New and provocative production of Parsifal in Vienna

Vienna’s New Parsifal

Classic dramatic structure requires that a play feature a climax—a single moment in the action, necessary to the narrative, when the protagonist achieves self-awareness, accepts fate, and performs the action that the plot requires.  In Hamlet, it is the moment that prompts his declaration “The point envenomed too?  Then, venom, do thy work,” and fatally stabs Claudius.  In Macbeth, it is when the hero/villain realizes that McDuff was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped” and, knowing that the fates have decreed his defeat, nevertheless charges on, shouting “Then lay on, MacDuff, and damned be he who first cries hold, enough.”

Three attributes define the dramatic climax:  (a) a moment of self-realization for the protagonist (e.g., when Oedipus understands for the first time that he has unknowingly killed his father and slept with his mother); (b) a culminating act towards which the plot has been headed all along (e.g., when Biff confesses his love for his father Willy Loman); and (c) an acceptance by the protagonist of fate, or destiny, and a concomitant relinquishment of control in acknowledgement of greater powers (i.e., when Blanche DuBois submits to delusional insanity).

That moment, in Parsifal, comes when the hero extends the spear, touches Amfortas with its point, and declares “Sie heil, entsündigt und entsühnt!” (Be whole, forgiven and absolved!)  With these words, not only is Amfortas healed, but the entire community is absolved and made whole.  Parsifal acts as the agent of healing and forgiveness from guilt.  As Gurnemanz himself concedes, the noble community “bedarf des Heiles, des Heiles, das du brings!” (They need healing, the healing that you bring!)  He explicitly equates healing with forgiveness when, while empowering Parsifal through ritualistic cleansing, he pronounces “So weiche jeder Schuld Bekummerniss von dir!” (May guilt and remorse leave you forever!)

So Parsifal is about healing.  In the course of the action of the play, Amfortas’ wound is healed; the community’s dysfunction is resolved; Kundry’s curse stemming from her sin is put to rest; and Parsifal’s ignorance is converted to redemptive mitlied (feeling what others feel).  How provocative, then, that Alvis Hermanis’ production at the Vienna Staatsoper should open in a hospital, with a contemplative psychiatrist listening to the Act I prelude on a Victrola, and the patients awakening in a great room dominated by the words “Wagner Spital” (Wagner hospital).

This is an actual complex of buildings in the Steinhoff section of Vienna, named Sozialmedizinisches Zentrum Baumgartner Höhe – Otto Wagner Spital mit Pflegezentrum (Baumgartner Social Medicine Center – Otto Wagner Hospital and Care Center).  The compound of buildings includes a psychiatric hospital built in 1907 as well as a church, both designed by architect Otto Wagner (no relation).

The actual building is a perfect expression of Vienna fin de siècle, and Alvis Hermanis’ sets are breathtaking.  The massive and striking center candelabrum from the church plays an important role during the communion rituals in the first and final acts, and inspires wonder.  Moser’s stained glass and Otto Wagner’s striking angels, both taken from the building, add to the sense of aesthetic mysticism onstage.

Right off the bat, then, we are placed in a site where healing of disturbed minds is intended to take place.  And the power of that choice is not limited to the “pun” of a hospital named “Wagner” – it is that Viennese audiences recognize that the action of this evening’s play takes place not in some vague forest in some vague furs-and-horns time, but right here, and at one of the gloried moments of Viennese history, when Freud was working; Otto Wagner was designing the metro stations; Klimt, Schiele and Moser were painting and designing; Mahler, Berg, Schoenberg and Webern were composing; and von Hofmannsthal was writing.  The setting of this production invites the audience to watch something that pertains who they are, themselves.  It is not an allegory about someone else.

Two psychiatrists dominate the healing narrative of the drama.  One, Gurnemanz, is sedentary, contemplative, observant, compassionate.  The other, Klingsor, is inquisitive, alert to the rapidly developing science of mental illness, willing to experiment with electric shock as a therapeutic mechanism, perhaps unaware of the harm his experiments can cause his patients in forcing them to confront psychological truths that range from unpleasant to destructive.  Kundry is not the only patient who is subjected to the doctor’s electroshock therapies; Amfortas’ wounds are not in his side or groin, but on each temple, where Klingsor applies his electrodes.

Thus placed in an immediate and recognizable place, and the action thus sharpened to the theme of healing – a theme that is responsibly plucked from the work, not imposed from without – the narrative is rendered understandable, stripped of mythology.  Patient Amfortas suffers from guilt so severe that the entire patient community is affected.  Patient Kundry, in and out of the institution as her symptoms wax and wane, is riven with profound remorse of an undiscovered source that expresses itself equally in despair and sexuality, confounding the doctors until Klingsor’s radical (and perhaps only marginally humane) techniques bring it to surface.  Parsifal enters the hospital as if amnesiac, unable to report even the most basic understanding of who or where he is, unable to distinguish between what is kind and what is cruel, and bereft (it would seem) of even the ability to comprehend what is going on around him.

Each of these patients is made whole in the course of the narrative.  Through suffering, service and loyalty, Parsifal assumes preternatural powers of leadership, charisma and caring.  Kundry relieves herself of her crippling guilt and is able to leave the hospital confident and mature.  Amfortas perceives that he has been granted permission finally to release life.  Neither of the doctors fully understands how it happened, but both recognize that they were in some important way agents of healing, in service of a higher power so elusive that they can act only as vessels.

This production marks the role debut of Nina Stemme as Kundry.  Her musicianship by now has exhausted by vocabulary of praise.  Her performance in the role was fully committed and it took her to places one would fear to go.  In the Third Act, she seemed to try to explain so many things before arriving at the apt description of her final yearnings: dienen, dienen.  Upon being told by Parsifal that her guilt is removed, her weeping in relief caused me to weep in pity for her.  I would say I look forward to seeing her perform this role again, but I’m not sure I could bear the heartbreak.

Hans-Peter König was forced by illness to withdraw from the role of Gurnemanz at the eve of the first night, and René Pape sang the first two performances.  I attended the third, at which Kwangchuil Youn assumed the role and was greeted with clamorous and well-deserved acknowledgement of those attending.  Christopher Ventris as Parsifal and Jochen Schmeckenbecher creditably carried the roles of Parsifal and Klingsor.  Semyon Bychkov led the virtuosic Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper impeccably.  Of Gerald Finley, who pierced our heart as Amfortas, not much can be said after “perfection.”

An interpretation this probing is bound to have lapses of taste; foremost among them for me was Parsifal’s extraction of a 15-foot long toothpick from a gigantic model of a human brain.  But no matter.  This is exactly the kind of experience I treasure:  A responsible probing into the dramatic core, and contemporary implications, of one of the mysteries of Western music.

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