Friday, 31 August 2007

Bayreuth 2007: Parsifal

Parsifal. Bayreuth Festival 2007. Production: Christoph Schlingensief. Cast: Alfons Eberz (Parsifal), Judit Nemeth/Evelyn Herlitzius (Kundry), Robert Holl (Gurnemanz), Jukka Rasilainen (Amfortas), Karsten Mewes (Klingsor). Conductor: Adam Fischer.

To open at the the 2004 Bayreuth Festival and directed by German provocateur and installation artist Christoph Schlingensief, this Parsifal has been surrounded by controversy and debate ever since. It now plays for the last time and will be replaced by a new Parsifal directed by Stefan Herheim next year.

Parsifal occupies a special place among Wagner´s works in Bayreuth, being written specifically for this stage, where it premiered in 1882. The longest queues outside the Box office are always seen before Parsifal, and this year I noticed people starting to queue up for next days Parsifal, the moment Götterdämmerung of the day before, started.

First of all, this is not the shocking production many, of whom few have actually seen it, will have you believe.

Schlingensief works with a revolving circular set simultaneously displaying several tableaus and with superimposed black-and-white video projections representing either Namibian landscapes or the process of cellular division observed by an electronic microscope.
At these tableaus, different situations were played out involving several non-speaking. He creates an eclectic mix of several cultures: Carribean (several semi-naked black women in Caribbean dressing), African (predominantly video projections from the directors previous trip to Namibia) as well as Christian (multiple symbols relating to Jesus Christ, sin, foregiveness etc.).
A rabbit appeared several times – as a ragged doll, a live animal (which by the was was adopted by the alto soloist Simone Schröder after the performance) and finally as the infamous decaying rabbit corpse. The large on-screen projection showing the decaying rabbit during the final four minutes of the opera was in fact a very powerful image, and the only aspect of the production which I felt had a real potential for controversy. Amfortas appeared in a non-speaking role throughout the opera – especially in the scene between Parsifal and Kundry, and Klingsor put in an extra appearance as well by having his feet washed by Kundry in the 3rd act.

A tentative suggestion as to what may be Schlingensief´s main point: Redemption by intercultural exchange/assimilation? Or maybe not at all.

What remains, however, is that Schlingensief has created a very flickering production. Had he been more disciplined, I would expect his artistic points to have emerged more clearly.

Schlingensief has in fact not directed Wagner´s Parsifal, but created an installation work of art, which I´d be tempted to name “Schlingensief with underlying music from R. Wagner´s opera “Parsifal”". Which does not principally bother me, were it not for the fact, that too much attention was taken away from the music by all the happenings on stage. Furthermore, I was rather busy trying to sort out the multiple ideas presented on stage, making the entire experience rather stressful. Not to mention, I am unconvinced I understood it.

Surprisingly I found the audience perhaps even more undisciplined than Schlingensief. There was an immense amount of noise in the Theatre. A couple of people chose to leave approximately 1 minute into the prelude, scrambling down the hard wooden stairs, before the curtain was up. And throughout people were whispering loudly to their companions about the happenings on stage.

The audience response was predictably not positive. You are not supposed to like this production. I was, however, surprised about the scattered applause after the 1st act, sinceI expected it to be customary not to applaud here. By comparison, in Munich, earlier this year, the auditorium was dead-quiet after the conclusion of the first act.
Patrons have been rumoured to leave this performance after the first act, and accordingly I spotted several people with suche karte signs waiting outside the Festival House after both the first and second act, something I did not see during intermission at the other performances apart from Götterdämmerung (I didn´t see anybody leave, though).

Evelyn Herlitzius was vocally indisposed and acted the part of Kundry, while it was sung outstandingly by Judit Nemeth. Jukka Rasilainen was in good voice as Amfortas, but tended towards yell at certain dramatic points. Robert Holl was in rather good, though not brilliant, shape as Gurnemanz and Karsten Mewes is necessarily in very good physical shape, as he impressively climbed backwards 20 steps up a steep ladder in the middle of his solo. That apart, his Klingsor was rather anonymous. No doubt due to the Festival House acoustics, Alfons Eberz voice, as did most of the others, seemed larger than earlier this year at Deutsche Oper.

However, Parsifal really is a conductors opera. And in that regard I was disappointed by Adam Fischer´s static and anonymous reading.Far away from the glittering brilliance of a Christian Thielemann or the compelling drama of a Daniel Barenboim, which may be heard virtually around the corner.

In brief, there is no musical reason to go and see Parsifal here, house acoustics and history apart, particularly not when you have a vastly superior Parsifal playing just 400 km away. Hardly satisfying for the Bayreuth Wagners.

In summary, I was almost disappointed by the predictability of the staging, expecting major provacations based on available press reports. However, if Schlingensief becomes more organized, he may actually be a rather superb opera director.

1 comment:

Sylvia Weiss said...

Please see my comment under
With kind regards
Sylvia Weiss
Richard Wagner "Parsifal"; New staging from Christoph Schlingensief for the inauguration of the Wagner Festival Bayreuth 2004; Revival 2005/06/07

Main Website in German

"I am barely walking, yet deem myself already far" Parsifal observes to Gurnemanz. His answer - as both shortly afterwards enter the castle of the Holy Grail in the first act- "time here turns to space" - is the basic idea of Wagner's Parsifal. Gurnemanz addresses by that the main coordinates of human existance. Christoph Schlingensief's new staging of Parsifal for the inauguration of the Wagner Festival of Bayreuth 2004 translated the time-space message in a brilliant stage composition. The central place and happening space is the large revolving stage which rotates in all acts with different speeds in both directions. The revolving stage is signalized as a chronometer: it's outer edge divided by chalk lines in small sections similiar to a clock. Thus, through the revolving stage is erected a reference system for time and space which is effective "within" for the performers but also "without" for the audience. The attentive onlooker will be reminded of the variability of time - since Einstein a relative quantity, depending on motion but also the position of the spectator, the audience.

In the beginning the sphere of the Holy Grail on the revolving stage is shown as a nightmarish hotchpotch of dwellings with a watchtower which is bounded with fence and barbed wire. Nature here do not occur, respectively the sphere of the Holy Grail is introduced as a ruined living space. The stage is darkish but gradually the stage-management emphasizes more light accents for a kind of (floating) dream world. From the background of the stage projected images passe imperceptibly in the conciousness of the audience. Schlingensief, time by time, opens more spaces by unrolling shadow screens of different sizes on which he projects his associations of ideas offering the audience "spaces of cogitation". The onlooker perceives a "stream of consciousness" in a Joycian manner. Towards the end, at the exposure of the Holy Grail , the entire stage is veiled with a shadow screen on which is shown a multiethnic and multireligious Grail's knighthood doing the ritual. The musical and dramatic stage impact is immense. Schlingensief puts on the stage all adoration gods which mankind could have thought about, from the Dalai Lama to shamans to animal gods (the "Holy Dog"; the "hare" in a procession sedan chair). By the way, Richard Wagner implied an animal metaphor referring to Kundry: "Third henchman: 'why you lie there like a wild animal?' Kundry: 'Are animals not sacred here?" Moreover Wagner gets carried away with "deference on a bier covered with branchletes" the swan killed by Parsifal. To the knighthood Wagner gives only an ordinary (animals)feed instead of the Grail's feeding, since Amfortas refuses to unveil the Holy Grail, with the knighthood losing it's strength as a result. The multiethnic and multireligious manifoldness of the Parsifal performers is maintained in all acts and corresponds with Wagner's notion of theatre which he sees as a place for citizens of the world.

Together with "time and space" Wagner spins his mystical play "Parsifal" around the themes of love, death and redemption. The play deals with a process of growth and decay. Schlingensief converts these topics in a second staging plane through the art theories of Josef Beuys. Beuys regarded art as an "energetic process" and talked of so called "counterpictures" which in human beings could be able to set free spiritual energies to inspire reflections. Therefore, Beuys wanted to integrate art in all spheres of people's life. Richard Wagner would not have been very far from Beuys' ideas because Wagner also wanted to renew society through art. Beuys inquired in his work "Show your wound" about life and death. Schlingensief brings to the stage, as a throbbing projection, the "bleeding wound" of Amfortas which Parsifal feels burning in himself and shows shockingly near that which most people is terrified of. Schlingensief's projection of the wound "breathes" - breath on the other hand is expression of life. Other projections of Schlingensief "breathe", change and take on new shapes. "How to explain the pictures to the dead hare" is one of Beuys most famous actions. With Beuys the hare appears as a transmission belt for his art ideas in many different variations. With Schlingensief by analogy the hare is the central art object. According to Beuys, for example the hare represents "change". Beuys looks to the alchemy, the percursor of chemistry in ancient times and the Middle Ages when the hare was the symbol for transformation. In the Middle Ages, in representations of Christ, often a white hare is represented, conceived as sacrificial animal, like Christ, ready to unselfish sacrifice.

Schlingensief's third staging plane is founded on the different myths of the history of the Holy Grail. As the director puts on the stage a nacked "prime mother", he outlines the pagan sources of the history of the Holy Grail in which a bowl full of blood symbolized a woman's lap. The widely discussed voodoo scene fits perfectly in this setting. Further Schlingensief symbolizes the closed world view of the Middle Ages in the history of the Grail, "La Queste del Saint Graal" - from Boron to Chrétien to Wolfram - through a wall circle on the bottom of the stage on which is written "Queste", meaning search for salvation.

Schlingensief's fourth plane of mise an scène refers to the music theatre as an art form as such and it's conventions. Schlingensief plays with the illusion of reality, that the musictheatre, also the Wagner Gesamtkunstwerk (synthesis of the arts) wants to produce. The director stages fiction and reality, original and copy, theatre and reality so masterly that the emotions which slumber in the mystical play Parsifal move to a pinnacle and on the other side he succeeds to take out the bathos for which "Parsifal" is often criticized. I think there could not be a bigger compliment for a production of Parsifal. To emphasize the performance of Parsifal as "theatre" Schlingensief marks the stage with fictive chalk stage directions, for instance "kneel down here", "Grail", "do not forget" or "Holy Dog". In addition Schlingensief puts decisive statements of the mystical play or his intellectual approaches as "signs" in the space. For examble: "Oh, eternal sleep, only salvation, how may I win you?" These are Kundry's words, who like Amfortas, yearns for her ultimate death which she sees as salvation. "Queste", the search for the Holy Grail, has already been mentioned. In the point Schlingensief includes Africa in the staging he writes on the wall circle "Kraal" (African village) instead of "Gral" playing with the multiethnic design of his staging and stimulating the audience with some overdoing clichés to contradict. Furthermore he uses staging utensils as set pieces -performancelike - g.e. the bow of Kundry's robe is projected on the wall circle. The director draws the magician Klingsor as a half nacked black wicked man who after the loss of the holy spear and his powers, is shot out of a box with a rocket to the moon. Here Schlingensief presents the theatrical convention par excellence: the "Deus ex machina", the famous "god from the chest", who in antique drama at a certain point introduces the turn of events. That the rocket is a phallic symbol is quite clear - Klingsor mutilated himself to search for the Grail. With Schlingensief the golden hare of Beuys has a special meaning. The golden hare originates from an artistic action of Beuys: he melted the gold from a copy of Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible's crown to a peace hare. One of the most impressive scenes in the mystical play Schlingensief enacts when on the revolving stage in the second act Parsifalsinger Endrik Wottrich leans against the fence from within with his arms and sings with wonderful sensual timbre "Deliver, rescue me from hands defiled and guilty": Parsifal got "world clear-sighted" shortly before after Kundry's kiss. It is an absolute musical and staging point of culmination. At the same time, Schlingensief has a fat bulky man outside of the fence holding a big golden hare which he shows to the audience: in the exact moment, when in the mystical play through music and staging emerge highest emotions, then the director shows to the audience with the hare: look here, it is only imagination. The manifoldous significance of the staging join Wagner's musical ductus congenitally, the stage direction is breathtaking. The orchestra under the direction of Pierre Boulez plays fantastically and lights up the singers in their roles - just as the staging weaves the singers into the scene but equally glow them up as through a special focus dimmer.

The last and most wonderful plane of the production is the human plane: when Beuys' art figure, the hare, appears "real" on the screen in the festival house and with it's decay calls up the naturalness of death, then someone can think in the "natural garden of death", which an American doctor designed as last resting place for human beings. Mortals decay there in a rampant nature. The natural graveyard is a very poetical place in which people returns to dust in their death. Death as a natural end, the ultimate death, Amfortas (as does Kundry) yearns for this, the last mercy, as "only grace". When Schlingensief in the end of the mystical play to the projection of the decaying hare in the last moment leaves open the stage curtain a crack and there appears the light, then this is tremendously consoling - for those who long for a life after death and for those who see death as the last blessing.

The foregoing text was written from memory a year after the performance, and it was not an easy task. On the 23rd of July 2005 I attended the final rehearsal for the revival of Parsifal. Schlingensief altered several things which in my opinion break a little bit the original fascination and allurement of the production. He for examble rescinded the "weave in" of Kundry and Parsifal in the staging and projections, especially in the second act. I had the feeling, that Schlingensief listened too much to critics of his production who completely wrongful critisized his scenic directions last year. Endrik Wottrich in the role of Parsifal moved 2004 a little bit hesitant and unsure - probably due to the dispute between director and singer. It was his hesitancy that made the figure of Parsifal so convincing as a inexperienced "pure fool", because throughout the play he must gather his experiences the hard way. This year's new over-drawing and doubling of Parsifal and Kundry disturbed me in comparison with the previous year as some of the acting got a little bit trivial for my taste. Parsifal 2005 for me is a tiny bit less persuading. Nonetheless Schlingensief's production is a musictheatre event absolutely not to loose and is gaining a lot of New-Wagnerianers!
Sylvia Weiss, Bayreuth

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