Thursday, 5 July 2012

Looking forward to Parsifal at Bayreuth (I)




There are many reasons, of course, for me to look forward to Parsifal at Bayreuth this summer, not least amongst which would be the simple matter of it being Parsifal at Bayreuth. I recall reading William Mann saying somewhere that he had never heard a bad Parsifal there; nor had he ever heard a good one anywhere else. I have certainly heard considerably-better-than-good performances elsewhere, notably from Bernard Haitink at Covent Garden and from Daniel Barenboim in Berlin, though it has to be said, with the greatest regret, that both of those stagings conductors and audience suffered were truly execrable. Nevertheless, nothing will ever sound quite the same as the strains of the first-act Prelude emerging from the covered pit in the theatre whose specific acoustic Wagner had in mind when writing the work. It should never have been confined to Bayreuth, of course, but that is not to deny the very special status the Festspielhaus will always have with respect to this particular drama.

There is more to it than that, however. Sadly, Daniele Gatti will not be conducting this year, as he has on previous outings of this production, including 2008 and 2011, when I was fortunate enough to be present. Gatti's grasp of the score, his ability to present it in one breath, ranks with the great Wagner conductors I mentioned above. The principal reason this Parsifal has become so celebrated, venerated even, however is Stefan Herheim's production, which will receive its final staging this year. (And contrary to the Festival's initial, capricious decision, it will now be filmed for release on DVD.) I have written about it before, and the reader may follow the links above to my thoughts in 2008 and 2011, but suffice it to say here that there has never been a production to which I have so looked forward seeing for a second, let alone a third, time, and never can I recall an occasion on which that expectation has so richly been rewarded. The extraordinary tight-rope Herheim walks between telling the story of Parsifal, as in Wagner's work itself, and telling the story, or at least a story, of Parsifal, as in its after-life and that of the culture in which it was born and to which it contributed would be reason enough to honour the staging. Still more extraordinary, however, is the way that the two stories - I am simplifying, for there are many more stories at work here too - fuse, complement, contradict, emerge stronger and more meaningful; that is, they work in very much the same way Wagner's own compositional technique.

For, as I never tire of saying, most of the truly noteworthy opera productions come from musicians, those who not only can but those who actually do read the score. (It strikes me as almost incredible that one would have the nerve to stage an opera if one could not, but let us leave that issue for another day.) Ultimately, redemption in this production comes, as it must, through the music. That is Herheim's message, or one of them, and it is Wagner's message, or one of them. Moreover, it is possible some of what one gleans may not even have been intended, by Wagner, by Gatti, by Herheim, by anyone else involved; that openness is also the hallmark of an art that is developmental, not circumscribed. One may or may not like the results - I do, greatly - but sadly, a characteristic of negative reviews of this production, which have largely hailed from all too predictable quarters, whether personally or geographically, has been a signal lack of comprehension and, in many cases, an unwillingness even to try to comprehend, to make any effort to think. Nothing could be less worthy of Wagner and his 'emotionalisation of the intellect' than that. I have said it before, and doubtless, I regret, have to say it again: 'emotionalisation' (Gefühlswerdung, or 'becoming feeling') is not abdication. Indeed, it is anything but abdication, a standing rebuke to those content to let whatever it is they experience merely wash over them. (Nietzsche called them 'Wagnerians'.) Wagner's vision, rather, embodies active, transformational development of the intellect; it is dynamic, provocative, above all dialectical. Both feeling and intellect are, as it were, aufgehoben, proof if ever it were needed that Wagner never abandoned Hegel, even if he thought he had.

1 comment:

The Wagnerian said...

Mark, enjoyable - and thoughtful commentary as always, however, I am unsure you are not being a little to simplistic in your analysis of those who do not find this a fine a production as you clearly do?

I am not adverse to interpretations - as I often say my most "valued" Parsifal on DVD is Syberberg's. Equally there is much to commend in Herheim's production. However, I wonder if much of the criticism is not as simply derived - or to be dismissed as you would suggest?

Ignoring the usual "conservative" critique (easily identified by the insertion of the word "Eurotrash" somewhere within the text), perhaps any "negative" critiques or reactions are due less to the fact that this production interprets the text in any radical manner - which I don't think it does at its core (and there is certainly little new here) - but that a number of its visuals cause some of us - myself included - to laugh when we are clearly not meant to? When Richard O'Brien had Frank N Furter first appear in a basque, stockings and suspenders he meant to achieve a number of reactions - but understood that the first and most prominent would be laughter. This is not due to my rather "childish" or "infantile" reactions I think but more to do with a certain "honesty I find difficult to suppress. Is this really what Herheim was after in the second act?

But it is not just the unintended laughter that I find problematic. Perhaps I should not comment, (and perhaps the comment section of a website is not the best place to do so) on the negative associations that can be easily (and in a sense intentionally I think) be derived with Herheim clearly associating Klingsor's self mutilation with Transvestitism and issues of transgender in general.

Going back to Rocky Horror - whereas O'Brien intended to deconstruct common views of transgender (and both sexuality and LGBT stereotypes as an entirety) Herheim's production clearly, if not as intentional as I maybe suggesting, re-establishes them in a way I think the Nazi's (who he is clearly trying elsewhere to "critique") would not have been uncomfortable - or indeed the Daily Mail. As I once asked someone, "Is this Parsifal or a Carry On movie?

And this is not the only place his vision has clearly unintended consequences. This is not "genius" - as a number of critics have maintained - but simple old fashioned theatrical "heavy handedness".

A little over simplified perhaps but "Aufheben" maybe ever present but alas whereas Hegel may have thought the outcome was always in a sense "predetermined" and certainly "for the better" (ultimately) the one thing that Wagner may have inherited from Schopenhauer is that this is far from the case. I think Wagner never did abandoned Hegel - he simply outgrew him when he found his conclusions were not as clear as he thought they were.