Parsifal on Stage

Image: Naples 2007 Parsifal
Left: Strange planetary alignments in Act II, from the 2007 production in Naples.

On 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 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 until 1930.

Image: Magic Garden 1882

Right: Paul von Joukowsky's model for the magic garden of act 2, in the 1882 Bayreuth production. ©Cologne Theatre Museum.


Bayreuth 1918-1939

When 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 transformation scenes.

New Bayreuth

At  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 done.

Under 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.

Parsifal Act 3, Metropolitan Opera 2013
Left: Metropolitan Opera 2013, producer: François Girard, designer: Michael Levine.

The Challenges of Staging Parsifal

In 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.

New Directions

The 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.

Image: End of Act II in the Seattle production

Left: Seattle 2003, producer: François Rochaix, designer: Robert Israel. ©Chris Bennion.

In 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 stage).

Parsifal goes clubbing

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 production.

Kundry (W. Meier) disguised as a chicken attacks Parsifal (C. Ventris) in the Lehnhoff production

In 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

The 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.

Image: ROH Sea Maidens

Right: The violation of a doughnut: the Act I transformation scene, in the LA staging by Robert Wilson. © LA Opera.

Left: Act II from a recent Covent Garden production, in which the flowermaidens became sea anemones. © ROH Covent Garden.

Image: Act I transformation scene in the Robert Wilson LA production

The Future

As  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.

Today 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.

Act 2 in the current Munich production

Right: Act II of Parsifal from the recent production in Munich.

Another 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.

Image: Bayreuth Schlingensief Parsifal

Transformation 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 that time.

Kinder! macht Neues! Neues! und abermals Neues! 3

Below: New concepts at Bayreuth 2008. Producer: Stefan Herheim, Stage design: Heike Scheele, Costumes: Gesine Völlm, ©Bayreuther Festspiele.

Image: Bayreuth Herheim's production of Parsifal

Footnote 1: 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 on 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.
Footnote 2: 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.
Footnote 3: Wagner writing to Liszt, 8 September 1852.

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