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Wilson!Wagner JohannesBirringer Parsifal Hamburg State Opera (1991) Houston Grand Opera PLANS TO DIRECT Wagner's last music drama were made by Wilson as early as 1981, the year in which he would embark on his most ambitious project to date, the global 12-hour opera the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down. Preparations for the staging of Parsifalat the Kassel State Theatre had to be canceled, however, and three years later the premiere of the full CIVIL warS epic, encompassing separate national Acts (produced in Germany, Holland, France, Italy, Japan and the U.S.), also failed to materialize at the Los Angeles Olympic Arts festival. But Wilson has worked in all those countries meanwhile, and his creative achievements over the years have been formidable indeed. With his unique visual style firmly established, it was perhaps inevitable that he would increasingly seek the challenge to re-envision textual drama (cf. the recent stagings of Ibsen and Shakespeare, and Danton's Death currently in rehearsal ) as well as grand opera (a Mozart and a Wagner cycle scheduled for 1991-92). Thus, he returned to the story of the Holy Grail, also the story of a wound, of guilt that needs to be redeemed, of a prophecy that will be fulfilled. It is remarkable that Wilson, who generally resists interpreting literary texts, would be drawn to directing Shakespeare's King Lear and Wagner's Parsifalin Germany where these works are cultural monuments shrouded in a weighty history of re-interpretation. I should add that this re-interpretation reached a further dimension in 1991 when a few months after 62 Wilson's Wagner production at the Hamburg State Opera (co-produced with Houston Grand Opera) the Berlin Akademie der Kiinste presented a large exhibition, "Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit," to examine the correspondences between Wagner's music drama and symbolist painting, sculpture , and poetry. I had to think of the Berlin exhibition, titled after Gurnemanz 's explication of the sanctified Grail Hall to the young Parsifal ("Here Time becomes Space"), when I saw Wilson's inspired production during its Houston Grand Opera premiere, under conductor Christoph Eschenbach in February 1992. Or should I say: when I heard Wilson's production in its grandiose rendering by the Houston Symphony and a cast whose outstanding vocal performers included Dunja Vejzovic (Kundry ), Harry Peeters (Gurnemanz), John Keyes (Parsifal), and Monte Pederson (Amfortas)? After having observed the baroque and eclectic tendencies in Wilson's opulently imagistic and architectural theatre stagings of the last decade, the severe minimalism of his Parsifalcame as a welcome shock since it allowed me to listen to Wagner's unending melody without the distracting clutter and kitsch that is normally piled onto the mythic realism of opera staging conventions. It also avoided the tiresome literal mindedness of the set builders who imitate earlier Bayreuth productions (cf. Otto Schenk's 1991 staging at the Met). Paradoxically, the Houston Parsifal was so penetrating musically because it was designed to be a spatial experience of time, space becoming time and opening out into the excruciating prolongations of Wagner's Grundthemen. It is the very attenuation of inexplicable longing in the musical motifs that seems to be the equivalent of the protracted, indeterminate motion in Wilson's visual landscapes . The space Wilson created for the orchestral prelude, a translucent watery expanse (lined scrims in front of a tilted metallic platform and a huge white rectangle upstage) coming into a liquid light through a slow and hallucinatory sunrise, set the painterly tone for the 5-hour "stageconsecrating drama," as Wagner called it after laboring over the problem of how to invent "the invisible theatre," having already removed the orchestra from sight. Some musicologists have struggled over this, too, arguing for the predominantly musical quality ofParsifalas the most abstract or symphonic of all Wagner's scores, almost as if its introversion were a rite of purification itself, during which the characters of the narrative melted into pure music. Such romantic views tend to deny the concentrated union of music and language in Wagner's scores, however, and I was curious as to how Wilson would subvert this union, given his discomfort with the...


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