Richard Wagner’s final work, “Parsifal,” is so utterly unlike anything that came before it, he invented a new term to describe the opera: Buhnenweihfestspiele, its components meaning “stage,” “consecration,” “festival,” and “play.” So specifically was “Parsifal” created for the Bayreuth Festival Theater that the composer and his executors undertook a legal battle for its exclusive performance there. For Wagner enthusiasts (who annually apply for half a million tickets for 28 performances), the indescribable thrill of attending such a performance is akin to a devout Catholic scoring an audience at the Vatican.
“Parsifal” is the most difficult of Wagner’s operas to stage. Taken literally, its scenes in the medieval temple of the Holy Grail are more religious ceremony than theater; alterative, modern probes into its almost impenetrable psychology often alienate audiences. Director Stefan Herheim concentrates on the work’s ambiguities, the saga of an order of now-corrupt knights who protect the Grail.
Klingsor (Thomas Jesatko), self-castrated to contain his carnal urges, practices black magic and steals the spear that pierced Christ’s side, inflicting a perpetually bleeding wound on the side of Amfortas (Detlef Roth), the order’s leader.
Wise Gurnemanz (Kwangchul Youn) prophesies that only a guileless fool can defeat Klingsor and purify the order. Along comes Parsifal (Christopher Ventris), so ignorant he doesn’t know his own name. Thinking he might be the one, Gurnemanz allows Parsifal to observe the knights’ sacrament, but dismisses the boy when he confesses he doesn’t know what he’s seen.
Klingsor has his eye on Parsifal, too, ordering his female slave Kundry (Mihoko Fujimura) to seduce the fool and turn him against the Grail knights. But instead, Kundry’s kiss awakens enlightenment in Parsifal.
In gorgeous, hyper-realistic sets by Heike Scheele and costumes from various millennia by Gesine Vollm, Herheim opens with a pantomime of the child Parsifal (Marius Adler) resisting a final caress from his dying mother. Her deathbed is set in the garden of Wahnfried, the villa where Wagner lived in Bayreuth. And a busy bed it is: All the characters take refuge in it, one sinking beneath its sheets to reappear as another.
We later move inside Wahnfried, and the temple scene stunningly recreates the 1882 world premiere scenery. Klingsor’s “magic garden” overflows with Vegas showgirls. Act three is played within a smaller replica of Bayreuth’s proscenium, with a mirror turned on the audience. When Kundry curses Parsifal, the stage is flooded with swastikas, and Wahnfried (severely damaged in the war) appears in ruins.
Herheim’s nonstop fascinating imagery introduces too many ideas and never ties things together, let alone ties them up. At one point, Amfortas, Parsifal and Kundry are almost indistinguishable from each other. The opera’s last words are “Redemption to the redeemer,” but who, exactly, is redeemed and who is the redeemer?
Gurnemanz, arguably the longest role in opera, has a perfect interpreter in Youn, sensitive in every syllable, his velvety bass caressing every word. Canadian tenor Ventris proves himself one of the world’s top interpreters of the title role in a beautifully nuanced performance, dressed mostly in a child’s sailor suit, as is his tiny stage double, the superb Adler.
Fujimura, Roth and Jesatko (in Marlene Dietrich drag) are strong in characterization but lack the necessary vocal heft.
Debutant conductor Daniele Gatti takes his time, perhaps losing the concentration of the usually unmatchable Bayreuth orchestra, turning in one of the longest performances of “Parsifal” on record.