Parsifal is the final opera of Richard Wagner. It seems to be a fitting end to the career of a composer who pursued the theme of Erlosung durch Liebe (redemption through love) for life.
It was fitting that my first experience of the Bayreuth festival came to a conclusion on Saturday with the performance of Parsifal, conducted by Daniele Gatti and directed by Stefan Herheim (Bayreuth Festspiele, 15th August 2009).
During the Vorspiel (overture), the stage curtain was already open, and we saw a woman with long blonde hair dressed in white lying on a bed. Apparently she is in death agony. In Sehnsucht (yearning), she calls for her boy child. The boy, not understanding the nature of maternal emotion, refuses to be hugged by her and goes away into the garden with a bough in his hand.
Soon after the boy left, the mother dies. The doctor declares the death, and puts a sheet over her body. They leave the room, and the dead woman sinks into the bed and disappears.
When the boy returns, the room is empty. He looks at the bed where his mother has been lying. Still not comprehending what has been going on, he faces with unconscious misgivings a platform in the front of the stage which turns out to be an alter en effect throughout the performance. He lays bricks there, apparently forming a wall. However, the wall remains incomplete and in translation.
This brief description of what happens, in outline, during the course of the overture would do justice, I think, to the multitudes of possibilities that a stage director can put into a contemporary Wagner performance.
It was a production with a heavy resonance with the sometimes tragic modern history of Germany, with vivid and unforgettable images. The fact that an opera can bring solace to the soul of a nation by facing its history without any self deception is once again a testimony of the forces of a great piece of art.
Image from Parsifal directed by Stefan Herheim from Wagneropra.net