“Parsifal” at the Bastille

March 18th, 2008 · < Q >


a stage-consecrating festival play in three acts

Music and Libretto by Richard Wagner

Paris Opera at Bastille
Performance of 17 March 2008

Musical Direction: Hartmut Hänchen
Mise en Scène: Krzysztof “Buy-a vowel” Warlikowski
Sets and Costumes: Malgorzata Szczesniak
Lighting: Felice Ross
Video: Denis Gueguin

Director: Miron Hakenbeck
Choral Director: Winfried Maczewski

A New Production

Gurnemanz: Franz Joseph Selig
Kundry: Waltraud Meier
Amfortas: Alexander Marco-Buhrmester
Parsifal: Stig Anderson (for Christopher Ventris)
Titurel: Victor von Halem
Orchestra and Choruses of the Paris Opera

an account by KEN QUANDT

Like the Grail, this is an opera that only feeds the watcher who delights in the good. As such it should be less popular than it is, but the music is so beautiful it will never disappear from the repertoire. Thus, it presents a challenge to music lovers and opera lovers: Find the good.

At the beginning of this production, during the long prelude, a large screen almost as wide as the stage and two-thirds as high suddenly shows a hand reaching up from beneath with a pencil. It writes AMOUR. A few bars later it erases these letters and writes FOI. Then it half-erases this and overwrites ESPERANCE. These, the three great virtues of the Church, tell us or remind us what it is for man to be good, and what the goods are that life offers to man. In the manner the writing was done the erasures suggest self-correction, error, and even a little frustration. The last one, hope, is perhaps the easiest for us to rest with, and the opera can begin.

The action takes place before the large screen. Gurnemanz and his knights are dressed in modern suits and tie, except for a young boy in a light brown shirt among them who somehow isn’t part of this. When Gurnemanz narrates at length the stories of the founding of Montsalvat and of Amfortas’s disastrous venture into Klingsor’s realm, the boy has sat himself on a table at stage right with dangling legs drawing the story in crayon and pencil, and it appears on the screen behind the actors.

We are reminded, here and throughout this mise en scène, that symbols and myths are not simply true. This message could have become the trashy thesis that nothing is true, but it never gets that aggressive edge. Throughout the opera it is this young boy that is there (except for the “Mature Audiences Only” scenes in Act Two), watching and debunking, but only because he is too young to understand. During Klingsor and Kundry’s graduate seminar in evil at the beginning of Act Two, he makes spit balls and throws them desultorily at Klingsor, obviously the bad guy but not that convincing. Mind you, all this is done low-key: during the intermission I found out that the fine lady sitting next to me didn’t even notice le jeune garçon. The result is, the question of the relation of myth and truth is placed right back into the audience’s lap where it belongs, since they are the grown-ups, just as the choice among the theological virtues had been.

For Amfortas’s entrance the screen moves to the right and we see him upstage in a hospital bed. Kundry is able to visit at the foot of it. If we have forgotten that health care has become our own eschatology during these decades, we can again think smugly this is euro-trash; but in the event, like the boy, it worked perfectly well. Titurel for instance comes onstage in a wheelchair, rather then lying not quite dead in an open casket, according to the libretto.

For Parsifal’s entrance the entire screen moves upward. Behind it we see what first appears to be a steeply raked amphitheatre, where the knights have gathered to find out who shot the swan. After the hospital bed we think perhaps it is an operating theatre as at a medical school. It’s equipped with two pairs of sinks, from one of which Kundry will get some water for Parsifal when he swoons after hearing, from her, that his mother is dead. Just what this structure is is unclear, but it stays on the stage throughout so we come to think of it as a fixture used many ways rather than asking it to be a statement in itself.

In fact, the things that are just going on “anyway” are what bear the special message of this mise en scène, and it is a profound one. The young boy is fragile humanity whose fate depends on things far beyond his ken. Rituals embody truth but if the truth is lost in persons’ hearts, the rituals become opaque. Who will teach the children? Parsifal, in Wagner’s version, a bit too baldly stated, is a story of the recovery of truth by a fool who happens into the service of a church that is fighting within itself because the priest has abused a choir boy but the congregation still relies on him to perform the service. The ritual might be hocus-pocus but what the fool does recognize, through “compassion,” is the anguish of the priest who finds himself having to help others while the prayers he makes on their behalf only re-open the wounds of his own guilt. The congregation has him in the position of a mediator successive to Jesus; following their logic, he is put in the position of being punished on the cross for fornication.

There is another unscheduled individual who appears on the stage in all three acts. It is a thin woman in a plain black dress with short grey hair. She is, I realized at the end, an angel — the perfect bookend to the child extra, the one who knows everything instead of nothing.

The audience is placed in the middle between these two extras, and the audience’s greatest thrill comes when it is itself placed within the demesne of the Grail, later in Act One. When Gurnemanz announces he will conduct Parsifal there, the medical amphitheatre begins to rotate. Around its outer circular backside it is a field of vertical bands of blue and white light that flow behind each other. Parsifal notes he is moving without walking and Gurnemanz makes his famous comment, “In this demesne, time becomes space,” a thing given an empty profundity in the post-Einsteinian age. It just means that truth is present, rather than somewhere else you have to go to: we have all had the experience that illumination gives us extra room and freedom to move in it. Wonderfully, when he is told this, Parsifal becomes unable to take the next step, halting and uncertain as we all find ourselves to be when we are over our heads in truth. The angel in the black dress helps him along, and Gurnemanz reaches out for him to take the leap and come across to him as a father teaches his child to swim.

Once they reach the demesne itself the amphitheatre has rotated full circle. It is different because it is in a pink light. But as the choir begins to sing the all-embracing hymns that usher in the communion, the light becomes plain. Indeed a new white spot illuminates the stage from the rear of the orchestra. Several of us seated there turned around to see what was happening, since our heads were in it. The choruses, and horns, too, begin to sound from the higher reaches in the rear of this vast box of a hall. The audience was in the demesne as much as anybody else is.

Again, this all speaks to those who are ready for it; but I believe more were now ready for it than at the beginning.

The Second Act begins with the “duet” — a word too civilized and tame — between Klingsor and Kundry. I can report there is still no need to look past Waltraud Meier for voice, acting ability, or womanness. Klingsor wears a black cape with a threatening red suit beneath. When he claims that he alone is immune to Kundry’s seductive powers and she reminds him it is because he castrated himself, she grabs him by the crotch. Then he takes off his black cloak and shows his threatening superman suit in red. None of the garçon’s spitballs actually hit him the night I was there.

There is already a bed on the stage, on the far left. Klingsor actually pushes her into it and gets on top of her, then gets up and rearranges himself. When it is time for the Flower Maidens to come on, everything slides right except the bed. The boy is slid offstage and onstage from the left are slid eight rows of cocktail tables three deep with two women at each, looking like flappers. The table lamps light up and they sing their Flower Song. It is a chorus line, attenuated, or a Busby Berkeley, attenuated.

Parsifal shows up and the maidens dally with him. The publicity photos show him tied to a chair wearing only the ungainly underwear of a Wagnerian tenor, but I can report that this stage is reached only gradually and doesn’t last long. For our purposes what needs to be said is that Parsifal goes with the flow: it is Kundry that interrupts, with her ominous address, “Par-si-fal.”

Meier’s thousandth impossible portrayal of Kundry, under the direction of Hakenbeck, portrays most of the complexities. Her description of Herzeleide’s feelings turns her into Herzeleide; Parsifal’s discovery of the connection between his attraction for her and Amfortas’s lament comes as a disappointment to her at the same time as an access to a liberation she cannot believe is really real; her continued resorting to seduction falls on deafer and deafer ears; at the end she lies supine before him legs spread. Salient in this whole sequence is that at her penultimate attempt his shirt again comes off (for the second time in the act), but he dons instead the bedsheet as an improvised cape that makes him look like he has angel wings.

Act Three begins with a film instead of music, an excerpt from a 1947 movie by Rossellini of Nazi Berlin. The newspapers had already trained the audience to make catcalls. We were far enough into the run that they vied for saying just the right thing everybody wanted to hear. In the film a young boy clambers up into a bombed-out building and unaccountably jumps to his death. Everything is unaccountable in Parsifal: the account always depends on the audience. Of course it is our young man from the opera, all future and too little understanding. Warlikowski is a Pole, like Karol Wojtiła and Czesław Miłosz. I just felt that greater pains deserve a greater berth.

The amphitheatre is in shambles. Gurnemanz sits patiently at that same table. Kundry moans and Gurnemanz tries to revive her by massage. The massage concentrates on her hands but moves up her arms, too. There is a moment where the music becomes round and she gets up: a connection I had not seen made in previous productions. Kundry stands, as a normal person stands. The plainness is stunning.

Parsifal returns, not in the heavy black armor of the libretto but the makeshift ragtag of anybody, bearing this huge spear. The most important thing to report is that Kundry stands at the center of the stage throughout the act, given by the libretto no words and only two, though very important, movements: bringing the water from the spring and washing Parsifal’s feet. To these Warlikowski has added her continuing presence in the center of the stage, her desire to touch the spear, her halting attempt to approach and help Amfortas when he comes on later, and more.

The first tear jerker came when Gurnemanz and the nameless boy start serving the grail: Kundry and Parsifal are sitting beside each other on the ground looking at each other. The second, and climactic, was when Parsifal had healed Amfortas with the spear and had assumed the service of the Grail: Kundry and Amfortas, whose sin had brought them Parsifal who has now absolved them, may, and do, halting but resolute, run to each other and embrace. They have become two humans whose stupid lives have occasioned something sublime — how far from Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and the hill of beans?

The orchestra played flawlessly. The remote horns and choruses spread throughout the hall were managed without error. The conductor, Haenchen, reached heightened crescendoes where they really matter. And Stig Anderson, our substitute for Parsifal, filled in for an unorthodox reading without a glitch. The star of the show was of course Meier, whose acting in Act Three played as important a role as her singing in Act Two.

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