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Parsifal in Wolfgang Wagner's Staging at the Bayreuth Festival

Production Team

The Bayreuth production that was staged for the last time for the 2001 Festival was directed by the late Wolfgang Wagner, with choreography by Iván Markó, costumes by Reinhard Heinrich, technical direction by Gerd Zimmerman and lighting by Manfred Voss.

For those who judge a production of any of Richard Wagner's dramas by adherence to the composer's stage directions -- and even for those who are not troubled by any divergences from them -- this production has much to recommend it. Apart from two elements of the staging, to be discussed below, Wolfgang Wagner's production followed his grandfathers' stage directions for all of the first act, most of the second and much of the third. Most of what Richard Wagner asked for was made visible and little that might be considered superfluous was added.

Technical Challenges

All of the technical challenges of the work were addressed by the production team. As in the original production, which was in use at Bayreuth from 1882 until 1933 with little modification, the Grail glows. Admittedly, with the progress of stage technology, it is now a red laser rather than an electric bulb that provides the light. The spear glows too, bright white in the second act and red at the tip in the final scene of the last act; but rather too brightly, giving the appearance of a child's toy. The swan flew across the stage and then back from the wings, convincingly, to land in the centre of the stage. The spear did not exactly fly, but the effect was neatly done: Klingsor's tower was a suspended cage; as he dropped his spear, Parsifal reached up and grasped a duplicate at the bottom of the cage, which glowed white like a neon tube, giving the illusion that Klingsor had thrown the spear and Parsifal had caught it. There was no suggestion however that the spear had stopped in mid-air, as the stage directions demand.

Musical Deeds Made Visible

But Parsifal is not about conjuring tricks. The essential elements of the staging should support the dramatic action in the same way as the orchestra should support the singers. Passages of music are closely connected with the stage action: for example, when the music describes Kundry's hair falling, the stage directions ask that we should see her untie the hair and allow it to fall; in this production, her hair was already untied and she merely pulled it over her shoulder, observing the spirit if not the letter of Richard Wagner's stage direction.

The stage picture should gradually change during the transformation music of the outer acts, as the characters proceed from the forest to the Hall of the Grail. These transformation scenes were the least satisfactory parts of this production, perhaps because the forest scenes did not have the feel of a forest, so that the transformation appeared to take us from one rocky chamber to another rocky chamber.

open quotes I tell him those [Zürich] years had been a sort of labyrinth, into which, like Parsifal, he had been lured by an evil curse, but inwardly he had never lost his way, he had preserved his ideals pure and intact, as P[arsifal] had his lance. "I have remained true to my law", he answers, referring to the Bhagavad-Gita. In the course of the conversation he also said, "One must assume that Kundry's curse loses its power when she awakes and this awakening attracts Parsifal, all kinds of mysterious relationships like that". To which I: "The wicked world was the Kundry's curse which lured you into the labyrinth". close quotes

[Cosima's Diary, entry for 22 June 1878]

Into the Labyrinth

Labyrinth A curious feature of the staging is the tiled floor, which is most easily seen in the Grail scenes. The floor presents a labyrinth, similar to the floor of the Sculpture Park in Oslo. As the knights process, they follow the paths of the labyrinth: paths that no sinner can find, perhaps, the continuation of those that the chosen follow to the Grail temple. At the centre of the labyrinth, in the Grail scenes, is the Grail shrine; in the same place in act 2, Kundry. This is the one stroke of genius in the staging.

Some Personal Reservations

Petrified Forests and Flowerless Meadows

Wolfgang Wagner's staging fails in two respects. Firstly, even the most superficial reading of the text shows that Nature plays an important role in this work: the natural world of forest and meadow in the outer acts, an unnatural luxuriance in Klingsor's magic garden in the central act. So it is a disappointment to find no trees in the opening scene; then not a single petal in the second act; and no blade of grass or flora of any kind in the last act. In place of organic nature, Wolfgang Wagner gives us rock crystals. They are definitely rocks, not even fossilised trees: natural but cold, hard and dead. Some are removed and others rotated during the transformation music, to produce a Hall of the Grail that would not be out of place in a production of Die Zauberflöte. Nature (or at least, organic nature) is absent from start to finish; the entire story seems to take place in a rocky waste land. The nearest that the second act comes to showing flowers is in the Busby Berkeley-like dance sequences for the Magic Maidens. They are dressed in classical shifts, similar to those designed by Daniela Thode for the 1933 production. The nearest that the third act comes to showing a meadow is a yellow-green carpet, without a flower in sight. There is no indication of a hermit's hut, only some kind of irrigation channel leading to a small pool, with flat rocks on either side. (More recently an elegant fountain has been added upstage).

Two Domains?

The second deficiency is of contrast between the domain of the Grail and that of Klingsor. Any kind of contrast would be better than none and the more the better. None is what Wolfgang Wagner provides: all that he does is to rearrange the rock pillars. Klingsor appears in his cage, looking demonic in a red silk dressing gown and with white "horns" in his hair, with the spear and his magic mirror, in which he sees the approach of a new victim. Kundry arises at his command from a hole in the stage at the centre of the maze. There is no noticeable change in the set as the scene supposedly changes to the magic garden. At the appropriate point, the maidens move aside to reveal Kundry reclining on a platform that looks suspiciously like the Grail shrine. She is wearing a white dress, which she later removes to reveal a brown robe. At the end of the act, there is no castle to collapse, although Klingsor's cage quickly disappears upstage, and there is no garden to wither. This weakens the cataclysmic ending of this act, when Richard Wagner's music clearly shows that something important has happened as the spear moved in the sign of the Cross.

Ending the Music-Drama

One of the greatest challenges facing a director of Parsifal is to find a satisfactory ending. Modern directors seem to have ideological difficulties in following Richard Wagner's instructions and usually provide an alternative ending. Wolfgang Wagner's ending is novel and rather puzzling. In modern productions it has become accepted that it is Kundry, rather than the squires, who opens the Grail shrine. In this production, instead of handing the Grail across to Parsifal, she elevates the chalice herself. The Grail glows red and the company, including Gurnemanz and Amfortas, kneel. Parsifal remains standing behind the shrine and Kundry stands facing him over the shrine, her back to the audience (strongly suggesting a Catholic priest facing East while celebrating Mass). Then Parsifal steps forward and receives the Grail from Kundry. Now it is his turn to elevate the Grail, which shines with an intense white light. The scene ends with Parsifal holding the Grail, which illuminates the stage, Kundry still standing and facing him. One by one, the knights rise to their feet; when all are standing, the curtain falls.

What are we supposed to make of this ending? Instead of the redeeming blood of the Saviour, is it the cold, white light of reason -- or of truth -- or of reality -- that Parsifal has brought to the community? Is this a Parsifal of the Enlightenment?

A video recording of this "mystically poetic" staging is available on a DVD from Unitel. The conductor is Giuseppe Sinopoli; the singers include Hans Sotin, Poul Elming and Linda Watson.