Thursday, 19 December 2013

Bayreuth, Parsifal, and the Artwork of the Future

(I was delighted to be invited to speak in late November at the Internationaal Wagner Congres Amsterdam 2013. Below is the text of my paper. A considerably longer, fully-referenced version will be published as an essay in a 2014 issue of the German journal, wagnerspectrum. However, it will not have the pretty pictures...)


In the beginning was Bayreuth. Except, of course, for Wagner, it was not the beginning: it was the end, at least an end, and in many respects a misleading one. Bayreuth, or perhaps better, the idea and ideal which have come down to us, mostly from the period following Wagner’s death, presents a gathered congregation as opposed to the freer assembly apparently envisaged by the younger Wagner. That leads us to ask: can one, should one, do more than smile at the utopian idea of a wooden theatre to be torn down at the same time as the score of Siegfried went up in flames, after but three performances – ‘Entrée: gratis!’ – given within the course of a week? Was the ‘artwork of the future’, outward looking, ‘universal’ as opposed to merely ‘national’, just as much a progressive pipe-dream, then, as the ‘springtime of peoples’ of the 1848-9 revolutions? As AJP Taylor’s ‘turning point’ whose ‘fateful essence’ was that Germany ‘failed to turn,’ or, still worse, Sir Lewis Namier’s sneering epitaph, the ‘revolution of the intellectuals’? Wagner’s part in the Dresden uprising is well known. It is nevertheless worth reiterating that, whatever the disillusionment of the 1850s and beyond, revolutionary hopes found themselves instantiated both in the subsequent course of much of European politics – liberals and sometimes even socialists found that they could accomplish a great deal by cooperation with a reinstated old order, whose reaction was in any case more military than aristocratic – and in Wagner’s later musico-dramatic deeds. The ‘artwork of the future’ remained, endured, even strengthened itself, for all the transformations, both pragmatic and principled, required by what we might call, in dubious homage to the former people’s democracies, the ‘actually existing Bayreuth Festival’.

Anniversary years naturally prompt us to look back, to take stock, yet also to look to the present and indeed to the future. After all, we find ourselves celebrating and considering ‘Wagner in 2013’ as much as we do ‘Wagner in 1813’. I shall consider Wagner principally through the lens of performance, through a lens focused upon a Bayreuth that looks forward and back. It is to one particular production that I shall specifically turn, to Stefan Herheim’s well-nigh ‘classic’ 2008-12 staging of the Bayreuth work par excellence, Parsifal, a production that explicitly engages with the work’s reception history, in order to turn in informed fashion to the twenty-first-century present and future of Wagner’s artwork. But before that, and with Herheim’s staging in mind, a broader consideration of the relationship between staging of a work from the operatic or at least musico-dramatic ‘museum’, and the historical process, may be in order.

Herheim opens with Parsifal at the time of its first, Bayreuth staging, in 1882. He proceeds to tell a history that leads to somewhere approaching the present day, even turning a mirror upon the audience at one point, a moment with considerably greater theatrical power than a mere retelling might suggest. The audience is not simply accused, deservedly or otherwise; it is also reminded that it belongs to a drama that remains unfinished, whatever Wagner’s Hegelian aspirations towards totality, and that it, the audience, interprets, shapes, even writes the history suggested. Far from having reached a Fukuyama-like ‘end of history’, we might all have become historians: a challenge already to the ‘gathered congregation’ of Bayreuth orthodoxy, whether that be Wagner’s own or not. Wagner, though he might sometimes come close to positing a false immediacy of audience response, was no proponent of art as non-reflective, non-reflexive entertainment – purveyor of the diversions opponents of interpretative stage direction more often than not wish to see enacted. ‘Our theatrical public,’ he complained in Oper und Drama, ‘has no need for the artwork; it desires diversion from the stage, … well-crafted details, rather than the necessity of artistic unity.’

Herheim, it should be added, began his career as a cellist, and is a more unusual example than one might expect, or at least desire, of a director who reads the score. (We should be surprised if a director of Æschylus in the original did not read Greek, yet treat non-musical directors of Wagner with equanimity.) The issue of staging the Prelude to the first act was resolved more amicably, more fruitfully, than it would be with Barenboim in Lohengrin. Initially, the conductor, Daniele Gatti was sceptical, concerned that the audience might be distracted from the music. But Herheim made the excellent point in an interview that would suggest that, once, the curtain rose, the audience need no longer concern itself with the music, continuing, ‘I'm not saying that in principle the Prelude should always be staged. But if you have good reasons to portray the music in the prelude, it's just the way that it’s done that you can argue against. Gatti acknowledged this and was excited about the symbiosis the staging entered into with the music.’ That, in a sense, is a perfect restatement of the echt-Wagnerian dialectic of music drama; the various elements – if indeed they may be considered separate elements at all, Wagner having taken great pains to stress, in Hegelian fashion, their initial unity in the ancient world – gain in intensity by mutual interaction. Greater emphasis upon the staging heightens rather than lessens the effect of the orchestra, and so forth.

Crucially, that symbiosis enabled, even provoked, the emergence of an idea of the score as redeemer. It was subtle rather than thrust in one’s face, unlike the provocative second-act Nazi imagery, which I shall address later. Yet, for that reason, and it might well take more than one encounter fully to appreciate this, Herheim’s candidate for an answer to Wagner’s riddle of ‘Erlösung dem Erlöser’ emerged all the more convincingly. Again, that was a possibility rather than a definitive ‘solution’, but successful dramas, like successful performances, do not trade in the latter. The tale of German history, of Parsifal as a work developing through that history, could thereby be seen and heard as requiring and receiving some form of transcendental, or at least beneficial, intervention, not so much ‘grace’, but something more immanent, arising from within, the attempted negation of the litany of negative dialectics to which history and work have been subjected. There was no false mediated unity in which to rejoice or rather to wallow.

For the conservative caricature of modern Regietheater, which in certain cases has an element of truth to it, a caricature in which, for the sake of argument, Monsalvat is arbitrarily relocated to a multi-storey car-park in Essen, and references to the automobile industry become determining features, bears no relation to the exploration of music, words, reception, and so much more offered by Herheim and other probing directors. Still less does it respond to Wagner’s strenuous challenge. Interestingly, Peter Konwitschny has, for very similar reasons, avowedly dissociated himself from the Regietheater label, it perhaps being no coincidence that Konwitschny, the son of a celebrated conductor, Felix, is himself a musician: 
I do not consider myself a representative of the Regietheater. Often, these directors present one single idea, such as for example staging Rigoletto in an empty swimming pool or in a slaughterhouse. These ideas are not consequentially followed through and explored, and in most cases, the singers stand next to each other on stage just as unconnected as in conventional productions.

My stagings, on the other hand, aim to return to the roots: to get to the core of the pieces, through the jungle of interpretative traditions, which, in most cases, have distorted the pieces. The accusation that this is ‘too intellectual for the average viewer’ is absurd and exposes the enemies of such theatre as opposing new insights.

Indeed, the pernicious anti-intellectualism of such attacks as such, as opposed to perfectly justified criticisms of particular productions, reveals itself to be a strange sort of intellectual condescension. No one reading Hegel or listening to Wagner for the first time expects to ‘understand’ everything; nor does he mind when he ‘fails’ to do so. Were there a final, achievable, destination, we should then give up, having ‘mastered’ Parsifal or the Phänomenologie des Geistes, and then move on to something else. Re-enactment of the sort envisaged by the decriers of interpretation makes no more sense here than it does in performance. Ritual is in Parsifal and through Parsifal dynamically, dialectically challenged from within as well as from without; that indeed is the very stuff of Wagner’s drama.

For Parsifal was intended to be and remains different. Wagner’s various attempts to avoid the pejorative – to him – ‘opera’ as a description of his later works may nowadays elicit as much scepticism as blind adoration, though in simply calling Tristan und Isolde ‘drama’ (Handlung), he certainly captured a quality of that singular work. However, it would take a Wagnerian of extreme, unhealthy devotion not to raise at least a hint of a smile at the cumbersome Bühnenweihfestspiel, or ‘stage-festival-consecration-play’, employed for Parsifal. And what that term might mean has brought all manner of consequences for the work’s reception, even indeed, given the determination of Cosima and other Bayreuth loyalists that it should remain confined to the stage it allegedly consecrated, for the possibility of staging it at all. The surrounding aura of sanctity may seem to many repellent (‘an unseemly and sacrilegious conception of art as religion and the theatre as a temple’ – Stravinsky), ridiculous (Debussy, albeit continuing to honour the score alone as ‘one of the loveliest monuments ever raised to the serene glory of music’), or both, as in Nietzsche’s case. Moreover, the claim that Parsifal is in any straightforward sense a ‘Christian work’, as opposed to a work that treats with, amongst other things, Christianity, would find few takers today. Even if the end of the first act were an invitation to receive Holy Communion, the Grail Knights’ words ‘Partake of the bread, valiantly transform it into corporeal strength and power’ – suggest a church or theology whose heterodoxy extended beyond the merely gnostic.

That said, this tale of a ‘pure fool’, so ignorant that he knows neither whence he has come, nor even his name, who, through the offices of divine grace rather than by his own deeds, enlightened through compassion (Schopenhauer’s Mitleid, ‘suffering with’), rejuvenates a dying community, remains quite different from the operatic essays of any of Wagner’s contemporaries and many of his successors. Parsifal resists assimilation to the opera house; it is out of place amongst champagne, canapés, and diva-worshippers. Wagner wrote to Ludwig II that he wished to protect it from ‘a common operatic career’. Pierre Boulez, a highly distinguished interpreter and critic as well as compositional successor, understood this very well when he approvingly wrote of Wagner loathing a system in which ‘opera houses are … like cafés where … you can hear waiters calling out their orders: ‘One Carmen! And one Walküre! And one Rigoletto!’ Wagner’s works declare their incompatibility with existing theatrical conventions and norms – even today, arguably still more so. And of those works, Parsifal remains the ne plus ultra.

The signal strength of Herheim’s production is that it engages with these problems: with the fraught associations, both with Bayreuth – which, for better and for worse, is also quite different from anywhere else – and with broader historical themes, associations the work has gathered from at least the time of its premiere in 1882. So intensely dialectical and multi-layered is Herheim’s direction that we tread successfully a 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 run not so much in parallel as with mutual influence, yet without inflicting harm upon each other and with no sense of contrivance.

In the first act, we therefore witness the early days of post-Wagner Wahnfried, the sickly, incestuous goings-on of an impeccably haut bourgeois family and its nursery (Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks comes to mind), in the era of an oft-present Imperial Eagle. As Christianity enters an especially peculiar phase, dreams and childhood come to the fore, likewise the psychopathology of religious experience (which both Nietzsche and Mann saw as fundamental to the work). A priest, incense – Nietzsche’s accusation of Wagner sinking to his knees before the Cross re-examined – and, most shockingly, circumcision of the infant who may or may not ‘be’ a young Parsifal, offer almost as much food for thought as Wagner’s own inversion, echoing the philosophy of Feuerbach, of the elements. The violence of the deed could hardly have been more topical during the 2012 legal controversy over infant genital mutilation in Germany; and yet, it also points to something older, deep-seated, and of course very much part of the work’s reception history: the question of whether anti-Semitism might be expressed in Wagner’s drama. (It notably does not propose answers.) Amfortas now seems far more central to the drama. His cry of pain jolts us from complacent ‘knowledge’ of the work, and also points forward – or backward! – to Kundry’s scream of laughter at Christ, who, whatever Wagner may have hoped, must also have undergone the procedure, on the road to Calvary.

The second act opens in a field hospital. For once, and this is typical of Herheim’s attention to Wagner’s detail, we actually see the renegade Knights, Sir Ferris and all. Klingsor is Cabaret Master of Ceremonies; for now, we behold Weimar Germany, our Moorish castle’s owner suggestive in white tie and fishnets. The delicious representation of the Flowermaidens as orderlies and flappers – is that not just what they are? – gains dramatic attention, as well as firmly placing us in the inter-war period. (I say, ‘firmly’, but historical time passes as its performative cousin does.) And yet, a reminder that various levels of interpretation are anything but distinct is offered by a greater keenness of manipulation when it comes to Kundry’s acts: above all, what she tells Parsifal. She is in turn being manipulated by Klingsor; yet perhaps so many of us are understandably now influenced by feminist readings that we feel uncomplicatedly sympathetic. It is salutary to be reminded that this Rose of Hell – the rose very much part of Herheim’s imagery, ‘new’ video technology included – has, despite her plight, agency of her own. That is more properly feminist than to consider her purely as victim. And the similarity of costume between her and Klingsor, both in Weimar cross-dressing travesty, reinforces the need both have for each other, an Hegelian master-slave dialectic re-imagined. Wagner’s artwork is permitting of answers, or better, further questions, which he may or may not have been able to conceive himself. Historical understanding enables it to become of the present, even of the future.

The final scene of the second act is electric, the coming of Bayreuth’s and Germany’s darkest years truly shocking. Indeed, the phrase coup de théâtre might have been invented for this advent of the Third Reich, signalled by the ‘Weimar’ castle’s destruction, the arrival of stormtroopers and a brown-shirted, tomorrow-belonging-to-him, little boy, and the unfurling of swastikas. Overdue yet nevertheless courageous, the Festival seemed at last ready to begin to come to terms with its history. Judging by the disgruntled noises from some members of the audience – it should hardly surprise that ‘conservative’ critics of searching productions would feel discomfited by a reminder of their ideological kinship – it remains an absolute necessity too.

Then, the final act opens in the garden of a bombed Wahnfried. Parsifal’s coming and Good Friday offer the possibility – illusory? – of rejuvenation. In a tribute to the Bayreuth Tannhäuser of Götz Friedrich, with whom Herheim studied, a procession of the starved post-war population crosses the stage, victims of what has gone before and, prospectively at least, of the mendacious ideology of the Wirtschaftswunder and its culture industry. The point of ultimate hope comes when a star briefly appears in the sky: wonderfully touching, yet what does it signify? A (false) messiah’s advent? A simple, childlike pleasure? It certainly rings truer than the gaudy coloured lights signalling Parsifal’s descent into the realm of the (lifestyle?) guru. Another brave coup de théâtre – Herheim never forgets that Parsifal, amongst other things, is theatre; nor should we – comes with a projection during the Verwandlungsmusik. A request is displayed from the young Wagner brothers, Wieland and Wolfgang, at the 1951 (re-)opening of ‘New Bayreuth’, that political discussion be banished from the Green Hill. An image of Wagner is bricked up behind Parsifal’s childhood wall, the composer remaining too hot to handle. Might we also recall that Wahnfried wall built by Wolfgang, on whose other side Winifred remained until her death, a standing, tenacious reminder that politics could not so easily be banished?

If anything, politics stand still more starkly at the heart of the final scene. Amfortas’s trial – in every sense – takes us from post-war Nuremberg to the present-day Bundestag. The problematical nature of charismatic leadership is here for all to see. Parsifal is not one of the trio seen at the close, presumably hastening us to an uncertain future; instead, we find ourselves in the hands of Gurnemanz, Kundry – she does not expire – and a young boy. Or is he Parsifal, and has the whole drama been a dream or, rather, the ultimate nightmare? Friedrich Meinecke’s ‘German catastrophe’, the purported Sonderweg of German history? There is certainly no solace to be had from the bickering politicians of the Bundestag, the flag of the Federal Republic draping Titurel’s coffin, yet Parsifal seems to have offered at best a dead-end, a touch of snake oil: a modern politician? Amfortas, like Siegfried, seems to have gained in dignity through death. Nihilism, as Nietzsche would doubtless have had it? Or Wagner’s lifelong anarchism? Again, questions are dramatically suggested rather than dogmatically answered.

What of Herheim’s aforementioned turning the mirror upon the audience?  It comes across as an invitation, indeed an incitement, to question everything we have thought. ‘Educating Parsifal’, the character, is also ‘educating Parsifal’, the work, is also ‘educating us’ – not in merely didactic but dramatic fashion. As Horace put it many years earlier, ‘Change but the name, and the tale is told of you’. It is perhaps only what Wagner had been doing all along, although, in the emotional context both Wagner and Herheim have developed, as opposed to the abstraction of a mere act of reporting, it would be an unimaginative soul indeed who did not relish the mirror’s ambiguous invitation. For, in the words of Carl Dahlhaus, ‘It is precisely in order to radicalise conflicts – so that “resolutions” are ruled out – that dramas are written; if not, they would be treatises.’ It is for precisely that reason that we perform rather than re-enact, that we study as well as perform, that we think rather than wallow, that history enlivens rather than deadens, that the artwork is of past, present, and future. Indeed, it is also for those reasons that music, as Daniel Barenboim has pointed out in his work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, has the potential, the extraordinary power, if not to resolve political conflicts, then to bring people together, to have them work together – and that includes the audience. The communal, religious, and political role of Attic tragedy Wagner wished to recreate is just as relevant, to a revolutionary artwork of our future as to one of his.

I have suggested, then, some ways in which Wagner, viewed in performative terms, might use the past, often highly controversial, to look to the future. The idea of an ‘artwork of the future’ remains in many respects as burningly relevant as it did during the years of Wagner’s Zurich exile. An artwork that engages critically with the concerns of humanity and yet strenuously declares the (transcendental?) value of art as extending beyond mere pamphleteering, and which in form and content dramatises, problematises that tension is not simply saying something about art and its reception. As Ludwig Hevesi’s words, inscribed upon the Vienna Secession Building, have it, ‘To every age its art, to art its freedom’. That need not, indeed cannot, be accomplished by all-too-easy evasion, by distancing oneself from the musical works. Herheim’s dramaturgy, as discussed, enabled the music – not in a now discredited sense of ‘absolute music’, with the reactionary, neo-Romantic connotations that has acquired, but in a critical sense more suited to our time, which will doubtless thereafter be subject to criticism – to emerge as its own redeemer, the immanent theology of Parsifal thereby renewing and reinvigorating itself

Bayreuth and Wagner’s artwork of the future might yet, then, prove further beginnings, in a sense that both honours, in Meistersinger-fashion, the claims of art as time-honoured tradition and, as Wagner always insisted, reaches beyond the restricting limits of art merely for its own sake. Moreover, a Franconian festival theatre and its surroundings might prove just the place, out of season, for the first intégrale of Stockhausen’s neo-Wagnerian Licht cycle, indeed for a host of new works. Without falling prey to the ‘operatic’ danger we saw Boulez sketch above, custodians of the Wagnerian repertory would have nothing to fear – and everything to gain.

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