most dehumanized. In act 3, she acquires for the first time a human, even classical bearing.
Thomas Hampsonís Amfortas is not, as would be customary, an object of mixed reverence and pity, but he is relentlessly pursued and harassed by his desperate knights. He never enters in solemn procession, but always in full flight from his own followers, frantic to evade their demand that he celebrate their liturgy. This Amfortas must have the strength to run. Accordingly, Hampsonís Amfortas is less prostrate, less helpless, and more histrionic and physical than most. Wild-eyed in some close-ups, there is sometimes more than a whiff of Norma Desmond. When he collapses, it is more from fear and despair than from his wound; his ailment is more psychological than physical. As the curtain falls on act 1, Lehnhoff leaves us with a piet‡ of Gurnemanz supporting the fallen Amfortas, a rare and well posed moment of pathos. Hampson is more vocally forceful than many Amfortas interpreters, but his singing is predominantly refined and lyrical, apart from his last phrases in act 3, when he begins to shout.
Tom Foxís Klingsor is suspended, mid-air, in the center of a scrim of an enormous and menacing pelvic bone that suggests his ossified sexual fixations. His poise and gestures suggest a spider. Foxís acting and singing are both good. The production dispenses with his usual necromancer bric-a-brac.
The singers all suffer in Moritzís long and unhelpful film Parsifalís Progress, which fills over an hour, of which no more than four or five minutes contain insight and the rest interminable excerpts from the production available on the very same disk. What these intelligent musicians might have said has been distilled into banality, and they seem at pains to help us understand things that are entirely obvious or that the production ought to have made clear on its own. A twenty-minute round table conversation led by the excruciatingly articulate Lehnhoff would have been more useful.
The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under Kent Naganoís direction sounds good, very good at times. At its best moments, hushed string passages glow like burning coals touched by a breeze. But woodwind and brass sounds are sometimes anemic or lack subtlety, as in the act 3 prelude. The string section sounds chilly when compared with other benchmark performances, like Knappertsbuschís 1962 Bayreuth Festival recording for Philips, whose strings are recorded as rich and deeply textured. Tempi are sometimes too fast, as in the knightsí choruses and patches of Gurnemanzís narrations. The orchestral postlude to the act 1 Grail ceremony is angular and hurried. The first statements of the main theme of the act 3 Good Friday music could use more breathing space; here they are rushed and muddled. The choruses, men and women, sound well enough, but again, comparison of the final chorus of act 3 and the concluding orchestral statements of the ìloveî motive seem monochrome, and lack the contrapuntal detail and variegated colors of Knappertsbuschís performance.
In act 1, Grail knights in medieval armor marched in place as they as they sang ìNehmet vom Wein, wandelt ihn neu zu Lebens feurigem Bluteî with warrior esprit. Their survivors struggle onto the stage in act 3 for the funeral of Titurel defeated and harrowed, wearing disheveled World War I uniforms complete with gas masks. The anachronism has an important purpose, and a disruptive effect. The historical displacement underscores the temporal distance between act 1 and 3, but in doing so attenuates the operaís mythic temporality, and overdetermines the workís meaning. We are plunged against our will into old, external debates that do not clarify, but distract from the Goethean premise of the production: does Titurelís corpse now denote the death of Hindenburg, and is his funeral attended by an embittered generation of Nazi recruits? Does Gurnemanzís anointing of Parsifal as Grail king glance at Hitler? Do the Christological overtones of Parsifalís return and the Good Friday music collaborate with these political acts, or contest them? Does Parsifalís abdication symbolize an alternate history that never was, or a potential future choice? The production wakes these questions with a jarring crash, and too late.
Lehnhoffís production struggles against currents not only in Wagnerís vision of the staged work, but also against the manifestly restorative and ritual impulses of his music. The directorís grafting of Goethean laurels to the trunk of Wagnerís opera does not take well: his attempt to divert the final choral formula ìErlˆsung dem Erlˆser!î and the orchestraís rhapsodic iterations of the ìloveî motive from their association with the restored cult is neither visually nor aurally convincing. Despite this fundamental problem, the production is still rich with very fine performances by its soloists and some very fresh, lucid orchestral playing, and is worth seeing and hearing alongside other outstanding recordings. As an interpretation of Wagnerís last work, it lacks the depths of allusion and symbolism and sheer beauty accessible in Syberbergís film (which in my view remains in a class of its own, the best among filmed Wagner interpretations), but it is a thoughtful inquiry into questions that Wagner, at his most embittered and astonishing, thrusts upon us with this work.
Manhattan School of Music
image_description=Richard Wagner: Parsifal
product_title=Richard Wagner: Parsifal
product_by=Christopher Ventris, Waltraud Meier, Matti Salminen, Tom Fox, Thomas Hampson, Baden-Baden Festival Choir, Berlin Deutsches Symphony Orchestra, Kent Nagano (cond.)
product_id=Opus Arte OA0915D [DVD]