Parsifal on Stage
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Above: Strange planetary alignments in Act II, from the 2007 production in
n his first visit to Bayreuth in 1882, the Swiss producer Adolphe Appia declared:
If every aspect of the auditorium
expresses Wagner's genius, everything the other side of the footlights contradicts
it. This criticism was echoed by the Irish dramatist G.B.
Shaw. Although Wagner was the greatest dramatist of the nineteenth century, his
naturalistic stagings came to be regarded as backward-looking. Yet there were some
who regarded the 1882 production of Parsifal as definitive (as Lucy Beckett,
in her Cambridge Handbook, still does); the
increasingly dilapidated sets for that production were used, with little
modification, until 1930.
Winifred Wagner tried to introduce a new staging, Wagner's daughters Eva and Daniela
circulated a petition, which declared that the original sets
on which the eyes of
the Master had reposed possessed a timeless validity and must be
preserved. This petition received the signatures of, among others, Richard Strauss,
Toscanini and Newman. As a final resort, the old
guard appealed to Adolf Hitler for support. But this was a
grave miscalculation: Winifred's chosen stage designer was Alfred Roller, who was
also greatly admired by the Führer, whose own sketchbook from Vienna in 1903 contains
a drawing of the second act of Roller's Tristan. However, Roller's staging
was, in essence, little different from the original. In 1937 this staging was
replaced by another, also stylistically conservative, by the young Wieland Wagner.
The only innovation in this staging was the use of a projected film during the
the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951, Wieland Wagner shocked
the Wagnerian world by adopting, in his new staging of Parsifal, the
minimalist ideas set out by Appia in his Basle staging of
Die Walküre. Appia had seen that a naturalistic
pictorial representation, no matter how skilful, was unsuitable for Wagner's music.
He preferred fully three- dimensional, semi- representational sets and exploited the
developing technology of stage lighting, just as Richard Wagner surely would have
nder Appia's influence, Wieland turned the operas inside
out, preferring at first abstraction and later a pervasive psychological symbolism to
bring out the (Jungian and Freudian) mythic dimensions of the works. Ernest Newman wrote in the Sunday Times:
This was not only
the best Parsifal I have ever seen and heard but one of the three or
four most moving spiritual experiences of my life.
Left: Metropolitan Opera 2013, producer: François Girard, designer: Michael Levine.
The Challenges of Staging Parsifal
staging Parsifal, the producer and designer are faced with challenges quite
different from those encountered in staging the Ring. In the latter,
abstract concepts - renunciation, inheritance of the world, etc. - are initially
presented by characters, situations and events, which give them dramatic precision
and which anchor the motifs that appear later as reminiscences; whereas in Wagner's
last music-drama, the philosophical and spiritual absolutes that are at the heart of
the work are not resolved (if indeed they are ever resolved) until the last act.
Wieland explored the symmetries and parallels that he
found in the work. For example, the parallels between the situations of Amfortas and Kundry; the
opposites of Titurel and Klingsor; and the naturally unchaste Flower maidens contrasted with the unnaturally chaste Grail Knights.
questions raised by this staging opened up many new possible views of the work which
have been explored by other producers and designers. In 1978, Harry Kupfer mounted a
radically new staging in Copenhagen, with designs by Peter Sykora, which emphasized
the human rather than the symbolic elements of the work. He made a new ending for the
work, in which Amfortas dies, and Parsifal leaves the stage with Grail
and Spear, followed by Kundry.
Left: Seattle 2003, producer: François Rochaix, designer: Robert Israel. ©Chris
Stuttgart, Götz Friedrich directed the work with a strong focus on what he saw as the
central issues, with the Grail Knights deeply
divided at the end of the work (as they appear to be in the score). Gunther Uecker's
designs were radical and highly symbolic: Klingsor's
castle was an Iron Maiden, a medieval instrument of torture, with an American-
musical chorus of Flower maidens. The sets divided the
stage into three levels, and Friedrich separated narration (on the forestage) from
dramatic action (on the main stage) and supernatural events (on the back
Right: In the Lehnhoff production (Chicago version) Kundry -- here seen
attacking Parsifal in act II -- was inexplicably dressed as a chicken. In
this production there was no physical Grail but only an orange glow,
diffusing from somewhere offstage.
Left: Parsifal goes clubbing in the second act of the recent Paris Opéra
other opera houses, unfortunately, there were less imaginative productions by
producers with little or no insight into the work. At Covent Garden, it was said by
many that the Terry Hands production, with designs by
Farrah, was significantly improved when a stage hands strike caused it to be given on
a bare stage. The failure of this production was surpassed in inanity later at the
same house, when Bill Bryden set the action as an
end-of-term play in a boarding school.
Radical Concepts and Fishy Business
most radical production to date must be that of Robert Wilson at the Hamburg State
Opera (later adapted for LA Opera). In this production, all of Richard Wagner's stage
directions were discarded. The singers were required to move slowly with stylised
gestures, accompanied by an extremely complex lighting plot. During the
transformation music, a giant doughnut descended to mate with a pyramid. Nobody who
saw it had any idea what it was about, but some thought that it was unusually
beautiful; which is, very often, what a newcomer to the work experiences anyway. In
the Amsterdam production (directed by Grüber, with sets designed by Aillaud and
Dobroschke), later restaged for Madrid, the second act was dominated by a large white
shark suspended above the stage. When the production was reworked for Covent Garden,
this act took place underwater and the entire business was decidely fishy.
Right: The violation of a doughnut: the Act I transformation scene, in the LA
staging by Robert Wilson. © LA Opera.
Left: Act II from the recent Covent Garden production, in which the
flowermaidens became sea anemones. © ROH Covent Garden.
we enter a new millennium, in which there is much talk of new beginnings,
it might be an appropriate time to consider new possibilities for future productions
of Wagner's last music-drama. Of course, this is only part of the wider issue of how
Wagner's music-dramas can (or should) be presented on the modern stage. The momentum
of New Bayreuth seems to have been spent; although in the next few decades, no doubt
there will be some new productions inspired by those of Wieland Wagner; and there
will also be some that react against the New Bayreuth style. The neo-Brechtian
interpretations of the Berlin producers still seem to be regarded as models, although
these too are becoming reduced to clichés.
oday it might no longer be possible to present Parsifal as a religious
mystery play; but the connection between the work and religion (or more accurately,
spirituality) remains strong, however often producers may declare that they intend to
dispense with all of the religious or supernatural elements of the work (and in their
place substitute banality). One aspect of Parsifal that seems to have been
little explored, except in the most superficial way, is the influence of Indian literature; even though attention was drawn to this aspect of
Parsifal as early as 1891 (in an article by K. Heckel in the Bayreuther
Blätter). Not only Christian symbols, but also those of Buddhism, and perhaps
Hindu concepts too, were woven into this work (but not voodoo symbolism, like that
shown in the photograph below!). Whilst it might not be possible to present the work
as a coherently Buddhist drama (which in my view it is not), the possibility of
approaching Parsifal from a Buddhist viewpoint seems to be promising and it
is surprising that there has been no serious attempt at such a production to date
¹. Then there is the intriguing possibility of a New Age
production, with the Grail Temple as a stone circle and a large crystal in place of
Klingsor's mirror. Above all, in my view, the work must be presented from an
understanding of the text, an understanding that has been all too rare in
Parsifal productions of recent decades. There are so many riches in the poem
itself, so many subtleties to be made visible, that it is quite unnecessary for
producers to import alien concepts; they can leave their baggage (and especially
their decomposing rabbits) at the door.
Right: Act II of Parsifal from the recent production in Munich.
nother dimension that might be explored in new productions is the spectacular, as
in the Naples production shown at the top of this page. Wagner liked to be at the
leading edge of stagecraft, however awkward pictures of his own productions might
appear today, it can be argued that to fulfil his intentions, productions of his
works should be kept at that leading edge.
Below: A production of Heart of Darkness, from the Bayreuth Festival for
Decomposing Roadkill. ©Bayreuther Festspiele.
ransformation scenes in which trees move around the stage and become pillars of
the Grail temple (an idea first suggested by Adolpha Appia
have become a tiresome cliché. Projection onto the cyclorama (a technique that
Bayreuth used as early as 1876) or back-projection onto screens could be developed,
given sufficient imagination, to produce spectacular transformation scenes at a
fraction of the cost of moving pillars2. Wagner was a
pioneer in the used of electric lighting on stage (even in 1882 the Grail was
electric); state-of-the-art lighting was a vital element of the New Bayreuth style;
and recent Bayreuth productions have used laser effects. Given that many recent
productions have partly or completely dispensed with a Grail, it would seem to be a
good time to reverse this trend with a magic Grail that will impress a modern
audience as much as the electric Grail of 1882 must have impressed the audience of
Kinder! macht Neues! Neues! und abermals
Below: New concepts at Bayreuth 2008. Producer: Stefan Herheim, Stage design: Heike
Scheele, Costumes: Gesine Völlm, ©Bayreuther Festspiele.
I am indebted to John Musselman for
information about the Nicolas Joël and Pet Halmen production of Parsifal
at the San Francisco Opera in 1988. This production featured a large statue of the
Buddha Shakyamuni and other Buddhist references. In the "Parsifal
Stage" chapter of A Companion to Wagner's Parsifal
, Katherine R. Syer
notes that in the Aarhus production of 1991, directed by Klaus Hoffmeyer with
designs by Lars Juhl, the knights were depicted as Buddhist monks.
Extensive use of projections was, indeed, a
feature of the Schlingensief "performance art" production. Unfortunately the
projections were often more visible than the action on the stage, which took place
in Stygian gloom.
Wagner writing to Liszt, 8 September 1852.