A Mem­o­rable Pro­duc­tion of Wag­ner’s ‘Par­si­fal’ and Pos­si­bly The Worst Ever Staged

Forward Magazine - - Culture - By A.J. Gold­mann

If I needed to choose my fa­vorite in­con­gru­ous mo­ment from Uwe Eric Laufen­berg’s spec­tac­u­larly bad pro­duc­tion of “Par­si­fal,” which opened this year’s Bayreuth Festival, I would choose the shuke­l­ing Jews in tsi­tis and yarmulkes who ap­pear in the third act cho­rus.

Ti­turel, the an­cient leader of the Knights of the Grail, has just died, and an an­gry mob clam­ors for his son, Am­for­tas, to once more unveil the sa­cred Kid­dush cup. The shuke­l­ing Jews, re­sem­bling set­tlers more than any­thing else, are hud­dled to­gether in a bombed-out church some­where in present-day Iraq, along with prac­ti­tion­ers of many other faiths, pre­sum­ably all un­der threat from ISIS. Am­for­tas, who once suc­cumbed to a beau­ti­ful Jewish temptress (more about her later) and lost the Holy Spear (oy vey!), re­fuses to ful­fill the sa­cred duty that only re­minds him of his pain and shame. Front and cen­ter, a cho­ris­ter with a tal­lit draped around his shoul­ders an­grily shakes a gold meno­rah at the suf­fer­ing knight. At the end of the pro­duc­tion, the can­de­labra will wind up in Ti­turel’s cof­fin, along with var­i­ous other re­li­gious para­pher­na­lia de­posited by the cho­rus mem­bers af­ter they’ve re­ceived Par­si­fal’s – the holy fool-cum-redeemer of the opera’s ti­tle – bene­dic­tion and, pre­sum­ably, sal­va­tion.

There is a line of redemp­tion that runs through all of Wag­ner’s 10 “ma­ture” op­eras, from the Gothic fairy tale of “Der fliegende Hol­län­der” (“The Fly­ing Dutch­man”) through to the re­li­gious apoth­e­o­sis of “Par­si­fal,” the com­poser’s fi­nal work. Redemp­tion per­haps through art: the art and mu­sic of the fu­ture of which Wag­ner con­sid­ered him­self the bea­con. It was this point that caused Friedrich Ni­et­zsche to break with the com­poser he had once so de­voutly ad­mired. In turn­ing to Chris­tian­ity for what Wag­ner con­sid­ered his most im­por­tant and pro­found work, the com­poser was, ac­cord­ing to Ni­et­zsche, reap­pro­pri­at­ing the mas­ter-slave di­chotomy that had kept Western Civ­i­liza­tion crip­pled for nearly two mil­len­nia. With the opera’s glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of pu­rity, suf­fer­ing and chastity, the philoso­pher said that “Par­si­fal” smacked of “ha­tred against life.” The key dif­fer­ence with Chris­tian­ity, of course, was that sal­va­tion would no longer come through a Jew nailed to the cross, but rather through the ge­nius of a com­poser, who had spilled his lifeblood on the pages of his pro­foundly mys­ti­cal score. Wag­ner went as far as to call the work a “Büh­nen­wei­h­fest­spiel” (“A Festival Play for the Con­se­cra­tion of the Stage”), and for more than 20

Of Wag­ner’s deep and re­pel­lent anti-Semitism there can be no doubt.

years, the only way to hear “Par­si­fal” was to make the pil­grim­age to Bayreuth, the ul­ti­mate test for true be­liev­ers.

“Aus Par­si­fal baue ich mir meine Re­li­gion” (“From Par­si­fal I take my re­li­gion”), re­marked Hitler, Wag­ner’s most in­fa­mous devo­tee and a dot­ing friend of the Wag­ner fam­ily. The Bayreuth Festival, which is op­er­ated to this day by the Wag­ner clan, hosted and toasted the Nazis from as early as 1926 through to the fi­nal wartime festival in 1944. The nexus of na­tion­al­ism and re­li­gious fer­vor was taken up zeal­ously by a Ger­many seek­ing to redeem it­self in a bap­tism of fire and blood that would ul­ti­mately turn into self-an­ni­hi­la­tion. This is not in any way to sug­gest that Wag­ner should be held ac­count­able for the rise of Na­tional So­cial­ism or the Holo­caust. But many in the Nazi high com­mand, as well as their so­cial and po­lit­i­cal fore­bear­ers, dipped in the cul­tural and in­tel­lec­tual stream that Wag­ner ir­ri­gated.

Of Wag­ner’s deep and re­pel­lent anti-Semitism there can be no doubt. The ex­tent to which this at­ti­tude found ex­pres­sion in his mu­si­cal out­put, how­ever, has long been open to de­bate. Theodor W. Adorno was the first to sug­gest that Wag­ner coded cer­tain char­ac­ters in his op­eras as Jewish: the winy, back­stab­bing dwarf Mime in “Der Ring des

Ni­belun­gen” (“The Mastersingers of Nurem­berg”); the pedan­tic, rule-ob­sessed medi­ocrity Beckmesser in “Die Meis­tersinger von Nürn­berg.” Both those parts are char­ac­ter­ized by a de­lib­er­ately ex­ag­ger­ated and snarling song, which, it has been ar­gued, may rep­re­sent the mauscheln ( lin­guis­tic im­pu­rity and mum­bling) that Wag­ner con­sid­ers a key Jewish trait, one that cat­e­gor­i­cally in­hibits them from cre­at­ing any­thing of worth.

Less spec­u­la­tively, Kundry, the sole fe­male char­ac­ter in “Par­si­fal,” is a vari­a­tion on the trope of the “Wan­der­ing Jew,” the fig­ure of the unre­deemed drifter fated to roam the earth for­ever in search of elu­sive sal­va­tion, which also forms the back­bone of “Der fliegende Hol­län­der” (based it­self on a novel by the Ger­man-Jewish poet Hein­rich Heine). Kundry, eter­nally damned for laugh­ing at Christ on the cross, is ul­ti­mately re­deemed by Par­si­fal who, hav­ing been anointed king, bap­tizes her and, in do­ing so, grants her per­mis­sion to die. In the new Bayreuth pro­duc­tion, Kundry, sung by the cat­er­waul­ing Rus­sian mezzo-so­prano Elena Pankra­tova, tries (and fails) to se­duce Par­si­fal in an “Ori­en­tal­ist” fan­tasy that fea­tures women in burkas and belly dancers (as well as some oth­ers who looked like they stum­bled in from the Playboy Swim­suit Is­sue). Her later bap­tism, on Good Fri­day, takes place in an over­grown shed, with gi­gan­tic branches and leaves that pro­trude through the win­dows like Au­drey II from “Lit­tle Shop of Hor­rors.” Kundry, now a silent, servile babushka, sits in a wheel­chair sur­rounded by a bevy of naked women who dance ec­stat­i­cally in the rain. In var­i­ous pro­duc­tions I’ve seen, Kundry is ei­ther killed, forcibly con­verted by a fren­zied mob or, in Dmitri Tch­er­ni­akov’s ex­cel­lent stag­ing cur­rently at the Ber­lin Staat­soper, united in love with Am­for­tas (only to be killed by the se­nior knight Gurne­manz, who can­not abide such mercy). Laufen­berg’s re­fusal to en­gage crit­i­cally with Wag­ner’s prob­lem­atic source ma­te­rial was one of the ma­jor fail­ures of this pro­duc­tion, the other one be­ing that it did an abysmal job of merely telling the story.

Laufen­berg, who was tapped last year by Bayreuth’s head hon­cho, Katha­rina Wag­ner (the com­poser’s great-grand­daugh­ter), to re­place the con­tro­ver­sial Ger­man vis­ual and per­for­mance artist Jonathan Meese, up­dated the set­ting from the me­dieval Spain of Wag­ner’s li­bretto to an uniden­ti­fied war-torn Mid­dle East­ern coun­try in the present day. Mon­sal­vat, the fairy tale cas­tle of the Knights of the Holy Grail, is a be­sieged church where refugees hud­dle in cots for safety. Squadrons of soldiers in full com­bat gear pe­ri­od­i­cally tear through with raised guns. It is Par­si­fal’s killing of a swan that brings him into con­tact with the sa­cred knights. In this pro­duc­tion, a small boy is also shot ( pos­si­bly by Par­si­fal’s ar­row as well), a su­per­flu­ous touch that, like the burka-clad flower maid­ens in act two, seemed like a fee­ble at­tempt to give the pro­duc­tion a “torn from the head­lines” im­me­di­acy. Singing Par­si­fal was Bayreuth fa­vorite Klaus Flo­rian Vogt, a fine but none-too-ex­cit­ing choice. It would have been nice to see a new­comer to Bayreuth. How about An­dreas Schager, the young Aus­trian tenor made Vogt’s ev­ery ut­ter­ance sounded like a lul­laby. It was a wel­come con­trast to all the heavy voices sur­round­ing him, in­clud­ing the mag­is­te­rial and seem­ing in­ex­haustible Ge­org Zep­pen­feld as Gurne­manz, one of Wag­ner’s long­est (and dullest) char­ac­ters, the an­guished Am­for­tas of Ryan McKinny, and the ex­pres­sive, if not en­tirely com­mand­ing, Gerd Gro­chowski as the evil wiz­ard Kling­sor, whose hob­bies here in­clude pray­ing toward Mecca and self-flag­el­la­tion. If you ask him nicely, he’ll also show you his stel­lar col­lec­tion of cru­ci­fixes (in­clud­ing one with an end shaped cu­ri­ously like a dildo).

Aside from the ris­i­ble re­li­gious pot­pourri that Laufen­berg clearly meant to elu­ci­date the themes of devo­tion un­der duress and sal­va­tion, the direc­tor showed stag­ger­ingly bad in­stincts in block­ing. Char­ac­ters ap­peared and dis­ap­peared with no dis­cern­able logic (Par­si­fal is ab­sent from the stage dur­ing the bulk of Kundry’s act two monologue), and the mas­sive, ex­cel­lently pre­pared cho­rus kept fil­ing back and forth ner­vously dur­ing the act one Grail Scene.

An­dris Nel­sons, the Bos­ton Sym­phony Orches­tra’s new mu­sic direc­tor, was sched­uled to con­duct. Just weeks be­fore the first per­for­mance, he dropped out of the pro­duc­tion due to re­ported clashes with the festival’s mu­si­cal direc­tor, Chris­tian Thiele­mann. Thiele­mann was also re­spon­si­ble for the de­par­ture last year of Kir­ill Pe­trenko, the Rus­sian-Jewish mu­sic direc­tor des­ig­nate of the Ber­lin Phil­har­monic, who con­ducted the Ring Cy­cle to great ac­claim here in 2013 and 2014.

Hart­mut Haenchen, a dis­tin­guished East Ger­man con­duc­tor (I can’t help point­ing out that his name lit­er­ally means “brave mind chicken”), jumped in at the last minute for the Lat­vian mae­stro, and led a re­fresh­ingly brisk per­for­mance char­ac­ter­ized by hon­esty and dra­matic drive. He seemed loath to wal­low in­dul­gently in the score’s cos­mic ec­stasies.

Speak­ing of cos­mic, the best five min­utes of this “Par­si­fal” was the im­pres­sive high-def­i­ni­tion video pro­jec­tion (by Gérard Naziri) dur­ing the act one Trans­for­ma­tion Mu­sic of an in­ter­ga­lac­tic jour­ney through hy­per­space and back that Stan­ley Kubrick would have cer­tainly ap­proved of.

In the end, it is Wag­ner’s hy­po­tonic and sublime mu­sic that keeps “Par­si­fal” fresh and valid de­spite its trou­bling themes and check­ered past. Pro­duc­tions such as Ste­fan Her­heim’s stag­ing here in 2008, which ex­am­ined the piece in the con­text of Bayreuth and Ger­many’s mod­ern his­tory, was an ex­em­plary les­son in how to re­spond to Wag­ner and his festival’s fraught her­itage.

On vir­tu­ally ev­ery level, the 2016 “Par­si­fal” feels like a missed op­por­tu­nity. A new “Par­si­fal” might not roll around here for an­other decade. Un­til then, don’t ex­pect any redemp­tion at Bayreuth.

EN­RICO NARWATH

Yet He Re­mains Unre­deemed: A theme of redemp­tion runs through all of Wag­ner’s op­eras in­clud­ing ‘Par­si­fal,’ which opened this year’s Bayreuther Fest­spiele.

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