For the composer, the quasi-religious aspect of the work was the perfect liturgy for his cathedral of music on the Green Hill. More importantly, the orchestration of the work was written with the Festspielhaus’s singular acoustics in mind. Bayreuth was its home – a veritable Montsalvat on a hill guarding its own Holy Grail. Wagner died the following year, and his widow Cosima was not able to stop the Metropolitan Opera from staging a rogue production of it in 1903. Eventually, the dominoes began to fall, and once the copyright expired on the work in 1913, European theaters began staging the work as well. Parsifal now belonged to the world.
In my lifetime I have attended perhaps twelve performances of this work. I have not counted -- all of them have been at the Metropolitan Opera. Over the years I heard Jon Vickers and Plácido Domingo triumph in the title role, and I have heard James Levine and the MET orchestra reach and maintain an outstanding level of musical maturity with this work.
I know the piece fairly well, and I have listened to it multiple times in recording following it with my Dover orchestra score. My mind’s ear knows what the next musical phrase is going to be. Now I have heard my first Parsifal at Bayreuth, and it is like listening to it for the first time. In this epic production director Stefan Herheim dramatizes the background story of the opera, setting it in Bayreuth itself with Wagner’s house, Wahnfried, as the background. Likewise, this production allows us to see not just the growth of Parsifal (Burkhard Fritz) from guileless fool to compassionate enlightened being, as the composer intended, but we become witnesses to the story of the German nation through the madness of World War I, the rise of the Nazi Party, the destruction of World War II, and the reconstruction and unification of the German people.
In Act two, the magic palace of the sorcerer Klingsor (Thomas Jesatko) is transformed into a military hospital ward filled with the walking wounded of World War I trench warfare. Kundry (Susan MacLean) appears to Parsifal as the personification of Marlene Dietrich, complete with tuxedo and top hat, and, at the conclusion of the act, the one who hurls the sacred spear at Parsifal is a “Hitlerjunge”, in full brown shirt and armband regalia, on a stage draped with numerous Nazi flags. By the way, these flags are red, and have a black swastika inside a white circle, of course. The same symbol that Yevgeny Nikitin had tattooed on his chest and then covered up.
Act three begins in a Germany in ruins. Gurnemanz (the amazing Kwangchul Youn) is in uniform, a deserter from the front, and Kundry as civilian casualty unable to say more than the only words that Wagner provided for her: “service, service.” When Parsifal enters, however, his hair is shoulder-length, and he is the very essence of a knight errand crusader complete with helmet, shield and lance. As Kundry washes his feet and dries them with her own hair, for a moment this production takes on a very conservative tone. If for a moment, the settings brings to mind the kind of staging that Wagner would recognize for his work. Save for Gurnemanz’s modern dress, it looks like the first production of this work that I saw at the MET when I was a young man and knew very little about the work. Eventually the production recuperates its post-modern feel, and it concludes with the Brotherhood of the Grail as German politicians in the Reichstag. A giant mirror over them, that all along had been reflecting a gigantic German eagle on the floor, eventually turns to reflect the audience, the musicians in the sunken pit, and then turns into a rotating globe that shines on all of us gathered at the Festspielhaus. Those of us gathered at Wagner’s theater represent a microcosm of the world, and the universality of Richard Wagner’s music is seen reflecting on us all.