Vienna State Opera 2017-18 Review: Parsifal: Alvis Hermanis’ Madhouse Production Will Drive You Crazy (Not In a Good Way)

By Jonathan Sutherland

Richard Wagner was a 19th century micro-manager in music long before the pejorative appellation appeared in MBA curricula. As his own librettist, casting director, set designer, costume conceptualist, lighting Loge and Dirigent, there was rarely any aspect of his music dramas which Wagner was prepared to relinquish to lesser talents. No composition was more tightly controlled than his ultimate opus “Parsifal,” which because of its inherent spirituality, was not even designated an opera but rather a “Bühnenweihfestspiel.” In English the term is equally convoluted, usually translated as “a festival play for the consecration of the stage”.

Another fact which makes “Parsifal” so unusual is that it was written for a specific theatre, namely the Bayreuther Festspielhaus which was built to Wagner’s exacting demands and opened in 1876. Author Brian Magee, who wrote “The Tristan Chord,” stated in his book that while the greater hall was built for the Ring Cycle, “Parsifal” was written specifically for the Festspielhaus.

In terms of performance, the irascible composer remarked, “I care absolutely nothing about my works being given; I am only anxious that they should be given as I intended.” Contemporary directors, especially those of the iconoclastic Regietheater school, should take note. Either Latvian enfant terrible regisseur Alvis Hermanis didn’t bother to read Wagner’s highly specific stage directions for “Parsifal” or decided he knew better. Similar to transporting “Il Trovatore” in Salzburg to an art museum in 2014, Hermanis port-keyed c.13th mythical Monsalvat to a mental asylum in late-Habsburg Vienna. In distorting the focus from suffering and redemption to crypto-Freudian psychiatric disorders, Hermanis grossly debased the spiritual dimensions of a work inescapably linked to religious iconography and created endless contextual and dramaturgical aberrations.

Not Really “Parsifal”

The Otto (no relation to Richard) Wagner Hospital and Church in Vienna is a jewel of Viennese Jugendstil (aka Art Nouveau) architecture and Hermanis’ staging was a very accurate picture-postcard representation of the iconic building, but totally irrelevant to the purview of the text.  The permanent interior set meant the forests specified in Acts One and Three were non-existent.  Hermanis’ first solecism preceded the ethereal Vorspiel. Prior to the hushed F minor murmourings from strings, clarinet and bassoon,  the curtain sprung open to reveal patients and staff of the Otto Wagner Spital c. 1910 with Chief Surgeon Gurnemanz working at his desk. This meant that the mystical, extraterrestrial lyrical foundations of the opera which Wagner intended to be slowly ingested in virtual darkness, became nothing more than background music to a prosaic sanatorium scene. The concept was curiously close to Claus Guth’s hospital staging in Zurich  – with an identical old wind-up gramophone player in the corner.

The bucolic serenity of the music which accompanies Amfortas’ “nun Waldes Morgenpracht!” was entirely lost as there was no “holy lake” and the King’s “Bad” was literally a bathtub in the middle of the hospital ward. As “ein wildes Tier” there was admittedly some cleverness in having Kundry in a caged bed.  Her first entry, however, was hardly the “wild rider on a staggering mare,” but rather a psychiatric misfit squirming in a straight- jacket. The idea that she could have travelled “Von weiter her als du denken kannst” to get balsam from Arabia whilst literally imprisoned in the asylum, made no sense at all.

Kristine Jurjāne’s costumes were, for the most part, accurate in their Austrian/ Edwardian style but Parsifal wanders into the hospital ward in search of the skewered swan wearing a burnished Roman centurion breast-plate under a flowing cape.

The hospital beds were slightly reconfigured to form  the Great Hall of the Grail knights who are certainly a mixed bag ranging from respectable 14th district Viennese burghers to unkempt sanitarium patients in pajamas and a robed Hebrew profit straight out of “Nabucco.” The worthy knights, loonies and hangers-on carried cheap white coffee mugs in which to receive the communion wine, which was served from empty bottles of Château Unbekannt and the host was slices of rye bread from Bitzinger’s Würstelstand across the road. No wonder Parsifal was unimpressed.

Klingsor’s magic garden was neither enchanted nor floral but a parallel hospital operating theatre where the evil magician was performing what appeared to be consistently fatal surgeries. With thin metal-framed glasses and slicked-down hair, Klingsor’s resemblance to Josef Mengele was certainly intentional as during the Nazi Anschluss, the Otto Wagner hospital was notorious for medical experiments on retarded children and other irritants to the Reich. Kundry was enjoying a snooze on a surgical trolley until woken by Klingsor applying an electric shock, which was a perfectly good reason to scream. Schloss Klingsor also functioned as a morgue and the Flower Maidens eerily came to life rising from under dust-sheet covered trolleys. Perhaps Hermanis confused “flower garden”’ with “vegetable garden” as all the nubile debauchers were red-wigged carrot-tops. As alpha seductress, Kundry appeared in a golden embroidered oriental gown with bejeweled headdress, looking like a lustful Lakmé. Never one to miss the opportunity to visualize something which doesn’t need seeing, Hermanis  had Parsifal’s dead mother Herzeleide lying on one of the trolley-stretchers as a prop  to “Mutter! Süsse, holde Mutter!” Considering Kundry saw Herzeleide die quite a while ago, there must have been a lot of formaldehyde laying around “Im Wald und auf wilder Aue.”

The vitally important spear which caused Amfortas’ un-healdable wound was a long pointy stick run through a huge brain resting on a dolly. It looked like a giant’s toothpick fallen from Fafner and Fasolt’s Riesenheim. Instead of Klingsor hurling the spear at Parsifal who is supposed to catch it and make the sign of the cross, the unlikely lad just pulled the toothpick from the brain as if Siegfried retrieving Nothung from the Ashtree. Rather than total destruction of Klingsor’s evil world after “Mit diesem Zeichen bann’ ich deinen Zauber,” the Krippen-ish clinic merely stayed in situ.

The flowering springtime meadows in Act three were predictably absent as the scene opened back in Dr. Gurnemanz’s hospital office, supposedly years later. There was no change in Gurnemanz either despite Wagner’s instruction that he should be zum hohen Greise gealtert.” Instead of being concealed under a blanket of winter thorns, Kundry was taking a nap on a surgical trolley, this time revived by a swab of Gurnemanz’s smelling salts. Parsifal’s return was at least in correctly stipulated armour (albeit gold instead of black) but a mediaeval jouster was hardly commonplace in K+K Vienna, even if it was a lunatic asylum. Contrary to Wagner’s directions and Gurnemanz’s lament that “bleich und elend wankt umher die mut und führerlose Ritterschaft,” the knights showed no sign of degeneration or dejection at all. On the contrary, Amfortas’ supposedly disgruntled acolytes look much sharper than before with neat tunics and tall winged-helmets like lots of little Lauritz Melchior’s as Wotan.

Parsifal’s healing of Amfortas’ wound, which seemed to be connected to a botched frontal lobotomy, was managed by some invisible Harry Potter-ish expelliramus trick without the need for the holy spear. Kundry flipped the switch to light up the large lump of Apophyllite crystal representing the Grail before ambling out the back door, presumably having learnt her lesson not to laugh at crucified redeemers.

Not Even the Music Can Provide Sanity

The musical component was far less risible, but well below the standard one expects from the Wiener Staatsoper. Apart from Anja Kampe’s Kundry and Christopher Ventris as Parsifal, this was largely an ensemble performance of a work which demands singers of much higher caliber. The de-flowered flower maidens were not always of the first vocal bloom and junior knights and squires unexceptional. Conversely, the Wiener Staatsoper chorus were outstanding with “Zum letzten Liebesmahle” and “Nehmet vom Brot;” so stirring they could have converted Nietzsche.

Ryan Speedo Green is an unlikely name for the “fromme Held” Titurel and the young bass was unseen in his exhortation to “Enthüllet den Gral!” The voice sounded amplified but that was probably reasonable dramatic license.

Boaz Daniel was a vocally competent Klingsor but lacked the demonic menace for the malevolent magician. There was a bit too much careful vocalization and not enough ugly snarling.

Jochen Schmeckenbecher made his Staatsoper role debut as Amfortas and displayed reasonable dramatic commitment although less satisfactory vocal projection. The gentle lyricism necessary for “Recht so!  Habt Dank! Ein wenig Rast” was slightly stringent and the high sustained high D flats and E naturals on “Erbarmen! Erbarmen!” were unable to ride the orchestral tutti.

Gurnemanz is central to the drama and also has the most music to sing. Whilst kindly enough in a Dr. Gillespie manner, Kwangchul Youn was vocally not really up to the role. The low G naturals in “Titurel, der fromme Held” were invariably subsumed by the orchestra and the mezzavoce passages, such as the “durch Mitleid wissend” motiv, were pushed and unlyrical. In general, the upper range lacked potency exemplified by the high E natural at the end of “die letzte Last entnimm nun seinem Haupt!,” which was entirely swamped by the musicians.

Though There Is Some Relief

British tenor Christopher Ventris sung the title role in Bayreuth for three seasons in a row but the last occasion was eight years ago. Admittedly there is a lyrical timbre to the voice reminiscent of René Kollo or Siegfried Jerusalem, but like the Flower Maidens, the voice is no longer in its first bloom. The climatic moments such as the fortissimo high F on “Amfortas! Die Wunde!” were not particularly exciting and the characterization never really matured from the reine Tor to dignified Erlöser. 

Wagner’s most enigmatic character creation Kundry was sung by celebrated German soprano Anja Kampe, also making her house role debut. As an acclaimed Leonore in “Fidelio,” Kampe has the vocal clout to cope with the extended range and rapid dynamic shifts of Wagner’s score and her obvious musicality and clear diction ensured a dramatically convincing performance. “Ich sah das Kind” was sung with fine legato and the treacherous jump from top B to low A sharp on “Gottheit Erlanger” was as clarion at the top as it was resonant at the bottom. The scorching “Ich lachte” was not quite as manic as Waltraud Meier, but convincing nevertheless.

The Wiener Staatsoper orchester was directed by Semyon Bychkov and, as usual, gave a solid if not absolutely stellar performance. Perhaps they were numbed by the surgical sterility on the stage, but the overall playing was variable. The mystery and remoteness of the Vorspeil seemed slightly perfunctory although the “Verwandlungsmusik,” “Mittag”  interlude, and Good Friday music were more engaged. The tsunami of orchestral sound after Gurnemanz’ “die letzte Last entnimm nun seinem Haupt!” was certainly explosive. There were a few too many cracked horn entries, but winds were vertically pellucid and trumpets and trombones raw and raspy, particularly in the Grail scenes. Percussion, especially with the improvised droning “Parsifal” bell, was punchy and potent. The legendary Vienna string sound was generally evident, especially in cellos and violas. Bychkov wasn’t going to mollycoddle the singers and kept correct dynamic markings even at the risk of swamping the weaker voices. Tempi were generally uncontroversial although a little more Gatti  langsam and less Boulez schneidig would have been welcome.

In keeping with Alvis Hermanis’ medical metaphor, this production of “Parsifal” for the Wiener Staatsoper was for many in the audience already “Dead On Arrival.”


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