G.B. Shaw on Parsifal in Bayreuth
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o enjoy Parsifal, either as a listener or an executant, one must be
either a fanatic or a philosopher. To enjoy Tristan it is only necessary to
have had one serious love affair ...
[G.B. Shaw in The Star, 6 August 1889]
he much-boasted staging is marred by obsolete contrivances which would
astonish us at the Lyceum as much as a return to candle-lighting or half-price at
nine o'clock. Mr Mansfield playing Richard III in the dress of Garrick, or Mr Irving
Hamlet in that of Kemble, would seem modern and original compared with the
unspeakable ballroom costume which Madame Materna dons to fascinate Parsifal in the second act. The magic
flower garden would be simply the most horribly vulgar and foolish transformation
scene ever allowed to escape from a provincial pantomime,
were it not recommended to mercy by a certain enormous naïveté and a
pleasantly childish love of magnified red blossoms and trailing creepers.
[The Star, 1 August 1889]
Above: Shrine + Grailbearer.
Above: Sketch of the Grail Shrine by
Anton Schnittenheim, Bayreuth 1882.
Left: Marianne Brandt as Kundry in Act 2, Bayreuth 1882, reclining on the "Gower
St. sofa". ©Richard- Wagner- Gedenkstätte.
to the canvas set piece and Gower-st. sofa visibly pulled on to the
stage with Madame Materna seductively reposed on it, the steam from a copper under
the boards which filled the house with a smell of laundry and melted axillary
gutta-percha linings, the indescribable impossibility of the wigs and beards, the
characterless historical-school draperies of the knights, the obvious wire connexion of the electric light
which glowed in the ruby bowl of the Holy Grail, and the
senseless violation of Wagner's directions by allowing Gurnemanz and Parsifal to
walk off the stage whilst the panoramic change of scene
was taking place in the first act (obviously the absence of the two men who are
supposed to be traversing the landscape reduces the exhibition to the alternative
absurdities of the trees taking a walk or the auditorium turning round): all these
faults show the danger of allowing to any theatre, however imposing its associations,
the ruinous privilege of exemption from vigilant and implacable criticism. The
performance of Parsifal on Sunday last suffered additionally from Herr
Grüning executing a hornpipe on the appearance of Klingsor with the sacred spear; but
this was introduced not as an act of whimsical defiance, but under pressure of the
desperate necessity of disentangling Parsifal's
ankle from the snapped string on which the spear was presently to have flown at
[The Star, 1 August 1889]
Right: Flower Maiden costume by Paul von Joukowsky
Bayreuth 1882. ©Richard- Wagner- Gedenkstätte.
mpressive as the first Grail scene is, nine-tenths of
its effect would be lost without the "innocent fool" gazing dumbly at it in the
corner, only to be hustled out as a goose when it is over.
His appearance on the rampart of Klingsor's castle, looking down in wonder at the flower
maidens in the enchanted garden, is also a memorable
point. And that long kiss of Kundry's from which he learns so much is one of those pregnant
simplicities which stare the world in the face for centuries and yet are never
pointed out except by great men.
[The Star, 7 August 1889]
he work produced a great effect - an effect in some cases of disgust and
repulsion, in others of awe and even of ecstasy; but in all cases a powerful effect.
The perfect smoothness with which the panoramic changes of scenery in the first and
third acts worked, the clever changes from dusk to full light, the beauty of the
temple of the Grail, the smooth and thoroughly rehearsed
choral singing, the magic of the orchestra, and above all, of course, that prodigious
coup de théâtre, the celebration of the Holy Communion on the stage,
with the sacred chalice glowing with ruby light, and the Holy
Ghost descending in the form of a dove in dazzling celestial
radiance, could not fail to affect very deeply an audience of the somewhat
cathedrally class (if I may use the expression) which alone can afford to go to
Bayreuth. There was an English bishop present yesterday. I shall not mention his see,
lest I should get him into trouble.
[The Star, 20 July 1894]
Left: Amalie Materna, Emil Scaria and Hermann Winkelmann. © Richard- Wagner-
he bass, who was rather flustered, perhaps from nervousness, was especially
brutal in his treatment of the music of Gurnemanz;
and it struck me that if he had been a trombone player in the band, instead of the
singer, the conductor, Levi of Munich, would have
remonstrated. Indeed, I presently heard a trombone player, who was helping with the
fanfares outside the theatre between the acts, pulled up by the sub-conductor for
being 'a little too strong'. Accordingly, having the opportunity of exchanging a few
words with Levi afterwards, I expressed my opinion about
the bass in question. Levi appeared surprised and,
declaring that the singer had the best bass voice in Germany, challenged me to find
anyone who could sing the part better, to which I could only respond with sufficient
emphasis by offering to sing it better myself, upon which he gave me up as a
[The World, 1 August 1894]