On my first trip to Bayreuth in the early 1990s, I remember wandering around the city and coming across a small memorial. A plaque explained that a troupe of entertainers had once come to town to perform a show of tricks and songs for the citizens of Bayreuth. After the show, the town's inhabitants were seized with wonder by one member of the company, a Moor. Never having seen someone of his color before, they were convinced he was dirty, so they took him away and gave him a bath. But how does one clean what it is not unclean? Or, to reframe the issue, how does one redeem what does not need redemption?
The racial, moral, and performative projection and misrecognition of symbolic meanings that this anecdote reveals are a major premise of Christoph Schlingensief's recent staging of Wagner's Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival. It is a production that enunciates the opera's questions about longing, suffering, compassion, and redemption, but it does not, pace Wagner, try to redeem the redeemer; nor does it try to redeem the unredeemed. Instead, the production aims for an inclusiveness that invites the viewer to consider whether issues of redemption and unredemption already presume the basis for a conflict more symbolic than real. [End Page 380]
Since the production premiered in 2004 to great notoriety—replete with stories of backstage conflict, a Parsifal who repudiated the production, and reports of anxiety on Wolfgang Wagner's part—many reviews have complimented the orchestra and singers while bemoaning the muddled meaninglessness of Schlingensief 's interpretation and the "trash" with which he strews the stage.1 Angela Merkel, for one, allegedly said to Schlingensief, "I find your production interesting, but do you really need all those videos?"2 However benevolent the question, wanting Schlingensief to clean up his act is reminiscent of saying that the Moor needs a bath—it bespeaks a desire to return Parsifal to a state of cleanliness which it never really offered in the first place. That this year is the third and reputedly last to see Schlingensief 's Parsifal is somewhat regrettable because the production is worth seeing and is often surprisingly modest in tone. Schlingensief reported to the press his pleasure at seeing the "zombies raging" in the Bayreuth audience, but the production itself seems designed to provoke more than simple consternation.3 However ambiguous his Parsifal is at times, it possesses moments of brilliance and represents a bravura attempt to grapple with Wagner's stage-consecrating swan song.
The curtain opens to reveal stars on a back scrim, twinkling behind the silhouette of a building that looks like an abandoned colonial mansion. Downstage are a watchtower, shack, and alleys lined with barbed wire radiating from the center of a large revolve. On the revolve, downstage center, stands a small crèche-like hut with rotating lights cast from a disco ball inside. From this tiny stage-within-a-stage Gurnemanz (Robert Holl)—red-bearded and dressed in a skin like some figure from an ancient German tribe—crawls out. As he awakens the other knights of the Grail, a female dwarf (Karin Witt, who often works with Schlingensief and who, along with the other supernumeraries, is not credited in press material) walks around the perimeter of the revolve, carefully shielding a candle to keep it lit. Thus Schlingensief 's Parsifal begins in a playful yet serious world of childhood myth set in twilight, with warm lamps dotting a ruined city—a world containing both the manger and the massacre of the innocents.4 As others have observed, Christmas and Easter fall on the same day here. It is a typological world where all time is space.
When Kundry (Evelyn Herlitzius) appears, she wears a helmet topped by a golden snakelike curve and a seemingly African costume of black pants and tunic...