The world has come to an end and we are at the end of the world, the collapsed ruins of a bridge that can no longer be crossed. There is no greenery; the few trees that are left are dead and being chopped down for fuel.  Shell-shocked survivors wander through this hellscape, fighting over the scraps of whatever is left.  This is the milieu of director Calixto Bieito’s Parsifal seen at the Stuttgart Staatsoper on Sunday March 20.

In the director’s vision, a tentative social order has emerged here centered around leaders who dominate through a combination of charisma, intimidation, half-remembered religious rhetoric, and careful distributions from their caches of water, alcohol and drugs. Followers cling to their desire for spiritual meaning in this battered existence, finding their last shred of hope for the existence of God in the few remaining scavenged religious artifacts. Nonetheless, their faith is being overwhelmed by their doubt.

The staging was as bleak and brutal focusing on the abuse of power that seems inseparable from religion. Gurnemanz is an abusive thug, who beats one of his young charges (i.e. the sacred swan) to death as a lesson to the others and then tries to blame Parsifal for the crime.  Parsifal’s resiliency in the face of Gurnemanz’s intimidation prompts Gurnemanz to con Parsifal into battling Klingsor.  He gives him a couple of happy pills and drags him to a rally of the Grail Knights.  There is no transformation scene, but Parsifal does become spaced.

Amfortas enters carrying a large battered metal tub (the Grail?) and is in great psychic pain.  Titurel, in a suit and sunglasses, controls the unruly Grail Knights because he controls the plundered religious artifacts that they use as signifiers of his family’s power.. By the end of Act I, however, the Grail Knights are openly expressing their doubts in their “faith”.

Act II begins with Klingsor storming through his domain shooting out long arcs of fire with a flamethrower, and then pulling the buried Kundry from the scorched mud. His flower maidens are zoned-out brutalized women wrapped in plastic held together with a few strategic pieces of first-aid tape.  At Klingsor’s command they start to draw flowers on themselves in red lipstick, but their efforts at drawing devolve into disoriented, lunatic scribblings.   Parsifal arrives and marvels at this sight in a state of infantile wonder.  He kills one of the flower maidens as a child might rip apart a toy to see what’s inside.

Kundry takes advantage of his vulnerable state by letting him suckle at her breast and presenting him with a toy tractor somehow recovered from Chez Herzeleide.  As Kundry becomes more agitated and summons help,  Parsifal looks around him for some way of protecting himself and finds a large fence pole, which Klingsor defines as the “spear”

Klingsor wrestles Parsifal for the spear and Parsifal stabs him with it. and then hurls his defiant imprecations of “you know where to find me” directly at the audience as if to challenge them to return after the interval.  Kundry surveys the situation in horror and then cuts out her own tongue as punishment for her own failure.

Act III felt less compelling after the extreme, cogently argued drama of the earlier acts, because too much of the direction was concerned with confronting the audience with their expectations of Parsifal, rather than continuing the grim narration.  The now-blind Gurnemanz recognizes Parsifal and his spear; Kundry elevates Parsifal on a battered airport luggage cart, anoints him and decorates him in Godspell-ish costume that she has been carrying around with her in a worn-out shopping bag. She then adorns him with every conceivable matter of religious ornament including a bust of Wagner.  The sight of Parsifal as a “Kitschmas” tree brought some titters from the audience.

For the Good Friday Music, Gurnemanz dips into his secret stash and blisses out.   Suddenly, the doors to the auditorium fling open and Gurnemanz’s charges enter in a halo of light wearing their cherubic uniforms.  Snow even falls briefly. Clearly, Bieito is taunting the audience by giving them such a deliberately saccharine, drug-induced display for the religious climax of the work.

Dark reality returns when the Grail Knights chase down the naked, senile Titurel, throw him into the Grail / tub, and hack him to death with an axe.  Parsifal appears amongst this chaos and releases Gurnemanz from his agony by killing him with the spear.

Then, just as arbitrarily, he touches Titurel and Amfortas and revives them, still battered and bloodied.  Parsifal strips naked, climbs into the tub, and carried off in triumph.  Only Kundry remains; she pulls the last item in her Redemption Preparedness Kit, a can of snack food; she then sits munching, devoid of expression or emotion as the music quietly fades.

Bieito’s Parsifal differs from a more traditional regie production in that it does not seem to be motivated by an intellectual Konzept. Instead, the work feels more visceral, not a point-by-point refutation of the meanings that the work has taken on for the Wagner faithful, but a defiant cry of outrage at those who are drawn in by the seductive harmonies and dilettante pantheism of the work without contemplating the exploitation of women and abuse of religious and moral authority in the opera.

He uses all the means at his disposal to shake the audience out of the mind-numbing spell cast by the work, a spell more powerful than anything Klingsor could devise.  Even so, there still is a humanity to the staging.  Bieito does allow Parsifal to be bettered by his quest and find a usual mission in the comfort he can give to others even if Parsifal doesn’t understand the source of his newfound power.   Parsifal is especially attentive to Kundry; the most abused character of all.  So maybe there is a small possibility of hope to be found even in this staging.

Overall, I found it to be an extraordinarily powerful production that managed to navigate the difficult boundary between subverting the audiences’ expectations and subverting the work’s meaning to serve the director’s personal agenda. This version inspired a lot of reflection and processing afterwards, something better suited to a festival setting or a Regietournee.

Luckily, the musical performance was festival-quality in the excellence of execution, attention to detail and commitment from all participants.  The fact that it was a mid-season revival of a physically challenging production made this achievement mind-boggling (As an aside I will add that the Carmen the night before was executed at a similar level both musically and dramatically).

Manfred Honeck’s conducting was bracingly fast, but never rushed.  He shaved well over a half hour off the performance times we are used to at the Met, bringing the performance more in line with the Hermann Levi’s timing for the very first performances. This only served to underline the drama and free it from the plodding stasis frequently inflicted on this work in the name of profundity*.

Andrew Richards was the charismatic, ardent Parsifal and he sang with freshness and power.    His is an important voice and one hopes that some American theaters sign him up for some future repertory before his dance card is filled in Europe.

Christiane Iven was a ferocious, formidable match for him as Kundry.  I had previously wondered whether it was possible for singer to give a truly demented performance within the potential constraints of a regie production; she demonstrated that the answer is clearly yes.  This is a real dramatic soprano voice and she handled the extreme tessitura of the part with seeming ease.

Gregg Baker has been MIA in New York for some time now and in that period, his voice has found more power and richness than I recalled.  He did not stint in summoning forth Amfortas’ agonies and I hope his recent foray into the German rep gets a wide exposure.  Claudio Otelli was another new singer to me and he found more complexity in Klingsor than usual.

Only Attila Jun disappointed as Gurnemanz.  The voice is certainly powerful and sonorous, but his portrayal lacked nuance and he seemed to be going through the staging assigned to him, rather than inhabiting the director’s vision of the character.

*Yes, I know Toscanini’s Parsifal was the slowest of them all; but not having heard those performances I can’t judge whether he made such slow tempi work.

Photo © Martin Sigmund