The recent Vienna Parsifal production – A Parsifal for our times

You hear orchestral sounds that are unique and unexpected, noble and full
of power. This is one of the most beautiful sound monuments that have been
erected to the eternal glory of music.

Claude Débussy, after a performance of Parsifal

Two years after viewing the short lived Otto Wagner-inspired Parsifal
production of the Latvian Alvis Hermanis in Vienna, which focused on the
suffering and redemption of psychiatric patients, I requested tickets to attend
two performances of the new staging in the Austrian capital. Earlier in the
New Year, as the pandemic threatened to make it virtually impossible to
depart and reenter Canada, my dream collapsed only to be revived by the
exceptional and unusual circumstances surrounding the development of the
new production.

Following one single positive COVID-19 case, the Wiener Staatsoper
suspended rehearsals for “Parsifal” and delayed the premiere to April 1st.
With the State Opera currently closed to the public, they finally announced
that the new production would be recorded on April 11th, without an
audience, and streamed one week later on.

The production’s Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov, a sought-after
theatre, film and opera specialist, was working for the Wiener Staatsoper for
the first time with Parsifal. Not only responsible for the monumental
production but also the stage design and costumes, this artist is currently not
allowed to leave Russia after his conviction following a highly criticized trial,
for misuse of funds intended for cultural projects. This misappropriation case
was widely seen as punishment for his politically charged work which forced
him out of his highly successful and experimental Gogol Theatre that he had
piloted for eight years. Under house arrest, he was obliged to direct the
Vienna Parsifal rehearsals via computer technology from his Moscow flat. To
add further to the complexity of the experience, based on the short videos
produced by the Vienna Opera, his knowledge of the German language
appears somewhat limited, and communications with the production team
and artists were conducted in English.

His earlier jail experience, in a case extremely reminiscent of the anti Putin
crusader Alexei Navalny, has profoundly influenced the concept development
of the new staging, intended, as he explains, to connect audiences with the
pandemic. He goes on to develop his interpretative concept from the
perspective of a mature Act III Parsifal who reminisces on his naive and
innocent past. The current lockdown and confinement conditions have
created for all of us, and Parsifal, some excellent existentialist opportunities
to reassess our journey through life.

Richard Wagner’s last musical drama certainly offers several possibilities for
exposing different levels of spirituality with a politically charged message.
The concept of redemption is this time connected to the plight of human
justice in our current world, confronted by major social agendas. Strikingly
powerful and thought provoking, this Vienna Serebrennikov production is
definitely not intended to appeal to more traditionalist and purist audiences,
who are accustomed to literal presentation of the script. Provocative and
unusual, not a Parsifal as you have ever seen it, and not an aesthetic staging
either in the classic sense of the word, but a profoundly overwhelming and
phenomenal human experience.

Act I, particularly, exposes the horrifying reality of prisoners and their
suffering. The computer and television audiences can certainly expect a
visually stunning and captivating account of the Grail community struggling
for salvation in a French inspired prison structure – the Maison Centrale. The
harshness and cruelty of some scenes nevertheless expose so much humanity
and, by reference, the punishing situation that some people found themselves
in during this last year of the pandemic. The ultimate redemption, one of the
major themes intended by the composer, presupposes a level of suffering
coming from taxing life experiences.

As Serebrennikov indicates in his production notes, posted on the web site of
the Wiener Staatsoper, the mature Parsifal relives his youth where he meets
his earlier self – impersonated by Nikolay Sidorenko introduced as a mute
and youthful alter-ego. He is an inmate in Monsalvat monastery now turned
into a detention centre for criminals, marginal and hopeless members of
ethnic and religious minorities, left to live on their own. Those “Grail
Knights”, trapped in a totally marginal faith, and diminished spirituality, are
certainly cut off from the world and long for survival, very much like some
groups in our society during this pandemic. The ritual of the Grail now
becomes the pursuit of freedom. The video projection of the lonely young
man leaving the ruins of a snow covered Monsalvat on a cold, cloudy winter
morning, is a powerful symbol of liberation at the beginning of the
Transformation Music (Verwandlungsmusik).

Gurnemanz, richly sung by Georg Zeppenfeld, is the natural leader of the
brotherhood of prisoners. He is intrigued by the wild boy who has killed a
swan – in this production, a fellow prisoner – and proceeds to integrate him
into the community and hopefully help heal Amfortas’ trauma. The French
baritone Ludovic Tézier sang the role of Amfortas amazingly well, portraying
a prisoner deeply suffering from life’s inhuman conditions, even though at
times his diction may not have sounded as clear as the German natives. Jonas
Kaufmann sang an impeccable Parsifal to the point where he made us
completely forget whatever vocal problems he may have incurred in the past.
He sounded like he was singing a bel-canto Parsifal, and his voice blended
extremely well with the Kundry of Elīna Garanča, making her long-awaited
international role debut in a Wagner opera.

Kundry has been an inquisitive journalist working for a magazine published
by Klingsor. She was a sort of liaison between the prisoners and the outside
world. After having orchestrated the successful release from jail of the young
nameless criminal, Parsifal, she attempts to free herself from Klingsor with
whom she was once in a relationship. The youthful Parsifal, being groomed
for a photo shoot, is immediately taken by Kundry’s knowledge of his name
and that of his mother. Having fallen totally under her spell and with the
recollection of his mother’s possessive love, Parsifal is convinced that he
may have suffered the same fate as Amfortas, from this determined Kundry
offering him the first kiss of love. The wound of desire opens up and all her
powers of seduction fail to woo him although the younger alter-ego fights the
mature Parsifal and kisses Kundry in a gesture reminiscent of his mother’s
love. The split personality in the main character is eloquently established as
Amfortas enters the room at this precise moment when Kundry has finally
“corrupted” the young hero. “Nur Eine Stunde Mein!” / “Be mine for one
hour !”

Guilt and regret consume Parsifal totally at this point so that he would rather
die than love her. The wound will never heal. Meanwhile, Kundry is still
determined to get her kiss from Parsifal and threatens him with a gun. In her
failure to convince him, and suffering enormous frustration, she releases her
anger, and shoots the man responsible for her plight, Klingsor, who has just
entered the room. This Parsifal is not a feminist production but Kundry is
certainly portrayed as a stronger character than usual. Her beautifully elegant
black designer suit, her contrasting and imposing long silvery hair, her lap
top computer and her acting all point to a determined woman. Elīna Garanča,
known mostly for her fine Italian opera portrayals, is truly a revelation in her
first Wagner role. Her impeccable singing, particularly in Act II, and
convincing facial expressions, produce a totally appealing and stunning
theatrical experience.

The last act shows the decommissioned prison many years later. It is now a
sort of community centre where many former prisoners still work and live in
harmony. Gurnemanz is still hoping to discover a modern day redeemer who
could lead with a vision for a better world. Parsifal is reunited with Kundry
as he ventures back to his youth, acknowledging that he was on the wrong
path, a world of conflicts and struggles. As the young alter-ego recognizes
Kundry and kisses her, the mature Parsifal welcomes his new journey
through life and realizes his path has now moved on. Gurnemanz sees in him
the possible saviour who can now be anointed the King of the Holy Grail.
Amfortas, feeling sorrow about the fate of his father Titurel, has reconnected
with spirituality. The knights – ex prisoners – have regained their faith and
show compassion towards his suffering. Amfortas is now redeemed by
Parsifal showing him the way to liberation.

I was particularly moved by the ending of the production when Parsifal and
his alter-ego slowly proceed to open the empty prison cells’ doors as a
gesture showing the way to freedom and redemption, keeping the reference to
our own pandemic when, at some point, the doors will reopen again. Here,
Philippe Jordan leads the orchestra to some extraordinary sublime

This regaining of freedom is where Serebrennikov sees a parallel between his
own life in jail and the dogmatic battle of the Grail Community. He strongly
believes that everyone who is in prison evokes his compassion, particularly if
this prisoner is being punished for his socio-political convictions.
Imprisonment, whether it be political, ideological or from the pandemic, can
be one of the most traumatic human experiences. He connects Parsifal’s
plight with the personal and collective healing of the present prevailing times.
He goes on to explain this symbolism further in his production notes: “The
prison space of my staging is a metaphor for the narrow-minded, shrunken,
dogmatic world in which they locked themselves up and in which everything
happens differently than it should. And of course: a life in captivity is one of
the possible readings that my production offers of the phrase “Zum Raum
wird hier die Zeit” (Time becomes space here).

Throughout the last 15 months of the pandemic, the European arts
organizations were often forced to shut down with the economy, but showed
strong determination not only to survive but to remain fully active, with some
new, streamed stagings. Despite so many obstacles, this illustrates the almost
visceral necessity to maintain a balanced artistic life, and connection to the
opera as an almost daily requirement. For Europeans, opera is not a museum
piece that you would pull out of the drawer once in a while but truly an
artistic medium connected to their primary existence. That is precisely where
Serebrennikov comes in with a Parsifal staging focusing on the art being the
bleeding wound that will not be healed until we return to normality. And art
should ultimately heal the restlessness, the pain, the wound.

Richard Wagner, a man socially and politically active, and a man of the
theatre, would have most likely approved connecting his Parsifal with the
current social causes – especially as the singing and conducting are so
compelling, and add to the poignancy of this entirely gripping production.
Philippe Jordan masters this fine balancing act between the multitude of
expressive leitmotifs, and adopts some enlightening slow tempi allowing the
music to breathe endlessly, and he never overpowers his singers.

We may always question whether this interpretation fully respects the
intentions of the composer. It is quite possible that the 13th century medieval
monks experienced their spirituality, the correlation between the humans and
the supernatural dimension, at a whole different level than the Knights of
Monsalvat envisioned by Wagner, and the prisoners of Serebrennikov. Faith
and questions of cult are highly personal, and cannot easily be questioned. At
the time of the creation of Parsifal, Wagner developed an interest in
Buddhism – a religion that is not as strict as some Christian faith, and where
the karma evolves with human experience, and the practice of meditation and
wisdom. We are most likely living through an “Age of Enlightenment” where
“the Grail” can be experienced in different ways.

Let’s give the final word to Kirill Serebrennikov: “While shooting our
Parsifal footage last December around Moscow, we discovered a concrete
ruin. There was incredible frost and at the same time sunlight was coming in
through the holes in the ruined walls. A moment magical and unreal in its
beauty. As an artist, I discover God in this beauty.”

Pierre Couture
May 2021