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Parsifal: A Personal Experience at the Wagner Festspiele Bayreuth, 2005

JOURNAL ENTRY: 24 August 2005, Mittwack 0330 Bayerischer Hof, Bayreuth, Germany. By David W. Cline, M.D., OPERA REVIEW.

I have had a most extraordinary day! From 4:00 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. I attended the Wagner Festspielle presentation of "Parsifal" conducted by Pierre Boulez (his last performance at Bayreuth - he is 80 years old), and directed by Christoph Schlingenslief. Amfortas was Alexander Marco-Buhrmester, Titurel - Kwangchul Youn, Gurnemanz - Robert Holl, Parsifal - Alfons Eberz, Klingsor - John Wegner, and Kundry - Michelle DeYoung.

It was the most extraordinary production impacting the most profound meaning, the most moving of the four times I have seen Parsifal and, the best opera experience of my life. The audience also approved because, although there was booing, especially for the production by Christoph Schlingensief, those approving out-shouted, out-clapped, and out-stomped their feet on the wooden floor for 30 minutes after the music stopped with too many curtain calls to count. I shall tell you about this extraordinary experience.

Picture from Schlingensief´s production of Parsifal (Image: Bayreuth)

It started on Tuesday, August 23rd with a European buffet breakfast at Hotel Bayerischer Hof with two soft boiled eggs served in an egg cup, ham, potatoes, wonderful German dark nut bread, croissant with marmalade preserve and delicious hot coffee. Then a swift walk to the Grun Hugel (Green Hill) to the Festspiel Haus Restaurant for an excellent symposium graciously sponsored by the New York Wagner Society and moderated by Verena Kossodo. Jeffrey Bullard, a classicist and dean at Mary Baldwin College, Staunton, Virginia, discussed the opera Parsifal. At the end of his presentation he made a poignant remark regarding the current production which began last year and is very controversial. At the end of the opera we see maggots eating a dead rabbit (which appeared alive throughout the opera) on a video screen, and Klingsor, when banished by Parsifal in Act II, goes into the universe strapped to a rocket. At the end of his remarks Professor Bullard said, "Don't try to figure out what's going on, but just let your experience speak to you. This production is "performance art" like "The Gates" presented in Central Park, New York City by Christo and Jean-Claud in February 2005." So what spoke?

The prologue begins and is all lovely. This is the first time I have heard the Bayreuth sound starting with the Grail Theme __________(insert); it mellowed me. The first scene with Gurnemanz awakening the pages is in a set with a lot of staging; multiple buildings, towers, high chain-link fences with razor wire on top, all on a rotating stage. In the back is a screen on which is projected various images; disco lights, movies of bacteria moving around, an anteater sucking up ants, a beautiful woman with clear satisfaction slowly sucking the tip of an index finger of a large hand. A rabbit in the form of a stuffed toy stage prop in various sizes appears off and on throughout the drama. The next to final scene is of a single human form walking off in the distance toward the lighted doorway at the end of a tunnel. But, I get ahead of myself.

To say the least, there was a lot transpiring on this stage which many say distracted from the music. Besides the usual cast of characters there were doubles, and even triples, of certain characters. Parsifal had a least three doubles, and he himself would morph into an angel, a sinner, a seducer, a seducee, a contrite little boy, an angry aggressor, and a Christ figure with menstrual blood from the communion served at the end of the first act, wiped on his white gown. For Kundry, there were at least 5 or 6 doubles; the young seductive teenager naked from the waist down who gets laid by Parsifal in a shack in the second act, a young black woman with large buttocks and an Afro hairdo who washes Parsifal's feet, a large, fat, brown Asian woman who looks like Buddha is wheeled in legs astride. In a pagan primitive ritual she minstrates vociferously while the grail knights dip their fingers into her menstrual blood and then imprint it on Parsifal's white gown (her perineum faces toward the back of the stage, done moribundly, but not offensively). Then Klingsor, a black man, walks up a ladder (with his back to the ladder) and becomes a white devil, and then a poor suffering son -of- a- bitch.

Picture from Schlingensief´s production of Parsifal (Image: Bayreuth)

My first effort was to try to keep up with everything going on. However, this was impossible! How did I cope? I went to sleep midway through the First Act. When I aroused myself I tried again to take it all in. I couldn't. Then, I became frustrated and asked myself, "Are we having fun now?" "No", I responded. "How did I get myself into this unsavory mess? I'm never coming back here again, I am done with Wagner!" Then I got a headache, and then I felt damn mad! As I squirmed in my seat, I remembered Jeff Bullard's directive, "not, what does this mean, but what is your reaction?" I definitely was having a reaction! Then my training in psychodynamic psychiatry came to the fore. I was having a counter transference reaction to my patient who in this case was the opera production of Christoph Schlingensief. What I beheld pushed by buttons. I prefer, and try hard to see the human experience as noble, gallant efforts to do good, that people are by in large, good and make honorable efforts at behaving properly. Once more, I could never imagine the holy of holy communion be displayed as the communicants dipping their hands in vaginal menstrual blood then raising their hands on high and parading to Parsifal, now depicted as a Christ figure, and imprinting their hands on his snow white gown while the glorious music of the communion scene as the end of Act I comes forth! Shocking! But then my free association came in the words of the institution of Holy Communion of the Last Supper, "This is My body and My blood given to you, do this in remembrance of me."

Then came an amusing association - it was from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical "South Pacific" in the person of Bloody Mary. The association was to the song the sailors sing "Bloody Mary is the Girl I Love!" Oh my God! Shocking! Is this "love" a deeper, primitive, tribal manifestation of both affection and redemption? Is this "communion" a gross, hideous primal means by which we restore, rejuvenate and recreate ourselves into a higher calling? My answer was "maybe."

Picture from Schlingensief´s production of Parsifal (Image: Bayreuth)

But what struck me was the horrible pathetic state of mankind. I hadn't realized that we were so deprived! Schlingensief was confronting me with the hideous, derived, god awful aspects of the human experience. So by the end of the first act the anger and headache was gone; I felt sad and wanted to cry. I didn't then, but I did later in the third act when the redemption scene took place. Amfortas washed Kundry's feet, Kundry washed Amfortas' feet, Parsifal washed Kundry's feet, and she his. Then all three joined hands which were tied together with a red ribbon by somebody's double (I don't know whose) and the three paraded around slowly in a circle of muted delight and I cried, sobbed as quietly as I could, for the gruesome, horrible, pathetic, wholesome, beauty of the redemption there before my weeping eyes. More associations, this time from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Song of Hiawatha." In the introduction he bids us "listen to this Indian legend, to this song of Hiawatha!" reminding us that we are related through our humanity.

"Ye whose hearts are fresh and simple,
Who have faith in God and Nature,
Who believe, that in all ages,
Every human heart is human,
That in every savage bosom,
There are longings, yearnings, strivings,
For the good they comprehend not,
That the feeble hands and helpless,
Groping blindly in the darkness,
Touch God's right hand in the darkness
And are lifted up and strengthened;
Listen to this simple story,
To the song of Hiawatha."

And finally, from the Whippenpoof:

"We are poor little lambs who have lost our way,
We are poor little sheep who have gone astray,
Gentlemen long go off on a spree, damned from here to Eternity, God have
Mercy on such as we, baa, baa, baa."

"Redemption to the redeemer" is the final line that the opera chorus sings. Yes indeed, each of the central characters of this opera has been redeemed through their forgiveness/redemption of another. "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

I have experienced a new level of "Gesamtkunstwerk."

David W. Cline, M.D., DavidWCline@comcast.net

Gallery: Parsifal, second Season, July 2005

Additional information on Schlingensief`s and his Parsifal

- Requiem for Schlingensief's Parsifal - The Wagner Journal, 1, 3, p 85 – 90
- Bye, bye, Bayreuth - Dernieres on the hill: "Tannhäuser" and "Parsifal"
- The Last Lovers - Schlingensiefs "Parsifal" staging bids farewell to Bayreuth
- Parsifal gallery 2007 - Impressions from the 4th and final Parsifal season
- Behind the scenes gallery - Behind the scenes pictures from Parsifal 2007
- Opera Review: Parsifal 2005 - A Personal Experience at the Wagner Festspiele
- Schlingesiefs Parsifal - Anna Catharina Gebbers on Schlingensiefs new staging
- Parsifal gallery 2006 - Impressions from the 3rd Parsifal season in Bayreuth
- Parsifal gallery 2005 - Impressions from the 2nd Parsifal season in Bayreuth
- Parsifal gallery - Exclusive pictures from Schlingensief´s Parsifal production
- Schlingensiefs Parsifal - Anna-Catharina Gebbers on Schlingensiefs staging
- "Totally confusing supposed unambiguities" - by Marion Löhndorf, Kunstforum
- It's not going - biography by the Guggenheim Museum New York (1998)
- Christoph Schlingensief - A biography by Till Briegleb, Goethe Institut
- Schlingensief.com German - Further information is available in german only
Richard Wagner Festival
Bayreuth, 2004 − 2007

Director: Christoph Schlingensief

Conductor: Pierre Boulez; stage design:: Daniel Angermayr, Thomas Goerge; Costume: Tabea Braun; Video: Meika Dresenkamp, Monika Böttcher; Light design: Voxi Bärenklau; Assistance: Carl Hegemann

Cast: Alexander Marco-Buhrmester (Amfortas); Kwangchul Youn (Titurel); Robert Holl (Gurnemanz); Alfons Eberz (Parsifal); John Wegner (Klingsor); Michelle de Young (Kundry);

Premiere: 25.07.2004

Additional information

- Bye, bye, Bayreuth
- The Last Lovers
- Opera Review 2005
- Schlingensiefs Parsifal
   (by A.C. Gebbers)

- Parsifal gallery 2007
- Backstage gallery
- Parsifal gallery 2006
- Parsifal gallery 2005
- Parsifal gallery 2004

External web sites

- Festival homepage