The 1951 production of Parsifal at Bayreuth was an economic and socio-political necessity, and it radically changed the course of Wagnerian staging. Wieland Wagner needed to rid his grandfather's works of the Nazi legacy that they had acquired and, in the harsh economic reality of post-World War II Germany, the operas needed to be mounted as cheaply as possible: the true reason for the simple sets, plain costumes, and the inventive use of lighting of the so-called "New Bayreuth" style.
It was the 1976 Bayreuth Centenary Ring, brilliantly conceived by Patrice Chéreau, that brought us to a new era in Wagnerian staging: the age of the director. That landmark production, gave carte blanche to stage directors and scenic designers to take liberties with Wagner's works, and offer the public concept productions. This is where we find ourselves in 2005. A few of these experiments have achieved a certain amount of brilliance, while the large majority of them have been downright silly, ridiculous, and even offensive. The 2004 Parsifal at Bayreuth might have been a new low in Wagnerian staging.
The new Parsifal DVD from Opus Arte captures for posterity the Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Kent Nagano production from the stage of the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden, Germany. It was recorded live in 2004. This DVD was put together from the three performances that the opera received at the Festival in the month of August, last summer.
This production, which was originally conceived by Mr. Lehnhoff for the English National Opera was also performed in San Francisco as well as in Lyric Opera of Chicago, before arriving last year at Baden-Baden. The cast for this DVD is superb with Christopher Ventris as Parsifal, Waltraud Meier as Kundry, Matti Salminen as Gurnemanz, Thomas Hampson as Amfortas, and Tom Fox as Klingsor. The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under conductor Kent Nagano plays the work with flair and precision, in what I would call a swift reading of this Wagner work.
If you like your visual representation of Parsifal to be as the composer intended, then stay far away from this production. It is abstract, unconventional, "Euro-trashy" to some, and totally fascinating to any lover of contemporary Wagnerian staging. The curtain rises on a post-apocalyptic world, strewn with debris and painted in submarine grey. The set is an unwelcoming steel platform which curves up at the back showing suspended chairs that seem to defy all sense of gravity. To add to the clutter, a giant meteor is lodged on the wall. Gurnemanz's young knights are dressed like the statues of the famous terracotta army in Xian, and Kundry wears the kind of "roadkill" fashion that makes her look like one of the less fortunate felines in the musical Cats. The first time we meet Parsifal he makes his entrance wearing a headband and war-paint. Amfortas is a feverishly tormented character, plagued with self doubts and wrapped like a mummy. Even Titurel makes a rare appearance in this production, looking like a medieval George Romero flesh-eating zombie.
Act II opens with a gigantic projection of an X-ray of a human pelvis, Klingsor, dressed like one of the evil characters from a Kabuki work, appears floating in a kind of bubble, hovering between the sacrum and the symphysis pubis bones. Kundry, in her Act II role as the seductress, shows up with the kind of hair and dress that would make the Versace runways at the annual spring show come to life. Visually, Act II does not leave too much of an impact on the viewer, and it is one of the weakest aspects of this production. Particularly disappointing is the way by which Parsifal obtains the spear from Klingsor. Those familiar with the old MET production of this opera will remember how Klingsor would hurl the spear at Parsifal and he would catch it in midair -- a clever and effective bit of stagecraft that would leave audiences gasping and wondering how it was accomplished.
While Act II is a bit disappointing, the concept of Act III is inspired. The same wall that we saw in Act I now opens into a dark tunnel with railroad tracks leading out of it. Where these tracks might be going or where they come from is never answered. To one side, stuffed in a hole, we see the bodies (or are they statues) of dead knights. Once Parsifal brings back the spear Amfortas dies but not before passing down his crown to Parsifal, who rather than accepting it, carries it to the dead body of Titurel and places it on the head of the dead king. Kundry, whose wrappings from head to toe make her look like a mummy, gets up and slowly heads back to the tunnel via the train tracks. From the depths of the darkness now a powerful light shines and drives her forward. Parsifal follows her, and little by little so do a number of knights. It seems as if the brotherhood is desolving itself as the knights, one by one, decide to go somewhere else. Gurnemanz holds the spear with reverential respect, but as the curtain slowly closes, it seems that very soon he will be the only one left, as more and more knights get up to follow the others down the tracks.
The most powerful images and concepts of this production are found in the second scene of Act I. Particularly superb is Lehnhoff's interpretation of the Holy Grail as a radiant blinding light on the other side of the steel wall. Is this powerful glow the aftermath of some recent spectacular nuclear holocaust that has now been accepted as a new god, or is it the light of some older established deity shining on humanity once more in times of trouble? Equally superb is the sequence when the knights meekly exit through the two side doors only to come back through the center glowing opening marching, wearing helmets and carrying spears. The Grail has miraculously metamorphosed them into warriors. This scene, which comments on the link that has historically always exhisted between religion and war, is one of the most memorable statements of this unforgettable production.