Parsifal at Bayreuth

There are intractable conventions at Bayreuth. There are no supertitles. Parsifal is done every year (though it was not during WWII due to ideological incompatibility). There is no applause after the first act — except we did anyway.

Here’s more news of the new, 2023 Parsifal.

Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado imposed an atmosphere of ethereal mysticism that took us into the very soul of Wagner’s Bayreuth Festspielhaus, for which the work was composed (and where the Wagner heirs sequestered it for many years). Though the Festspielhaus orchestra is hidden it has a huge presence in the hall, and the acoustic is magical. The maestro captured both the majesty and the intimacy of the famed sound.

He achieved massive volumes when the Act I grail was unveiled, yet the solo oboe of Amfortas’ Act III death plea was huge in its intimacy. The maestro found an animal energy in the Act II pleasure garden, and then elevated the Parsifal Kundry confrontation — desire versus renunciation — to a heroic collision of colossal forces.

The monologues were very carefully paced, the words given ample time to sound, the phrases to unfold musically, the orchestral motives to sing out, the orchestral tensions to find celestial release. The tempos were quite deliberate until the underlying musical forces took flight and the Wagner’s text became pure, musical poetry.

Note that Pablo Heras-Casado trained as an actor before turning to music.

Be it Catholic, Schopenhaurian, Nietzscheian in intent, the performance was the undeniable Wagnerian musical experience of release, and finally deliverance.

The production was that of American stage director Jay Scheib, who previously had sought dragons he imagined might be lurking in the corridors of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in a theater piece he created called Sei Siegfried. He was experimenting with artificial reality, known as AR as opposed to virtual reality, or VR. Evidently Sei Siegfried got him the Parsifal job.

AR is quite like the short-lived fad of 3-D movies in the 1950’s. Only now the 3-D glasses are attached to a digital feed that allows the space between you and the stage — that you can see, visually compromised — to be filled with floating rattlesnakes, skulls, trees, plastic bits that resemble blood, more trees, etc., etc., that flow and/or soar in real time to the music. Yes, it was as bad as it sounds, with the bonus of the glasses becoming quite hot.

The production was everything a swanky American production could be. The AR and video were created by Joshua Higgason who teaches interactive technologies at prestigious MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) where Mr. Scheib teaches as well. The scenery was designed by Mimi Lien, recipient of a MacArthur Award (the US’s so-called “genius” awards). Thus it was all so very intellectually hip (cool).

That of course does not deprive it of sensitivity and merit. Like all artistic monuments Parsifal assumes different meanings for every generation. In the final moments of the Scheib telling of the Wagner masterpiece Parsifal holds the finally revealed grail on high, then drops it. It shatters, spilling the blood. He then lays the holy spear across its broken bits and steps into the purifying waters of Amfortas’ Act I lake, followed by the now freed-from-sin Kundry. The Parsifal and Kundry doubles (nearly always present, though never obtrusive) now stand together at the lake’s edge, but a step away from redemption.

Parsifal and Kundry in lake, Parsifal and Kundry double extreme right

A conclusion richly endowed, poetically and intellectually.

The singers’ performances were powerful, the orchestra overwhelming, the AR an obtrusive presence, thus I abandoned the AR in Gurnemanz’ Act I soliloquy. A critic from a French opera magazine sitting next to me braved the AR through until the third act, with tales to tell.

Set designer Mimi Lien often collaborated with Mr. Higgason’s video, allowing huge, real time images of characters supine on the stage apron to appear hugely enlarged on her neutral backdrop — not ineffective. She provided him with two smaller screens onto which the real time faces of the Parsifal Kundry confrontation appeared close up, adding effective intensity. Mlle. Lien’s design sense was more evident in the vivid floral slashes she created for Klingsor’s garden, and in the ruined, rusty post-industrial contraption she created to be Gurnemanz’ Act III hut.

Chic German collaborators completed the production team. Costume designer Meentje Nielsen had worked with Jay Scheib for his 2017 theater piece Bat Out of Hell. At first she clad the Parsifal grail knights in abstract yellow skirts, though some knights were in camouflage garb from time to time (as warriors). As the knightly order declined over the centuries some arrived in contemporary street clothes. Kundry took on the yellow skirt for her redemption. The flower maidens were abstractly and elaborately decorated in lurid colors and breast plates.

The costumes, like the sets and video added obvious, intrusive commentary into the storytelling.

The lighting designer was Rainer Casper, a frequent collaborator of Frank Castorf (reference the infamous 2013 Bayreuth Ring) who somehow managed good and proper atmospheric lighting without interfering with the clarity of Mr. Higgason’s extensive video displays.

Georg Zeppenfeld as Gurnemanz, Act III

The singers were heroically voiced to a man. Gurnemanz was sung by German bass Georg Zeppenfeld who endowed the venerable, old knight with a great dignity, expounding the brotherhood’s mysteries in a voice that often melted into a celestial beauty. Australian bass Derek Walton’s voice is of a brilliantly black tone, rendering the sufferings of Amfortas into tortured expressions of hopelessness.

Austrian helden tenor Andreas Schafer as Parsifal is of heroic voice indeed, finding a super human strength of voice and figure to persevere in his quest to redeem mankind. He was not a Christ figure, he was Hercules! Moscow born mezzo soprano Ekaterina Gubanova rose to new vocal and dramatic heights as Kundry, having only very recently added this complex personage to her roles. She met Parsifal’s strength with equal force, never sacrificing a super-human dignity even in her repentance. (See lead photo — Parsifal and Kundry in Act II).

Hawaiian baritone Jordan Shanahan embodied Klingsor with appropriate vocal brutality. Titurel, sung by German bass Tobias Kehrer, was appropriately d’outretombe.

Michael Milenski

Additional casting: Flower Maidens: Evelin Novak, Camille Schnoor, Margaret Plummer, Julia Grüter, Betsy Horne, Marie Henriette Reinhold; Knappe: Betsy Horne, Margaret Plummer, Jorge Rodriguez-Norton, Garrie Davislim; Gralsritter: Siyabonga Maqungo, Jens-Erik Aasbo.

Bayreuth, Germany, August 19, 20223. All photos copyright Enrico Nawrath, courtesy of the Bayreuth Festival