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Boomer Bayreuth:
Wagner’s Parsifal at the Festspielhaus in 2018

Parsifal and Gurnemanz travelling through German history and entering the Grail Hall in Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s film of Parsifal – a truly outstanding presentation of the drama.

6,800 words / 39:17

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For a Wagnerian, seeing a performance at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (Festival House) – the theater that was built and established by Richard Wagner himself, with the financial support of Wagner Societies across Germany as well as King Ludwig II and the Bavarian state coffers in the 1870s – is the Holy Grail of Wagnerism, the pinnacle of the Wagner experience. But it’s not the easiest wish to fulfill, given that tickets are notoriously difficult to get, with fans often having to remain on waiting lists for years before the opportunity to purchase tickets arises. I was extremely fortunate, if not blessed by the spirit of Wagner himself, to be able to circumvent the entire process when an extraordinarily gracious friend offered me a ticket to see Parsifal on August 14 as a gift, and thus I gladly made the trip to finally experience Wagner in his own house.

Unfortunately, however, it is also well-known among Wagnerians today that the productions at Bayreuth are notoriously among the most “experimental” and modern, and often represent the worst examples of the phenomenon I described in my recent article on the production of Wagner’s Ring that I saw in Munich last month, in which producers come up with stagings so bizarre that they actually detract from being able to see the work in the way in which its creator would have intended.

Bayreuth undoubtedly leads the pack in this regard since they feel compelled to atone for the close relationship that the Festival had with the National Socialists, and particularly the close friendship that Wagner’s daughter-in-law, Winifred, enjoyed with Hitler himself, given that Hitler was a devoted Wagnerian who believed that he was carrying Wagner’s legacy forward into politics (“Whoever wishes to understand National Socialism must first know Wagner,” he has been quoted as saying). Ever since 1945, the Bayreuth Festival has continuously made efforts to expunge the memory of this association from the minds of the public – seeking redemption, if you will – which no doubt accounts for these attempts to recast Wagner in forms he himself would have found strange, if not disdainful. My generous friend, who has attended many performances there, assured me that this wasn’t an unfounded reputation, so my excitement at the fulfillment of a dream I’ve had for nearly thirty years, since listening to Wagner on CDs in my dormitory room, was tempered with a bit of dread as well. I decided not to read anything about the production before I saw it for myself, figuring that if it turned out to be too awful, I’d simply shut my eyes and use my imagination, as George Bernard Shaw once advised – more than a century ago – in regard to staging fiascos.

Of all of Wagner’s works, Parsifal is the one that it is most important to see at Bayreuth, given that it was the only one of his major works to be conceived and completed after the construction of the Festspielhaus, and he composed its score with the unique acoustics of the house in mind, so it is only by hearing it at Bayreuth that one can come closest to Wagner’s own intentions (which applies equally to recordings). Parsifal also occupies a special place in his oeuvre, given that Wagner did not term it a music-drama (his preferred term to opera) but a Bühnenweihfestspiel, or “Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage.” The other fact emphasizing the centrality of the work for Wagner is that he forbade it to be staged anywhere except for Bayreuth (although concert performances were allowed), an exclusivity that was honored for more than twenty years, until the Metropolitan Opera in New York put on a full production in 1903; as more and more unauthorized stagings followed, Bayreuth finally acknowledged reality and lifted the ban in 1914. Nevertheless, Parsifal remains the work of Wagner’s with the closest relationship to Bayreuth itself.

And also, simply by virtue of the fact that it was the last of Wagner’s works (he died only a year after its premiere in 1882), it represents the culmination of his dramatic and musical talents, and most scholars would agree that Wagner offered it to his legions of admirers and followers around the world as the distillation of a lifetime of thought and experience intended to show them the path forward, and as a cryptic manifesto of sorts containing his final statement to humanity and to the Germanic peoples in particular. Such was the devotion that Wagner inspired in many at the time that there were some half-hearted attempts to create an ersatz religion around Parsifal among Wagnerians in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, it is the most deeply esoteric of Wagner’s works, and analysts of all stripes have spilled a great deal of ink over the past 136 years in trying to discern deeper meanings in the work stemming from religion and the occult.

Anyone with a taste for Wagner can’t hear Parsifal without being deeply stirred at both the intellectual and emotional levels; there is a power to it that can’t be explained rationally. It has been described as “the most terrible music in the world,” as every bar of its music is suffused with sadness and the regret over loss, almost as if Wagner were transmuting the sense that primordial man must have felt when he found himself cast out of the harmonious natural world and into that of consciousness, henceforth forever separated from the sleepy certainties from which he sprang, and finding himself lost in the cold, man-made world of complexity and ambiguity. And yet it is sill strangely beautiful and uplifting despite that, with some of its music (especially in the brass) reflecting a powerful heroism in the face of it, and the drama as a whole certainly has the most unambiguously optimistic and fulfilling ending of all of Wagner’s works. Claude Debussy referred to Parsifal as “one of the most beautiful edifices in sound ever raised to the glory of music” – I can think of no better summation of the significance of the drama to me than that.

My friends and I arrived at Bayreuth a couple of hours early in order to look around, which for me was like reaching the Promised Land; I tried to imagine all the people, including Wagner himself, who had traversed this ground before me – aided by the giant bust of Wagner which keeps watch in the grounds before the house, and where a history of the Festival is offered in a series of plaques. This was further brought home for me upon sighting another plaque in the entrance hall, which features the names of the singers who performed in the very first production of the Ring Cycle in 1876, which inaugurated the house. Not even the garden before the house, which has been made into a Holocaust memorial for Bayreuth personnel who were involved in it, could pull me away from communing with the spirit of the place.

The author before the Festspielhaus.

The house itself was surprisingly smaller than I had imagined it – not that this detracted in any way from the performance, but I had been expecting it to be larger given that I knew that Wagner had wanted a house of his own for the reason that he found all of the existing houses of the nineteenth century to be inadequate for containing the scale of what he wanted in the staging as well as in the orchestration. But since I grew up accustomed to seeing performances at the Metropolitan Opera, which was completed in 1966 and thus built in the grandiose spirit of mid-twentieth century America, my expectations were unrealistic. There are also no frills to the house – other than a coat check and restrooms, there are no amenities; one has to go outside for food and drink or to visit the gift shop. Unfortunately we didn’t have the time to go to the Richard Wagner Museum, which is housed in what was Wagner’s home in the Villa Wahnfried nearby; I’ll have to save that for a future pilgrimage.

Soon enough, it was time for the performance to start (4 PM). As with my recent essay on the Munich Ring, for the purposes of describing the music-drama itself, I will assume that the reader already knows the story; if not, there are many places a synopsis is available, including at Wikipedia.

The Prelude to the First Act already demonstrated that this was going to be a strange production – but not so strange that I wasn’t going to give it a chance. The curtain rose on a stage where a number of people in modern clothes were sleeping on makeshift cots in the middle of what appeared to be a war-damaged church or a monastery of some sort, while an ethereal light beamed down from a hole in its ceiling onto the faces of one of the men, who looked up to gaze at it. It soon became apparent that this was Monsalvat, the home of the Knights of the Holy Grail. The cognitive dissonance got even stronger when a group of soldiers, sporting modern equipment and carrying assault rifles, passed through the scene on patrol. I immediately thought, “This is going to suck,” although fortunately that was the most out-of-place thing to occur in the First Act. The only people who looked like they belonged in the world of Monsalvat were the Knights of the Grail themselves, appropriately dressed in robes featuring crosses, who entered the stage to usher the sleepers away and prepare for the day, placing an enormous wooden crucifix against one wall.

The rest of the act proceeded relatively normally, although it became apparent that the setting for this production was the modern-day Middle East, most likely either Iraq or Syria – obviously a place where war is ongoing, and where there are Christians. When I thought this over, I realized that it wasn’t an inappropriate choice. After all, traditional Christianity is largely dead in the postmodern West today, so if there were to be a place where a band of fanatical Christian knights were to gather, it would likely be in the Middle East. The sleepers in the Prelude were clearly supposed to be refugees – no doubt put there to advertise how “different” the production was going to be, but also not out of place, given that a Christian monastery in a war zone would doubtless shelter locals in the spirit of charity. So, I decided to put aside my judgment for the time being and keep an open mind. And there are a few indications in the libretto itself that lend itself to such an interpretation: There are references to a healing potion brought to Amfortas from “Arabia,” and Parsifal’s name itself has been alleged to derive from Persian – “fal parsi” meaning “holy fool.” At least – or so it seemed thus far – the production seemed to be trying to stay true to the spirit of what Wagner had intended, even if in a very unorthodox manner. It cannot be denied that Parsifal is a Christian work, suffused with Christian symbols and rituals – so much so that it led to Nietzsche’s final break with Wagner, over what the former viewed as its glorification of asceticism, which he believed was decadent – even if it is a wholly unorthodox form of Christianity of Wagner’s own invention, replete with references to reincarnation, the undead, and magic.

When Kundry arrived, her dress was in keeping with the scenario – wearing a black chador and a headscarf. I thought at first that she was perhaps supposed to be a Muslim, but her hair was spilling out of it, and of course a Muslim woman has to keep her hair covered. I was reminded of one very old theory about Kundry, which is that she is in fact a Jewess – we later learn that she has been condemned to eternal servitude in order to atone for the fact that she laughed at Christ while he was being crucified, which, while not explicitly indicating that she is Jewish, certainly strongly implies it. This production, however, never made any definite reference to Kundry’s religious background.

The closest we came to finding out exactly where the drama was supposed to be set was when Gurnemanz led Parsifal into the Grail Hall, which it is implied in the libretto and the music is some sort of mystical journey – “Here time becomes space,” Gurnemanz informs Parsifal. In this production, I came to think of it as the “Google Earth” scene, as the producers decided to project a rather cheap-looking, digitally-produced sequence onto a screen in front of the stage in which the virtual camera flew out of the roof of the Knights’ monastery and rapidly went up into space while pointing downwards, allowing one to briefly glimpse its location on the Earth’s surface – no national borders were visible, but it did seem to be somewhere in the vicinity of the border between Iraq and Syria. We then flew past the planets and the Sun, and finally out into the stars, before finally going through the exact same sequence in reverse and winding up back where we started, as the screen rose for the arrival of the Knights for Holy Communion.  I have to say that, while it’s difficult to depict a mystical journey on a stage, this was the least convincing attempt I’ve ever seen, which seemed intended more to telegraph the fact that the production was set in the Middle East for those who were too dense to have figured it out already.

Elena Pankratova as Kundry, Günther Groissböck as Gurnemanz, and Andreas Schager as Parsifal all gave excellent turns during the First Act, but it was Thomas J. Mayer as Amfortas who really excelled, with his performance and the production combining to produce what everyone in our group agreed afterwards was the most powerful depiction of Amfortas’ despair and his opening of the Grail that we had ever seen. Amfortas’ undead father Titurel (here, oddly depicted as simply an old man with a cane), speaking from the grave, implored his son to “uncover the Grail” so that he and the Knights of the Grail could partake of Holy Communion, which it is implied gives them life-energy as well. Amfortas at first refused, wracked with self-loathing, before finally relenting and proceeding with the ritual. In most productions, it only seems that Amfortas hesitates because of his own death-wish, and perhaps because of his physical weakness due to his wound; but why he is so resistant to the idea of performing such a simple act is left vague. In this take on it, it is made very explicit: during the Communion, Amfortas, who was wearing a crown of thorns, stood on a pedestal and became afflicted with stigmata, blood pouring from his wounds – in other words, he must literally be crucified every time he unveils the Grail. The Knights then took chalices and filled them with the blood to drink – this is how they take Communion. Amfortas finally collapses from the pain and the effort of the ordeal (and presumably blood loss). In an interesting touch, Gurnemanz offered Parsifal a chalice, but he turned away from it in disgust. For all of its other flaws, I must give credit to the production for highlighting the nature and degree of Amfortas’ suffering in such a visceral way, and also to Mr. Mayer, who really gave a powerful and impressive performance that shook me to my soul. It really made Amfortas seem less like a petulant child, as he can appear in some other productions, and rather as a literal sacrificial lamb who is trapped in the role of having to subject himself to indescribable pain for the sake of others, who do little more than coldly accept his sacrifice. In a sense, it almost made the Knights seem like vampires – precisely like the relationship Christians have with Christ, according to their own doctrine.

From the 2016 performances.

And thus, the First Act was concluded. A tradition arose at Bayreuth dating back to Parsifal’s premiere – apparently stemming from a misunderstanding resulting from Wagner telling the audience that the cast would take no curtain calls until the end of the performance, in order to maintain a sacral mood – that no one applauds after the First Act, a custom that has often been honored at opera houses all over the world as well as at Bayreuth itself. I was therefore surprised at this performance when most of the audience burst out into applause at the end of the act, with only a minority – including myself – stubbornly keeping our hands in our laps. Given that Parsifal’s last act is set on Good Friday, some houses perform it each year on that day, including the Hungarian State Opera in Budapest, where I have had the honor of seeing the performance on each occasion for the past five years. Just before the opera begins in Budapest, the house always projects a request in both Hungarian and English onto the curtains requesting that the audience “honor the tradition” by not applauding after the First Act. It was strange to me that Bayreuth would not itself follow the custom that was actually started there – but as I was to learn, that was to be one of the lesser offenses of the evening.

After indulging in Bavarian tradition by enjoying some superb beer and bratwurst at one of the many food stalls outside the house, we returned for the Second Act. This act kept to the Middle Eastern theme, but immediately went in an interesting direction: Klingsor as the leader of ISIS (not literally, but certainly some type of jihadi organization). When he was first seen on stage, Klingsor was quite clearly praying in the Muslim fashion, complete with prayer rug. As he bullied Kundry into complying with his command to seduce the approaching Parsifal, a bound Grail Knight sat helpless besides them, presumably captured by Klingsor’s soldiers, and when he was angry with Kundry he would threaten the Knight with decapitation by holding a knife to his throat. Klingsor’s warriors were shown dressed all in black, with scarves covering their faces apart from the eyes – just like modern-day jihadis.

When Parsifal arrived on the scene, he appeared alongside a patrol of soldiers, and Klingsor and his men went into hiding. Parsifal, like the other soldiers seen in the production, was dressed like a modern-day GI and carrying a rifle, but whether he was supposed to be American or of some other nationality was unclear as there was no insignia on his uniform. He might have been American, or perhaps part of either the Syrian, Iraqi, or Kurdish armies, or a soldier from one of the “coalition” forces – in the end, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. When the Flower Maidens first appeared, they were dressed in chadors and face-covering niqabs; as they attempted to seduce him, they stripped these off and were revealed to be wearing belly-dancers’ costumes, and led Parsifal into a Turkish bath. (Fortunately, although incongruously, the Maidens themselves, like most of the other performers in this production, were clearly European and not of any Middle Eastern ethnicity – I suppose that, even now, there’s a dearth of immigrants in German opera circles . . .) This isn’t very far-fetched, as there have been reports that ISIS uses the lure of sexual gratification to help attract fighters to its cause and forces women into prostitution for this purpose (not that the Flower Maidens seemed to be coerced in any way). Klingsor watched from a hidden chamber overlooking the scene where he kept dozens of crosses – presumably taken from the Grail Knights he had captured and converted to his forces – and at one point even began flagellating himself. I wasn’t sure what this was supposed to indicate about him; perhaps he was getting turned on by watching the seduction, and needed to overcome his desires? Or maybe it was just intended to make him seem more disturbing. To my knowledge, self-flagellation has only ever been a practice for atonement among Shi’a Muslims during the holy day of Ashura, but not something done on an individual basis for personal spiritual development as in traditional Catholicism. I assumed that, in the universe of the production, Klingsor had originally been a Christian Grail Knight who had failed and converted to Islam instead – so was this supposed to be some remaining vestige of his earlier Christian practices? Who knows? When Parsifal finally overcame Kundry’s wiles and killed Klingsor, he did it by shooting him with his rifle – Parsifal as Navy SEAL, I suppose.

From the 2016 performances.

On one level, it did seem rather ridiculous and trite to draw an allegory with current events that was so literal, but at the same time, I was pleasantly surprised that the producers would dare to cast Muslims so obviously in the role of the villains of the piece. So even at this point, I wasn’t yet ready to give up on the production, weird as it was. But a premonition was gnawing at the back of my mind. During the second intermission, I told my companions that, given that the German press hadn’t denounced the production for inciting racial hatred upon its premiere in 2016, obviously something really terrible was going to happen in the Third Act to turn the allegory on its head and bring it into line with neoliberal values. And indeed – and unfortunately – I was correct.

Parsifal and Kundry in Klingsor’s clutches.

When the Third Act opened, it took the unusual step of portraying Gurnemanz and Kundry as being greatly aged – so much so that Gurnemanz appears in a wheelchair. I suppose this was done to emphasize the length of time that had passed since the Second Act. And there was something that tugged at my heartstrings at seeing two old friends, meeting again in old age, comforting one another with lifetimes of experience behind them. When Parsifal appeared, he was also dressed in desert warrior fashion, complete with face-covering scarf – which here made sense, given that Gurnemanz informs Parsifal (before he recognizes him) that concealing one’s face is not permitted in Monsalvat. So far, so good – nothing too bizarre had happened.

But starting with the famous “Good Friday Spell” music, the production gradually spiraled down into liberal idiocy. I’ve used the term “Boomer” in the title of this essay, but of course this term doesn’t have the same valence in Germany that it has in America, so it would be more accurately described as “’68er” values that were on display. For no apparent reason, it began raining outside Monsalvat, and naked men and women appeared, dancing in the rain. Needless to say, this has absolutely nothing to do with the story as written in the libretto, and doesn’t even make sense within the context of the production; if adult men and women began dancing naked in the streets in Syria or Iraq, one suspects that at best they would be arrested, and at worst would be stoned to death. All I could figure was that the producers wanted to show that, with the redemption of the Knights of the Grail at hand, we were supposed to understand that all limits had been lifted and now libertinism would prevail – 1968 ideals realized, indeed. I suppose this is the utopia imagined by our cultural elites these days.

The redeemer redeemed. Can you dig it, man? (From the 2016 performances.)

After several minutes of flopping breasts and penises in the background, matters got even worse when, for no apparent reason, extras began gathering on the stage, including two black boys, one of whom did nothing but stand there and grin moronically while holding hands with a white girl. Given that neither Iraq or Syria has a significant black population, this also didn’t make sense even within the context of the production; it was obvious now that all pretensions towards realism were being thrown to the wind and that the producers simply wanted to hit us over the head with their multicultural message. But after a few minutes, the nudists and blacks quit the stage; I chalked this up to Bayreuth’s need to prove that it’s no longer Nazi, and I dared to hope that that had been the worst of it, and that now we could get on with the powerful concluding scene without any more distractions.

I was to be disappointed. The worst was yet to come.

When the Knights of the Grail gathered for what they believed was to be their final Communion, they gathered on one side of the stage while on the other was a crowd of people representing all of the other religions: Jews wearing yarmulkes, Muslims holding Qur’ans, and others holding crosses and what appeared to be Buddhist and Hindu icons. In other words, members of all the world’s great religions were on the stage, angrily imploring Amfortas to perform his office for the last time. (The Jews, of course, were placed at the front of the crowd in order to be the most visible; I imagined a list that the producers might have been keeping while planning the staging: “Checklist of things that would have angered Wagner that must be featured. Dancing, naked hippies? Check. Interracial couples? Check. Jews on the stage? Check.”) This wasn’t too troubling at first, however, as it wasn’t clear in what direction it was going in. And I have never seen another production of Parsifal where Amfortas was portrayed so strongly as a victim; again, as in the First Act, he was expected to sacrifice himself for the benefit of the believers. This was an interesting portrayal, it cannot be denied. Although, oddly enough, Kundry disappeared after Gurnemanz and Parsifal entered the Grail Hall and never appeared in the final scene. This seems to be a trend among modern productions. According to Wagner’s libretto, when Parsifal becomes the Grail King and redeems Amfortas, he redeems Kundry as well, releasing her from her curse, which causes her to die, her long suffering at an end. (Some commentators have remarked on the fact that if Kundry is indeed to be understood as Jewish, it is noteworthy on a symbolic level that Wagner believed that the only way for her to redeem herself was to die.) This seems to make modern producers uncomfortable; the idea of redemption through death, especially in the case of a woman – and possibly a Jewess – in a “patriarchal” system, troubles them, and often Kundry is simply left standing on the stage with everyone else at the end.

From the 2016 performances.

But things at last exceeded my capacity for forgiveness when Titurel’s coffin was brought forth, and, near the drama’s conclusion, all of the people on stage came forward with their various religious paraphernalia and placed it in the coffin, proceeding to lock arms to sing the final bars together. This is where I actually got angry and was no longer able to focus on the sublime beauty of the music. This was Boomer ideology, pure and simple: The final message of the drama was that we all just need to give up on religion, become good secular humanists, and “just get along.” Parsifal himself appeared dressed in a suit without a tie; some of my friends observed that perhaps, as he is becoming the King, this reveals what the producers see as the redeemer of the post-religious world: the businessman. This way of ending was so idiotic and trite, and so much against Wagner’s intentions, that I inwardly lost it. In desperation, I closed my eyes and tried to just focus on the glorious music of redemption – which usually makes me feel redeemed myself – but I couldn’t; my anger was too great, and anyway, my curiosity got the better of me and I couldn’t resist peeking to see what was happening on stage. The ending of what I had hoped would be a transcendent experience was ruined, and instead of exiting the theater with a sense of something higher, I left simply feeling annoyed. I somehow brought myself to applaud, but it was for the sake of the performers, not the production. (This Parsifal has been released on DVD and a trailer for it is available online, if you want to get a taste of it for yourself.)

I had purchased a copy of the program when I first arrived, but I didn’t bother to look at it until afterwards; if I had, I would have been forewarned about what to expect. On the very first page – in German, French, and English – was a quote from the Dalai Lama in huge letters: “On some days I think it would be better if there were no religions.” There was also an interview with the producer, Richard Lorber, who attempted to justify his choices. He stated that it is a “pan-religious work, or a postreligious work, a work that goes beyond religion and that at the same time explores the origin of religion.” Interestingly, the interviewer brings up the fact that Markus Söder, the current Prime Minister of Bavaria, recently decreed that crosses must be hung in all Bavarian state offices. In reply, Lorber said:

Of course, it is about the symbolism of what some associate with the term leading culture and about AfD (Alternative for Germany) voters. . . . Our world would break apart. Söder could come to our Parsifal . . . and think about whether it is not better, in the end, once we have suffered through, acted through and thought about the cross, to let it rest for awhile in everyday life with the other religious symbols, so that we can concentrate on humane politics.

Here, Lorber was clear about his intent. He was indeed foisting ‘68er, anti-Rightist ideology onto the work. In that sense, it is yet another example of an artist using state funds for ideological purposes by attacking the Right – something AfD politicians have been complaining about since the last German election – even if Lorber was constrained by Wagner’s text to do it more subtly and less insultingly than many dramatists elsewhere in Germany have been doing recently.

It is certainly not the case that Wagner was promoting some specific branch of Christianity with Parsifal; as many commentators have pointed out, the rituals he presents in it are reminiscent of actual Christian rites, but he made them uniquely his own. Some have also detected Buddhist and pagan elements in the text – which is well within the range of possibility given that Wagner was interested in all religions, and had even intended to compose a music-drama based on the life of the Buddha. Nevertheless, it is certainly not the case that Wagner regarded Parsifal as a humanist or as an anti-religious work. Indeed, he insisted on its Christian character. At Parsifal’s premiere in 1882, a Jewish conductor, Hermann Levi, was assigned to conduct it given that he was the conductor at the Munich Opera and Bayreuth was being funded by King Ludwig II and the Bavarian state. Wagner requested that Levi at least be baptized before the premiere; he refused. When voicing his objections to Ludwig, he referenced the problem of having what he considered “this most Christian of works” conducted by a Jew. This doesn’t suggest to me that Wagner thought of it as a “postreligious work,” as Lorber said. (During the final performance in 1882, Wagner insisted on taking the baton out of Levi’s hand and conducting the rest himself from the “Transformation” scene in the first act onwards, telling him, “You should have been baptized.” Nevertheless, Levi and Wagner were friends, and Levi was even to remark that he believed that “Wagner is the best and noblest of men.”)

It is also clear in Wagner’s writings that he thought of himself as a Christian artist, if of an unorthodox type, and that he held Protestant Christianity to be superior to all other religions – he writes this explicitly in his essays “Religion and Art” and “Hero-dom and Christendom,” in the latter even taking the Christianity of the Roman Empire to task for encouraging racial mixing and thus leading to the downfall of Rome. And he begins “Religion and Art” thus:

One might say that where Religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for Art to save the spirit of religion by recognising the figurative value of the mythic symbols which the former would have us believe in their literal sense, and revealing their deep and hidden truth through an ideal presentation. Whilst the priest stakes everything on the religious allegories being accepted as matters of fact, the artist has no concern at all with such a thing, since he freely and openly gives out his work as his own invention. But Religion has sunk into an artificial life, when she finds herself compelled to keep on adding to the edifice of her dogmatic symbols, and thus conceals the one divinely True in her beneath an ever growing heap of incredibilities commended to belief. Feeling this, she has always sought the aid of Art; who on her side has remained incapable of higher evolution so long as she must present that alleged reality of the symbol to the senses of the worshipper in form of fetishes and idols, – whereas she could only fulfil her true vocation when, by an ideal presentment of the allegoric figure, she led to apprehension of its inner kernel, the truth ineffably divine.

Wagner goes on to write:

In this respect we can but regard it as a sublime distinction of the Christian religion, that it expressly claims to bare the deepest truth to the ” poor in spirit,” for their comfort and salvation whereas the doctrine of the Brahmins was the exclusive property of “those who know” – for which reason the “rich in spirit” viewed the nature-ridden multitude as shut from possibility of knowledge and only arriving at insight into the nullity of the world by means of numberless rebirths. That there was a shorter road to salvation; the most enlightened of the “Reborn” himself disclosed to the poor blind Folk: but the sublime example of renunciation and unruffled meekness, which the Buddha set, did not suffice his fervid followers; his last great doctrine, of the unity of all things living, was only to be made accessible to his disciples through a mythic explanation of the world whose wealth of imagery and allegoric comprehensiveness was taken bodily from the storehouse of Brahminic teachings, so astounding in their proofs of fertility and culture of mind. Here too, in all the course of time and progress of their transformation, true Art could never be invoked to paint and clarify these myths and allegories; Philosophy supplied her place, coming to the succour of the religious dogmas with the greatest refinements of intellectual exposition.

It was otherwise with the Christian religion. Its founder was not wise, but divine; his teaching was the deed of free-willed suffering. To believe in him, meant to emulate him; to hope for redemption, to strive for union with him. To the “poor in spirit” no metaphysical explanation of the world was necessary; the knowledge of its suffering lay open to their feeling; and not to shut the doors of that, was the sole divine injunction to believers.

These are clearly not the words of a “pan-religionist” or of somebody who believes we should all just become secular humanists. For Wagner, art was sacred; it was an aid to the religious and the spiritual, not its refutation or substitute. As I said in my essay on the Munich Ring, a production should at least be formulated in the spirit of the original, even if not to the letter. From this most fundamental perspective, given what we know of Wagner’s intentions, the current Bayreuth Parsifal is a failure – as much as it pains me to say that. It is even more difficult to admit when one remembers that Wagner’s descendants continue to supervise these abominations. Since 2008, two of Wagner’s granddaughters, Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, have been in charge of the festivals; whether they truly embrace what is going on in their father’s house, or if they simply go along with it out of political expediency, cannot be known. Regardless of their true feelings, it’s disappointing that keeping the Festspielhaus in the family has done nothing to protect it from trends which Wagner himself would have despised – but such has been the fate of all of German culture since 1945.

Given what I’ve seen, I could not in good conscience recommend to a newcomer to Wagner to see a Bayreuth production; it would simply be too confusing and give one a wrong idea about the works as they were intended. Hardcore Wagnerians, however, will go anyway, simply because it is Bayreuth, just as I did. While I’m grateful to have had the chance to see a performance there, I am equally grateful for the fact that I have the opportunity to see Parsifal at the Hungarian State Opera each year – an extremely minimalist and conservative production with not an odd thing to be seen anywhere. Really, it offers everything that one should expect, and it remains my personal gold standard; the closest to the ideal that I’ve seen. It’s been produced every year since the early 1980s for Good Friday, and I hope they never change it (fingers crossed). Indeed, many Wagnerians I have spoken with – including myself – have voiced their longing for the days of when Wagner’s son, Wieland Wagner, ran the Festival. In his famous post-war productions, he emptied the stage of all but the most essential props in order to allow audiences to figure out for themselves what the dramas were actually about, using light and shadow instead of physical objects to create his settings, inspired by the theories of the Swiss German theater director Adolphe Appia. If we can’t have Parsifal staged as it was written, a return to minimalism might be the best way to satisfy both the traditionalists and the avant-gardists.

A photograph from Wieland Wagner’s production of Parsifal.

My disappointment with the production in no way reflects on the orchestra or the performers. I was impressed by all of the singers, and every note in the orchestra was just as it should be (even if I prefer somewhat slower tempos, as exemplified by some of Hans Knappertsbusch’s celebrated Bayreuth recordings of this music-drama). Mr. Mayer will likely remain my favorite Amfortas for the foreseeable future. It’s just a pity that their talents weren’t supported by an equally superb staging. For Wagnerians who have never been to Bayreuth, however, I can report that its legendary acoustics deserve their reputation. Whenever a sound is made anywhere on the stage, it is easily heard all over the house; this was exploited to great effect most especially during the choral segments, when several groups of singers are being heard from different directions, lending the rituals of the Knights of the Grail an appropriate ethereal atmosphere. And I’m not sure what nineteenth-century technical wizardry enables the orchestra, which per Wagner’s instructions has always been covered so that the audience isn’t distracted by it and will focus only on the stage (if Wagner were alive today, he’d surely be a film director), to be heard so clearly in spite of this obstacle, but one can discern no difference between it and the sound in a “normal” house. So, speaking as a longtime Wagnerian, if you can stomach the PC productions, it’s still worth your while to try to hear a performance there, even if you end up sitting there with your eyes closed the entire time.

Foreigners should be aware that there are no English, or any other, surtitles at Bayreuth – apparently there is some attempt being made to maintain the Festival as Wagner envisioned it. Likewise, the older custom that all audience members must wear tuxedos has been dropped; a suit is sufficient these days, although thankfully I saw no blue jeans or T-shirts, as I’ve seen at other houses these days. There’s no air conditioning, but thankfully, there is no stigma against men taking their jackets off during the performance.

In conclusion, when it comes to this production itself, all I can say is that I eagerly await next Good Friday, when I can see the Budapest Parsifal again and put the memory of this heresy firmly out of my mind. Politically and culturally, Hungary remains more truly European than all of the supposedly “great” Western European states in our day and age. As such, I suppose it is appropriate, if somewhat tragic, that the Hungarians are now performing German works more aptly than the Germans – still self-flagellating, just like Klingsor in this imagining – are themselves.

Parsifal at the Hungarian State Opera in Budapest.

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