Considering that Richard Wagner never wanted Parsifal seen or heard anywhere outside the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, a recorded performance of the opera already assumes a breach of the composer's intentions. As such, there is ample reason to welcome the recent DVD release of the much-traveled production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, directed for television by Thomas Grimm and featuring an all-star roster of singers. Shunning fidelity to Wagner's stage directions, Lehnhoff's production offers a stark contrast to the only other available DVD of the opera, the strictly by-the-book Otto Schenk production for the Metropolitan Opera. (Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's adaptation is also available on DVD, but its status as a film, rather than a recorded performance, puts the work in a different category from the aforementioned releases.) With appearances at the English National Opera, the San Francisco Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, and Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu, this Parsifal may well have [End Page 375] been seen by more people around the world than any other interpretation of the work. And now, with a wide release on DVD of the production as seen at Baden-Baden, the Lehnhoff Parsifal has reached critical mass—or, depending on one's opinion, overexposure.
Some six years ago I was among the audience of this production's San Francisco incarnation, witnessing Parsifal for the first time, and finding myself completely taken by the performance and Lehnhoff 's conception. Considering my Jewish identity and an aesthetic orientation that favors the contemporary and the nonconformist, I have a hard time imagining what I would have thought of Wagner's opera if my first exposure to it had come via the droning, uncritical literalism of Schenk's production. The fact that a more rigorous interpretation of Parsifal may be for others what it was for me—their first visual encounter with a work they knew only as recorded music—could do a lot not just for the appreciation of Regietheater in non-European markets but also for alternative readings of a work too often presented as mere religious allegory.
So it was disheartening to discover that revisiting a production that had proved instrumental to my understanding of the work offered precious little in the way of revelations, and that several key concepts and ideas no longer rang quite as true as they did six years ago. My experience of the DVD was a lot like the disenchanting experience of rereading a beloved childhood book and losing in the process one's magical memories of it. Is it a matter of the DVD's failure to capture the production's "authentic aura," in Benjamin's terms, or is it simply a condition of the contingent relationship an interpretation has to its source text?
The DVD release certainly confirmed some of the successful aspects of Lehnhoff 's production. For one, the aesthetic realization of a Beckettian universe—or, as Lehnhoff states in his liner notes, "an endgame in the wasteland"— is superb, establishing and maintaining a convincing stage reality that borders on post apocalyptic science fiction without losing material ties to a recognizable world. Rubble and remnants of destruction litter the closed concrete walls of Montsalvat, as designed by Raimund Bauer, with a sizable meteor thrusting through the wall as the only vulnerable point in the fallout shelter/fortress. Parsifal, of course, emerges from this chasm in Montsalvat's foundation on his first entrance. When time becomes space, the meteor spirals upward and the solid, horizontal wall is replaced with a long, sloping surface, as if the floor, wall, and ceiling were one quarter of an endless Möbius strip. Scenic transformation halts after this point, and the set remains the basis for the following two acts. The lack of contrast between Montsalvat's and Klingsor's magic...