Richard Wagner: Parsifal (Baden-Baden Festspiel/Nikolaus Lehnhoff Production), with Christopher Ventris, Waltraud Meier, Matti Salminen, Thomas Hampson, Tom Fox, Bjarni Thor-Kristinsson, Festspielchor Baden-Baden, & Deutsches Symphonie-Orchestra Berlin, Kent Nagano, conductor. (3) Opus Arte DVDs: OA 0915 D (

Recently I saw a production of Le Nozze di Figaro that was set in a 1930s English Manor rather than in a 1790s Spanish castle. That was just fine. The story, characters, plot and action were all essentially unchanged.

Alas, that’s not the case with what has been happening with – or to (sic!) – Richard Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, over the past 30 or so years. In 1978, Harry Kupfer mounted a radically new staging in Copenhagen, with designs by Peter Sykora, that emphasized the human rather than the symbolic elements of the work. He also made a new ending in which Amfortas dies and Parsifal leaves the stage with the Grail and Spear, followed by Kundry.

Gunther Uecker’s Stuttgart production made Klingsor’s castle an Iron Maiden, a medieval instrument of torture, and the Flower Maidens were a Broadway-style musical chorus.

Bill Bryden’s production at Covent Garden set the action as an end-of-the term play in a boarding school.

Robert Wilson’s production at the Hamburg State Opera discarded all of Wagner’s stage directions. The singers were required to move slowly, with stylized gestures, accompanied by an extremely complex lighting plot. During the Transformation Music, a giant doughnut descended to mate with a pyramid. Nobody who saw it had any idea what it was about, but some thought it was unusually beautiful – which is, very often, what newcomers to the work experience anyway.

Last summer, I saw the new production of Parsifal in Bayreuth. Under the direction of German film bad-boy Christoph Schlingensief, there are no knights, no grail, no spear – and it makes no sense at all. The opera seems to be more about rabbits, Earth Mother, and voodoo than anything to do with redemption. Wagner’s libretto was basically incomprehensible against Schlingensief’s sets and costumes. Opera News called it “dramatic re-interpretation carried to lunatic extremity.” Alex Ross, in The New Yorker, summarized it simply as “god-awful.”

On DVD, there is Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s rather sophomoric reinterpretation, done in movie style with actors lip-syncing the singing. In this production, Parsifal is a sort of transsexual, at times male, at other times female, who finally embraces both aspects in the third act. I believe a high school drama class could have come up with better sets.

So it was with some eagerness and a lot of trepidation that I watched the Baden-Baden Festspiel/Nikolaus Lehnhoff production under discussion here. These are my impressions:

The second act is as fine as any I have seen or read about. Tom Fox, as Klingsor, is sensational – menacing, regal, cowering, and even – in a sense – almost human. Remember, he is a fallen Knight Templar of the Grail who got kicked out and who, in spite of his heinous, never-healing wound to Amfortas, has always wanted back in. As he describes Parsifal’s advance to his castle, one senses his almost gleeful sense of hope as his army is decimated and routed by Parsifal.

Waltraud Meier is almost at the top of her form, screeching and moaning as Klingsor wakes her from her deep sleep and sends her to seduce Parsifal, the young innocent. And she is really seductive in the Garden Scene, especially from a bit of distance. Her desperation when her kiss fails to entrap Parsifal in her embrace is palpable, and you almost feel sympathy for her. The flower maidens’ lilting melodies are as seductive as ever. Wagner’s music sees to that. But they are all dressed head to toe in gray robes with fluted cuffs that extend ten inches or so beyond their hands. I frankly prefer the diaphanously attired and bare-bosomed flower maidens I have seen in other productions. It seems that Lehnhoff’s idea was that the flower maidens, however seductive, are unable to touch Parsifal – they are beyond his susceptibility, as it were. Only Kundry could have the power and allure to seduce him. When she fails, she calls for help from Klingsor. Parsifal wrestles the spear from him rather easily. Wagner’s stage directions call for Klingsor to hurl the spear at Parsifal who catches it in mid-air. This bit of stage action has been a challenge since the 1882 Bayreuth production and has never yet been done effectively. The English subtitles are very good and guide the viewer through the action remarkably effectively. Again, the second act is very well done.

The first and third acts left me a little less satisfied. The Finish bass Matti Salminen (now 60), veteran of many great performances in Wagner roles, seemed tired and a bit stiff in his portrayal of Gurnemanz. The setting of the first and third acts is moved from the forest near Monsalvat to an entrance hall just inside the castle. Lehnhoff sees the opera as a portrayal of the failure of organized and dogmatic religion and a depersonalization of the human experience resulting from that failure. In the Eucharist Scene, the knights, with their backs to the audience, virtually attack Amfortas to force him to perform the sacrament. For them it is renewal, while for Amfortas it only reopens the wound he bears in his side – and neither cares a whit about the other.

Thomas Hampson is a strong Amfortas – his pain convincing. He is more lyrical than many who have sung this demanding role. Parsifal is Christopher Ventris. He is effective throughout all three acts. He portrays vocally and through his stage movements the change from the innocent, careless boy of the first act to the knowing and empathetic hero of the third. At the conclusion of the opera he turns the spear over to Gurnemanz. Amfortas takes the crown, which Parsifal toyed with in the first act, and places it on Parsifal’s head, after which he accepts happily the release of death he has so long yearned for. Parsifal takes the crown off his head and places it on the bones of the old hero Titurel. Kundry heads down the railroad tracks (!) that have appeared at Monsalvat in the third act. She beckons to Parsifal and he and a few knights follow her, leaving behind the old dead faith of the grail and walking toward a light outside the castle leading to… – something new and unknown – perhaps to a better way….

Kent Nagano’s conducting is knowing, wise, and Wagnerian through and through. His tempi are slow – not as slow as Knappertsbusch, but nowhere near the brisk tempi of Boulez at Bayreuth, which came in at barely three hours. This performance lasts about ten minutes under four hours.

There are extra features on this 3-DVD set. A cast gallery and illustrated synopses running twelve minutes are helpful and welcome additions. There is also a film by Reiner E. Moitz – 75 minutes long – that seems to me to have been thrown together on a rainy Sunday afternoon. It answers few questions, leaves several issues hanging in mid-air, and from my perspective is rather useless. Maybe I need to watch it again.

The recording is “high definition in sound & vision,” further defined on the labels as “LPCM stereo” and “dts digital surround” sound. This is true surround sound, for sure, and the picture and sound quality are unassailable. Opera DVDs are steadily getting better and better, and the added features are a plus, although some are more valuable than others. Though it does not equal being there, DVDs offer wonderful ways to experience the marvelous world of the grandest art of all. My suggestion would be to start an opera like this late in the afternoon. After the first act, stop and prepare cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Watch the second act, have supper, and then watch the final act with dessert. What an evening! And it’s even better with someone special or several friends to enjoy it with you!

Addendum*: I certainly should have mentioned Deutsche Grammophon’s excellent DVD featuring Weikl as Amfortas, Moll as Gurnemanz, Mazura as Titurel, and Jerusalem as Parsifal. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus are conducted by James Levine. The production is traditional and modeled on Wagner’s indications in the score and the example of the early Bayreuth productions. The only distraction is the “boinging” flowers in the third act. Apparently mounted on spring steel wires, when walked on they just bounce right back up. No big deal. This is a beautiful production with an outstanding cast following Levine’s passionate and measured conducting. If you want to see Parsifal as Wagner wrote it, this is the one to choose.

*Updated 11/4/05.