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  • Notes from the Stage: ParsifalAn Introduction
  • David J. Levin

The received history of Wagner stagings tends to focus on The Ring. The production history of Parsifal is less familiar although it is surely more contentious. For a short time, the question of how to stage the work was overshadowed by the question of where to stage it. Wagner's expressed desire to prohibit productions of the piece outside of Bayreuth resulted in a certain homogenization of the work's appearance on stage. The rejection of this homogenization was as forceful as it was predictable: indeed, when the Festspielhaus reopened in 1951, it was the stunning abstraction of Wieland Wagner's Parsifal that caused the greatest stir. And that was only the latest chapter in an unfolding history of the piece's controversial presence on stage. When Alfred Roller, then 70 years old, was called upon to design a new Parsifal for Heinz Tietjen at Bayreuth in 1934, the prospect of his reimagining the Master's Ur-vision unleashed a campaign of protest as astonishing for its vehemence as for its Byzantine bureaucratic organization. (Details of this history are recounted with great verve in Patrick Carnegy's Wagner and the Art of the Theatre.)1

If anything, Parsifal elicited even greater controversy in print than on stage. Nietzsche raised his famously vociferous objections to the piece early and often, but he was certainly not the first or the last to do so. Indeed, Nietzsche's venom was unusual in its pithiness, but not in its tone: from early on, Parsifal was a work that divided the polemicists, and in so doing, added fuel to already fiery inclinations. Over the course of its first hundred years, the work remained controversial in print: in 1978, the newly established journal Musik-Konzepte published a volume entitled "Richard Wagner: How Anti-Semitic May an Artist Be?" The final contribution to that already contentious volume was an extraordinarily vituperative essay by Hartmut Zelinsky that argued for an understanding of Parsifal as a work that at once staged and celebrated the expulsion and repudiation of Jews from Germany-as-Monsalvat.2 If the stage history of Wagner's work in the wake of Wieland's innovations in 1951 tended to steer clear of the question of reference, situating Parsifal's dramatic world in an aura of timeless religiosity, the polemicists continued to debate the very terms of that aura, asking whether religion was not serving here as an especially sinister opiate of the Volk.

While the controversy lived on in print, it appeared to have died down on stage by the time the centennial of Wagner's swan song rolled around in 1982. Thus, in spite of the theatrical provocation posed by Patrice Chéreau's centennial [End Page 345] Bayreuth Ring in 1976—or more likely, because of it—Götz Friedrich's 1982 production of Parsifal at Bayreuth was a decidedly underwhelming affair. Few but the most ardent Wagnerians will recall the production for its theatrical achievements: most critics tended to focus on the political fact and the glacial tempi of James Levine's conducting. But of course, Bayreuth takes place in the summer, leaving a few remaining months to that centennial year. And if the German press is to be believed, the centennial Parsifal took place at the Frankfurt Opera in December of 1982, conducted by Michael Gielen, designed by Axel Manthey, directed by Ruth Berghaus, and featuring Walter Raffeiner as a scruffy Parsifal, Gail Gilmore as a sultry and seductive Kundry, Manfred Schenk as a grimly Teutonic high-school professor Gurnemanz, John Bröcheler as a mummified Amfortas, and Tom Fox as a spookily corporatized Klingsor.

Berghaus was an enormously controversial director. A citizen of East Germany and widow of the composer Paul Dessau (who was, in turn, an important collaborator of Brecht's), Berghaus had trained as a dancer and choreographer. The controversy that surrounded her originated in the DDR: during her tenure as Intendant of Brecht's theater company, the Berliner Ensemble, between 1971-77, she repeatedly oversaw productions that offended the party's conservative cultural establishment. During this time, Berghaus became a protagonist in one of the characteristic tussles...


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