Stefan Herheim: Parsifal, Bayreuth 2012

Herzeleide (Manuela Bauernfeind) awakens from the dead during the staged Prelude. This year Parsifal was filmed – at last – for broadcast and Blu-ray/DVD release, which unfortunately never materialized. (Screenshot from the broadcast.)

Stefan Herheim outside the new Opera House in Oslo. Photo: Per-Erik Skramstad /

Bayreuth 2012 (11 August)

Amfortas – Detlef Roth
Titurel – Diógenes Randes
Gurnemanz – Kwangchul Youn
Parsifal – Burkhard Fritz
Klingsor – Thomas Jesatko
Kundry – Susan Maclean
First Knight of the Grail – Arnold Bezuyen
Second Knight of the Grail – Christian Tschelebiew
First Squire – Julia Borchert
Second Squire – Ulrike Helzel
Third Squire – Clemens Bieber
Fourth Squire – Willem van der Heyden
Flowermaidens – Julia Borchert, Martina Rüping, Carola Guber, Christiane Kohl, Jutta Maria Böhnert, Ulrike Helzel
Contralto solo – Simone Schröder

Stefan Herheim (director)
Heike Scheele (set designs)
Gesine Völlm (costumes)
Ulrich Niepel (lighting)
Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach (dramaturgy)
Momme Hinrichs, Torge Møller (video)

Bayreuth Festival Chorus
Chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Philippe Jordan (conductor)


I had not seen this coming. As a veteran – if hardly by hard- or even medium-core Bayreuth standards – of two previous performances of Stefan Herheim’s production of Parsifal (2008 and 2011), I found myself nevertheless quite taken aback by how much, especially during the first act, I fancied I was seeing for the first time. Some of it I suspect I was, for not only does the Bayreuth Festival pride itself upon its Werkstatt (workshop) concept, in which productions will develop from year to year, Herheim’s questing, dialectical directorial approach especially lends itself to such reinvention – as, of course, does Wagner’s dramaturgy and compositional method, not the least of his legacies for twentieth- and twenty-first-century serialism. Convinced as I was that there had been a shift of emphasis, at least, looking back upon other early reports, I suspect that this was at least as much a matter of my approaching the staging differently, for whatever reasons, partly relative familiarity no doubt, but perhaps not just that. Herheim’s multi-layered, almost geological, method is not dissimilar to Wagner’s own, which helps explain the extraordinary ‘fit’ between the two artists. This production needs to be seen many times, and now, at last, it can be, since this very performance was being filmed for broadcast and DVD release. Yours truly might even be seen upon it, when the mirror is held up to the Festspielhaus audience; let us hope not.

The German historical-political and  Parsifal-reception levels of the production are by now celebrated. (I have written about them at some length in previous reports.) If anything, I felt them underplayed during the first act, though that may, as I said, have been more a matter of my personal reception. At any rate, what took me aback on this occasion was the depth of what I shall call the psychoanalytical level to the staging.  Indeed, such was the overwhelming experience of the latter that I started to feel in some respects a little disappointed, protective of my earlier experiences, almost a loyalist to what I imagined, rightly or wrongly, to have been Herheim I and II, rather as if I were an Old- or even New-Bayreuth loyalist, missing my Wieland Wagner, Hans Knappertsbusch, or earlier. Herheim III began to seem a meta-production, as much a re-imagining of its earlier incarnations as of Parsifal itself. Dreams and childhood come to the fore, also, just as intriguingly, religious experience and its psychopathology. (Remember Nietzsche and Thomas Mann?) The third scene in particular, with its priest, incense – Nietzsche’s accusation of Wagner bowing before the Cross re-examined – and, most shockingly, circumcision of the infant who may or may not ‘be’ a young Parsifal, offers almost as much food for thought as Wagner’s own Feuerbachian inversion of the elements. (That alone ought surely to disqualify the absurd custom, still observed in certain conservative circles, of pious refraining from applause.)

Burkhard Fritz (Parsifal) and Detlef Roth (Amfortas). Photo: Enrico Nawrath / Bayreuther Festspiele

The violence of the deed of circumcision could hardly have been more topical, given the recent legal controversy over infant genital mutilation in Germany; and yet, it also pointed to something older, deep-seated, and of course very much part of the Rezeptionsgeschichte strand: the question of whether anti-Semitism is expressed in Wagner’s drama. Amfortas’s cry of pain – incidentally, or rather far from incidentally, he now seems far more central to the act, indeed to the drama as a whole, arguably more so even than Parsifal – jolted us from our complacent ‘knowledge’ of the work, and also pointed forward to Kundry’s scream of laughter. Christ, whatever Wagner may have hoped, must also have undergone the procedure. Detlef Roth’s commanding assumption of the role of Amfortas, still more impressive than in earlier years, undoubtedly assisted in this transformation of emphasis. What is the relationship between Amfortas and the young Parsifal, whom we see or think we see at various stages? Does the latter imagine the former, indeed the drama as a whole, in at least some sense? That is too easy an answer, and is complicated by the retelling of German history, but it is a questioning strand nevertheless. Notably, Gurnemanz addresses the boy Parsifal at the end of the act.

Even the video despatch of young men to war (the Great War) seems as much a product of twisted familial relations – consider the inculcation of patriotism in English as well as German schools – as of great power politics.

Kundry as governess – as well, earlier and later, as Herzeleide – adds a creepy, nursery, Turn of the Screw-like aspect to the story, especially when, therafter, the grown Parsifal possesses her on the bed that is both setting for and generative of so much of the action. It is there, of course, that the child is born, literally centre stage, the delivery itself a powerful moment, as well as intricately linked to the various stages of childhood, adolescence, adulthood, dotage, and death, both personal and political, we witness enacted. The enactment on stage of Amfortas’s wounding during Gurnemanz’s narration at first seems a little too literal, but psychoanalytical implications and consequences, some mentioned above, soon manifest themselves, so that one realises that such development and consideration of such development are actually a good part of the point. The late-nineteenth-century (Mann’s ‘bad nineteenth-century?’) setting suggests, amongst other things, a family saga: Buddenbrooks spiced with Nietzsche.

Much of that, however, was, at least for me, called into question by the second act, in which the political reasserted itself with a vengeance.

The delicious representation of the Flowermaidens as orderlies and flappers – is that not just what they are? – retains its dramatic power, as well as firmly putting us in the inter-war period. (I say firmly, but of course, time passes as the act does.) And yet, a reminder that the various levels of interpretation are anything but distinct is offered by a greater keenness of manipulation when it comes to Kundry’s acts: above all, what she tells Parsifal. She is in turn being manipulated by Klingsor, of course, but perhaps so many of us are understandably now influenced by feminist readings, that we feel uncomplicatedly sympathetic. It is salutary to be reminded that this rose of Hell – the rose very much part of the staging’s imagery – has, despite her plight, agency of her own. That is surely more feminist than to consider her purely as a victim. And the similarity of costume between her and Klingsor, both in Weimar cross-dressing travesty, reinforces the need both have for each other, the Hegelian master-slave dialectic reimagined. The final scene remains electric, the unfurling of swastikas and coming of Bayreuth’s and Germany’s darkest years truly shocking. Judging by the disgruntled noises from some members of the audience – it should hardly surprise that ‘conservative’ critics of searching productions would feel discomfited by a reminder of their ideological kinship – it remains an absolute necessity too. An interval walk around the outdoor exhibition of Verstummte Stimmen (the ‘silenced voices’ of Jews ill-treated by the Festival) reinforced the point: rightist ‘Wagnerians’ are not merely deluded; they are and always have been extremely dangerous. (Ironically, the only figure treated unjustly is Wagner himself, in which the questionable claim that anti-Semitism is expressed in the dramas is trotted out uncritically.) I could not help but think of the ongoing controversy concerning Amélie Hohmann’s refusal to release correspondence between Winifred Wagner and Hitler. Whatever one might think of Katharina Wagner as director, at least she seems willing to open up the festival to necessary historical criticism.

Which leads me into the third act, with Herheim’s attack upon – or rather, display, which allows the audience to attack – the disingenuous New Bayreuth plea, signed by Wieland and Wolfgang, and displayed on stage, as Wagner himself is hidden behind Parsifal’s childhood wall, that politics be banished from the Green Hill. (It actually speaks well of Wolfgang, whatever one may think of many of his acts, that he permitted this criticism to be staged; he was always, however, a friend to directors, even if he lacked directorial ability himself.) The post-war period is initially one of devastation, and improves little, if at all, whatever the mendacious ideology of the Wirtschaftswunder. Perhaps the point of ultimate hope comes when a star briefly appears in the sky, wonderfully touching, though what does it signify? The coming of a (false) messiah? A simple, childlike pleasure? Nothing that can be put into words? It certainly rings truer than the gaudy coloured lights that seem to signal Parsifal’s descent into the realm of the (lifestyle?) guru. If anything, politics seem to stand still more starkly at the heart of the final scene. Parsifal is Lohengrin’s father, though the extent to which that is a red herring may be debated. Here, however, the problematical nature of charismatic leadership seems to follow on closely, especially from Hans Neuenfels’s production, which I shall see again soon, as well of course from the precedent of Siegfried. It is noteworthy that Parsifal is not one of the trio we see at the end, presumably hastening us to an uncertain future; instead, we find ourselves in the hands of Gurnemanz, Kundry – no, she does not expire – and a young boy. Or is he Parsifal, and has the whole drama been a dream, or in the case of its German historical setting, the ultimate nightmare? There is certainly no solace to be had from the despicable bickering politicians of the Bundestag, the Federal Republic’s flag draping Titurel’s coffin, yet Parsifal seems to have offered at best a dead-end, maybe even a touch of snake oil. (From Carole Caplin to Blair?) Amfortas, like Siegfried, seems to have gained in dignity through death. Nihilism, as Nietzsche would doubtless have had it, or Wagner’s lifelong anarchism, as I would?

Musical performances are more mixed in quality, though as I have already mentioned, Roth’s Amfortas has continued to grow in strength. Kwangchoul Youn, whom I have previously found a little dull, exhibited a far stronger musico-dramatic presence, and an intriguingly ambiguous one. Who is this narrator, and is he to be trusted? Susan Maclean was perhaps a little too wild on the vocal side. It could hardly be said that her Kundry is beautiful of voice, and a little more refulgence would not at times have gone amiss, but there can be no doubting the dramatic commitment of her portrayal. Thomas Jesatko’s Klingsor is by now perhaps leaning a little too much towards camp: his first ‘furchtbarer Not’ sounded a little too caricatured to chill. Again, however, this is very much a stage assumption that one is unlikely to forget. (Perhaps it is just that I have become too accustomed to it.) Burkhard Fritz’s Parsifal marked a great improvement upon last year’s metallic Simon O’Neill. It may not be the most profound account one will hear, but his tone is secure and possessed of considerable mellifluence. One could hear pretty much all of his words too, which was certainly not the case with his Kundry. Smaller parts were cast from strength. Not only Diógenes Randes’s unearthly Titurel but even the knights and squires shone, and that was not just a matter of perceptive direction from Herheim with respect to their presentation as individuals drawn from the mass to be briefly highlighted. Choral singing, under Eberhard’s direction, was as excellent as we have come to expect, but that achievement should never be overlooked.

Thomas Jesatko (Klingsor). Photo: Enrico Nawrath / Bayreuther Festspiele

The only significant drawback related to Philippe Jordan’s conducting. I have heard much worse in Wagner – and alas must do so regularly in London – but this seemed a work-in-progress in a less happy sense than Herheim’s production, particularly when considered in contrast to Daniele Gatti’s work in previous years. Jordan lacked a sense of ritual, crucial to the first and third acts. That is not a matter of speed, but of steadiness, of feeling and communicating the inner pulse. Jordan seemed less an equal partner to Herheim, as Gatti certainly had done, than provider of a sound-track (ironically, given his father’s appearance on Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s film.) There was some interesting highlighting, alla Barenboim, of woodwind lines, though brass, especially during the opening Prelude, could occasionally be a little shaky. In general, though, the orchestral playing itself was superb. The interpretation seemed, however, as though it needed time and experience to settle. For instance, intriguingly Karajan-like steely moments seemed to bear little relation to the rest of what we heard. I hope, again, that I am not becoming too wedded to a particular interpretation, in this case Gatti’s; I do not think I am, given the variety of accounts, both recorded and in the theatre, I have admired.  But it is necessary to remain on one’s guard.

This, I have little doubt, will prove one of the most necessary opera DVDs since the release on the new medium of the Boulez-Chéreau Ring. If only the casting had been a little more consistent, and if only Gatti had still been conducting. And yet, perhaps one message of this increasingly unsettling staging is that the search for perfection is not only chimerical but catastrophic.

Photos: Enrico Nawrath / Bayreuther Festspiele

Mark Berry is Professor of Music and Intellectual History at Royal Holloway, University of London and will be a visiting scholar at the Humboldt University, Berlin, for the academic year 2023-4. He is the author of Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire: Politics and Religion in Wagner’s ‘Ring’ (2006), After Wagner: Histories of Modernist Music Drama from ‘Parsifal’ to Nono (2014), and Arnold Schoenberg (2019), and co-editor with Nicholas Vazsonyi of The Cambridge Companion to Wagner’s ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ (2020). His reviews of concert and opera performances are collected on his blog, Boulezian.


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