Wednesday 6 August 2008

Bayreuth Festival: Parsifal, 6 August 2008

Festspielhaus, Bayreuth

Amfortas – Detlef Roth
Titurel – Diógenes Randes
Gurnemanz – Kwangchul Youn
Parsifal – Christopher Ventris
Klingsor – Thomas Jesatko
Kundry – Mihoko Fujimura
First Knight of the Grail – Arnold Bezuyen
Second Knight of the Grail – Friedemann Röhlig
First Squire – Julia Borchert
Second Squire – Ulrike Helzel
Third Squire – Clemens Bieber
Fourth Squire – Timothy Oliver
Flowermaidens – Julia Borchert, Martina Rüping, Carola Guber, Anna Korondi, Jutta Böhnert, Ulrike Helzel
Contralto solo – Simone Schröder

Stefan Herheim (director)
Heike Scheele (designs)
Gesine Cöllm (costumes)
Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach (dramaturgy)

Orchestra and Chorus of the Bayreuth Festival (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Daniele Gatti (conductor)

This was an outstanding production. I had greatly admired Stefan Herheim’s Salzburg Entführung, so my expectations were high; they were nevertheless surpassed. Herheim trod a difficult tightrope between presentation of his guiding Konzept – the history of Parsifal as a work and the world in which it has developed from the time of its first performance to that of its most recent – and recounting of the immanent story of Parsifal. Two stories ran not so much in parallel as with mutual influence, yet without inflicting harm upon one another and without the slightest sense of contrivance. Herheim, in other words, never fell from his rope into those treacherous depths that have previously swallowed so many directors and their ideas, be they good, bad, or indifferent. ­­­­

We began in the Second Reich. So intensely dialectical and wondrously multi-layered – and yet not confusing – was Herheim’s direction that we witnessed and heard –we are dealing with a musician here, unlike many, perhaps most opera directors – the early days of post-Wagner Wahnfried, the sickly, semi-incestuous goings-on of an impeccably haut bourgeois family and its nursery, that extraordinary phase of Nietzschean, Renanesque, and of course Parsifalian Christianity, the era of the oft-present Imperial eagle, and the terrifying march to war. Never have I experienced such a rightly ominous tone to the outward march of the replenished – but replenished by and for what? – Grail knights as here, both musically and courtesy of the early ‘patriotic’ military film. The realm in which time became space had led us towards 1914. It should be stressed, we missed none of the drama we should have expected from a performance of Parsifal. And so, we began in a field hospital for the second act, for once actually seeing the renegade knights, Sir Ferris and all, of whom Klingsor tells. The Flower-ordinaries tended to them in every way they knew how: a most effective tactic on the part of Klingsor as Master of Ceremonies. For we also saw Weimar, with the Moorish castle’s owner suggestive in white tie and fishnets of Emcee himself. Cabaret’s trajectory reached its ultimate conclusion with the end of this act, a moment for which the phrase coup de théâtre might have been invented. The coming of the Third Reich was signalled by the castle’s destruction and the advent not only of stormtroopers and a brown-shirted, tomorrow-belonging-to-him little boy, but of swastikas too. Rarely have I experienced such a truly electric moment in the theatre. There were boos of course, from those afraid and challenged – they tended to be of conspicuously bürgerlich appearance – but there was louder applause for Bayreuth’s belated yet brave attempt at coming to terms with its history. Self-laceration may have become tedious in some segments of German society, but the knives have been far less evident anywhere near the Green Hill.

The final act opened in the garden of a bombed Wahnfried. Parsifal’s coming and Good Friday offered the possibility of a reanimation, not just natural but social: a tall order, as we realised when a procession of the starved post-war population of Berlin passed across the stage. Yet Parsifal had at least enabled water to trickle forth again from the garden’s fountain. Amfortas’s trial – in every sense – brought us from Nuremberg to the present-day Bundestag, whilst in no way detracting from the very particular agony of this very particular drama. And who says that one can peak too early? A coup de théâtre just as brave as that of the evocation of 1933 was once again presented with a video projection of the young Wagner brothers’ – that is, Wieland's and Wolfgang's – request at the 1951 reopening, that political discussion be banished from New Bayreuth. An image of Wagner himself was bricked up. All power to Wolfgang Wagner for permitting this! Whatever the doubts concerning his own productions – and let us be honest: we have all seen far worse – his record in attracting new directors to Bayreuth has been more than commendable. Reactionaries, or at least conservatives, should have taken heart from the proportion of Wagner’s stage directions followed, sometimes to the letter, but at least to the spirit. How long, for instance, is it since a production of Parsifal ended with the white dove hovering over the hero’s head? Here, of course, the message was ambiguous. Clearly related to the eagle we had seen so many times before – and to the swan of the first act – there might be hope but there might yet be more of the same or worse. I have recently been perhaps a little too fond of quoting Horace’s ‘Mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur’ (‘Change but the name, and the tale is told of you’) with reference to opera (and specifically to Ariadne auf Naxos), but it seems tailor-made for the video-projections in which we faced ourselves and the orchestra – a Bayreuth first in looking beneath the covered pit. We both braced ourselves and questioned the alleged ‘openness’ (hints of Norman Foster’s Reichstag dome) of the new dispensation. I have missed a great deal, even from my own recollection, and there was doubtless much that I did not comprehend or even notice on a first encounter, but this ought at least to begin to suggest the scale of Herheim’s and the rest of the production team’s achievement. (However complicated the partial and full scenic transformations, everything ran like clockwork, unlike Covent Garden’s recent revival disaster with Ariadne.)

Daniele Gatti’s reading of the score rarely drew attention to itself but contributed to the unfolding dramas in exemplary fashion. It was, I suspect, a slow reading, measured by the clock, although I have never understood why some people worry about such matters. Knappertsbusch and Boulez both have a great deal to tell us; there is no need to take sides, except against those incapable of making the score resound and cohere. The richness of the Bayreuth orchestra was ever apparent, but never more so than when it finally had our full attention, during the unstaged Prelude to Act III. That evocation of hard-won passing of time can rarely have seemed more apt than in the circumstances of this production. The gradual unfolding of the score’s phrases and paragraphs was faultless. Each act was possessed both of its own character and of an array of variegation and cross-reference. And the bells sounded better than I can recall hearing them anywhere (except of course on the most venerable of old Bayreuth recordings). If only Antonio Pappano would desist from conducting Wagner in London, Gatti would be just the man to help us out, working on the assumption that Bernard Haitink’s return visits are likely to be few at best.

Christopher Ventris was an excellent Parsifal. This may be less impossible a role than Siegfried or Tristan, but even so, it is a tough challenge, to which Ventris rose with aplomb, both musically and in stage terms. Indeed, all of the cast, with the partial exception of Mihoko Fujimura’s Kundry, excelled in acting terms. She, sadly, was no seductress, but she bought into the rest of her role and sang well enough, if somewhat short of unforgettably, throughout. (I could not help but wonder what Waltraud Meier would have made of this opportunity.) Her diction could sometimes be questionable too. Kwangchul Youn lacked the authority of a great Gurnemanz but he proved attentive to the text, excepting one noticeable bout of poor intonation. I have heard more malevolent Klingsors than Thomas Jesatko, but there was nothing really to complain of in a well-acted performance. Detlef Roth, however, was a triumphant Amfortas. To say that he proved himself an extremely fine singing-actor is not to detract from his considerable achievements were his singing and acting to be considered separately; it is simply to state that such a separation would be false and that the whole was still greater than the sum of the parts. The same could be said of the superb Bayreuth Festival Chorus. And the same could be said of the entire production, which, whatever my odd reservation concerning the casting, should come to be regarded as a defining moment in the history of the Bayreuth Festival and indeed in that of the staging of Wagner’s music dramas.