Sunday, April 4, 2010

Superb Parsifal in Stuttgart

Johann Tilli, Christiane Iven and Andrew Richards

Director Calixto Bieito
Conductor Manfred Honeck

Gurnemanz Johann Tilli
Amfortas Gregg Baker
Parsifal Andrew Richards
Klingsor Claudio Otelli
Kundry Christiane Iven
Titurel Matthias Hölle
1. Gralsritter Heinz Göhrig
2. Gralsritter Mark Munkittrick
Vier Knappen Yuko Kakuta, Diana Haller, Torsten Hofmann, Hans Kittelmann
Blumenmädchen Julia Borchert, Petra van der Mieden, Tina Hörhold, Yuko Kakuta, Agata Wilewska, Michaela Schneider

In their press release the Staatsoper in Stuttgart announced this new production with the following text:
After his staging of “Der fliegende Holländer”, based around the theme of the economic crisis, in “Parsifal” it is a spiritual crisis that forms the core of Bieito’s concept. According to the director, the artificial religion Wagner created by borrowing various religious motifs is fatal: “The person of Parsifal is a new symbol of this empty religion, he is just a new victim being formed into a new Amfortas”.

For Bieito, Wagner’s libretto shows obsessed characters, which are exposed to manipulation through guilt and harm– there is no possibility of salvation in afterlife. Love and trust in this life alone can convey security and confidence. In that way one gains responsibility and respect for one’s environment and one’s own life. Parsifal becomes aware of his responsibility during the stages of his “aventure”. “In the end”, Bieito says, “the light will come from within ourselves”.

Inspired by the novel “The Road” by American author Cormac McCarthy, Bieito’s Parsifal is confronted with the remains of civilisation. The protagonists in the novel, father and son, wander through post-apocalyptic, deserted and desolate America. Accordingly, Bieito sees Parsifal set in an apocalyptic scenery. 
That pretty much resumes the essence of this show. If you combine it with the interview Calixto gave in the video that I posted here the other day, you have all the necessary information to fully enjoy the show, to admire the extraordinary talent of the director, his patience with details and the capacity to make a show in which everything happening on the stage is important and relevant to the story.

After having seen this show I believe "I broke the secret" of Calixto Bieito's productions: they would be very good theater even if there was no singing nor music involved. The music and the singing are incorporated and superbly fit the dramatic action giving the Wagnerian opera a good name. That's how you do justice to an opera by Wagner. Calixto is a genius; he knows how to shake the singers/actors and bring the best out of them and they make the show take off and carry you on with it.

This is how the show begins. I, of course, didn't take any photo during the show. They are available on the StuttSO-website. See also HERE for a good slide-show.

The show begins in the ruins and ashes. It's "the end of history". The survivors live in hordes, with nothing to glue them together, with no elementary moral values... A complete desolation in this remaining pocket of humanity. You can follow the story in that futuristic speculative socio-environment, but for the story of Parsifal you can make an abstraction and situate it not far ahead from our times. Very distant future or just around the corner -- it works either way.

Gurnemanz is a big manipulator who needs the Messiah, a hero for the horde to worship [I'll call it "Messiah" although no specific reference to the Christian religion is made by Bieito]. He needs a Messiah to satisfy the religious needs of the people and he would free him the way to manipulate/exploit that same people too.

Titurel is an old, obsolete, retired, and grotesque Messiah, who will be brutally assassinated in Act 3 (by an ax in a bathtub/coffin). Amfortas, instead, is a current "hero": a tired Messiah. He's not dying in pain. His religion is tired, he realizes that his role is larger than himself and he's depressed.

For the Holy Communion he's standing on the ruined highway and reveals the Grail, which is just a huge bag of religious objects that is dropped down to the crowd. The crowd adore those objects for a little while, but it soon becomes clear that they too are tired/bored, that those objects do not bear the same significance they used to. They end up with banners filled with empty-headed mantras in all languages (some of them very funny actually!) to compensate the lack of depth of significance of the religious objects. The veil of doubt is however all over them and the dominant banner is the one containing the killing question "Where is God?" This failure to make an effect on the crowd by the Grail will crush Amfortas, send him to a deep depression, and  he will never reveal the Grail again.

Gurnemanz is the one who's the most worried because he needs a Messiah, he needs the magic of the Grail to work in order to rule over the people.  He thus needs somebody to replace Amfortas.

This is the messy state of the stage after Act 1 ;) 

With this you may now easily reconstruct the rest of the story. Gurnemanz saw in Parsifal a new Messiah, but he soon realized Parsifal was inapt and chased him away. Later on, in Act 3, Parsifal will return and  will become a new hero, a new Messiah. He will jump in the bathtub/coffin and the cheery crowd --who gruesomely assassinated Titurel in that same coffin/bathtub only a dozens of minutes before-- will carry/celebrate the new hero on their shoulders.

The Good Friday scene in Act-3 is excellent at every possible level: Kundry will come with a bag full of religious objects [the crucifix,  Hanukkah Menorah, kur'an, little Buddha,..., AND a little statue/bust of Wagner - which made me laugh out loud! How is that for self-deprecating humor?;)] She will hang each one of them on Parsifal who is now worthy of all those symbols and larger than them all.

To wash Parsifal's feet Kundry starts spitting in her hands. Gurnemanz is old and blind, but he's well aware of the importance of the moment and  he brings a bottle of water from his stash. Exactly at that moment (Kundry spits and rubs Parsifal's foot) Gurnemanz says "Nicht so!" and passes the bottle to her. LOL!

All the actors are on the stage with a specific purpose. There is nobody stuck and wait to sing his/her own part. Parsifal is present on stage long before he starts singing... This is what makes the role extra-tough to sing in this particular production.

I wouldn't comment on Act-2 yet, as I'm still processing that part. Klingsor is spitting fire all over the place, full of sexual frustration and rage. There is a very gory episode in which Parsifal slit the throat of one of the Blumenmaedchen.  That apparently made a good dozen of people leave the show after the Act 2...

The stage before Act 3 [c.f. the shopping cart on your left -- the best platform for Good Friday ;) ]

It's not all about Bieito and his superbly coherent, and extraordinarily well structured interpretation of Parsifal that contains a number of messages to us and now.  It would be unfair not to put on equal footing the awesome performance of the orchestra and maestro Manfred Honeck, who now --after his Rosenkavalier and especially this Parsifal-- enters my top-fave conductors list.
He obviously knows this orchestra so well and can make them play any sound he wants. It's superbly coordinated, impeccably focused -- it never strays from the solid, basically no-BS, reading of the score. The orchestra and the chorus were simply perfect on the night I was there. I must emphasize again the fantastic acoustics of the theater that must be partly responsible for this bomb of compliments that I'm writing here.

I've seen quite a number of productions of Parsifal and the striking difference in favor of this production are the Blumenmaedchen. Boy can they sing! I thought those I heard in Bayreuth were unbeatable. No no, in Stuttgart they rocked big time!

Johann Tilli's Gurnemanz wasn't maybe on par with Kwangchul Youn, who I listened to in Bayreuth last year and who I believe is the best Gurnemanz ever [N.B. Stephen Milling, who split the role with Johann Tilli, sang at the premiere]. Johann was a little tired towards the end of Act 1 and Act 3 (no wonder!), but other than that he was truly fantastic. 

Claudio Otelli is a good singer but I believe this role is a bit too tough for him. In any other production this wouldn't be that apparent, but in this creme-de-la-creme level of singing he was a tad less good than the rest of the team. However, his acting and his total scenic investment makes him a particularly powerful and emotional Klingsor.

I was particularly impressed by Gregg Baker. Call me uninformed but I had no clue who that man was. What a pleasant surprise! It's deep, it's plain voice, that reflects an enormous despair. Great stuff! Plus the man fits impeccably the Bieito's scenic solutions. He's a big guy and when he came to meet Parsifal, he's approached by the people who have no respect for him any more; he lost his aura; he's not their hero. His encounter with the mob is strong. He becomes angry and fights two of them off. The others get the message and step back. There are plenty of these so deeply human-behavior episodes in the show.

Then comes Andrew Richards. Since two years I've been telling it over and over again: that man is a real deal and Parsifal was his big call. He normally sings the roles such as Werther, Don Jose, Cavaradossi..., but when I saw him as Pollione in Munich last July I knew he was going to be good Parsifal. His voice is still used to singing the high notes easily and he sings every note of Parsifal!
Just like Christopher Ventris and Klaus Florian Vogt sing and don't bark in the 3rd Act of Parsifal, Andrew Richards sings without pushing. So note down his name and add him to the short list of top-Parsifals of our time! I hope now with the praise and all he will be more careful in choosing what to sing and will last among the top singers for many years to come.
On the other hand, I expected him to suffer in the acting part. In Bieito's productions you don't stand and sing, or wave with your hands caricaturally like (usually) in the bel-canto repertoire. With Bieito you're an actor who can sing. OK, he was more of a singer who CAN act, but he acted very well and wonderfully fitted with the rest of the crew. A huge BRAVO to him! (actually I shouted my lungs out during the curtain calls ;) )

And finally Kundry: Christiane Iven. Man! This was absolutely unbeatable in any department you want to qualify her performance. Simply unbelievable! Especially in that Act 2 where you expect her to start losing intensity. Hell no, she adds on!
I read that she started her career as a mezzo and then her voice evolved into soprano. Similarly to the referential Kundry, Waltraud Meier. Christiane is obviously used to Regie and she is a superbly trained actress. That was already obvious in the Herheim's production of Der Rosenkavalier in which she was acting/singing as Feldmarchallin. In that production, however, she had a couple of moments in Act-3 when she evidently pushed her voice to make it through to the end of the show. What I'm trying to say is that she was excellent, although not irreproachable. In this Parsifal, instead, she was extraordinary scenically, while vocally she was glorious. Unfreakingbeatable by any standard!

Christiane Iven in the last scene: a pregnant woman eating the olives(?) from a can. Life goes on...

One more pic of the golden trio...

I'm sorry for not having taken a better pic and no Klingsor in the focus (far right in the shirt full of blood is Klingsor). This pic is just one I could take with Maestro Honeck [BRAVISSIMO!]

A somewhat unfortunate photo of Gregg Baker - Amfortas...

Sorry for  a long post, but I may even get back to it after I fully processed the Act 2 of this production. 
If you read all of the above, you deserve the Easter Cake from one of the world's best chocolatiers, Pierre Marcolini ;)

Ed: Let me add a piece about Act 2, which is of course more complex.

Remember, Gurnemanz chased Parsifal away and after wandering for a long time Parsifal came to Kligsor-dom. There the story about Parsifal becomes "clearer" even if more subject to interpretation of Bieito's intentions. Here is my take.

Parsifal was a little kid when the apocalyptic event --which lead to a global destruction-- happened. In struggling to survive he grew up losing memory of his "previous life".
When Parsifal saw a toy-truck he started to play with it, ride it like a little kid. You could almost see the process in which the toy-truck starts waking up the memories that will trigger the process of connecting with his roots, with his previous life. Kundry, when trying to get close to him, does not only call his name the way his mother would, but she also offers him her breast. His contact with a woman is now marked by the memory of his mother.

But his confusion is growing when Klingsor draws him to the Blumenmaedchen, where he [Parsifal] realizes his own sexual interest in them. Now you have two mechanisms in action: the conflicting image of a woman as a motherly figure, and as an object of sexual desire. After the hot/seductive game in which Blumenmaedchen let Parsifal discover the sexual pleasures, he suddenly decides to slit a throat to one of the Maedchen. Why he did that? Now that's something you can interpret differently (/a/ Didn't we all struggle to reconcile with our mothers' sexuality? That conflict must be exploding in the head of this young man and the reaction is almost naturally violent. /b/ Wasn't he just avenging his feeling of being abandoned by his mom and killed the first female figure he felt close to? /c/ Parsifal realized he wasn't sexually attracted to women? /d/...your own guess...)

The complexity of this passage is in the fact that the toy-truck and the mental connection to his mother  were vectors to his "previous life", and he now was able to fathom some of the religious objects that Amfortas was throwing to the crowd. That's how Parsifal realizes that the connection to his roots is through Amfortas. He kills Klingsor and heads back to find Amfortas...

Ed 2: Info from the press person of the Stuttgart Staatsoper (who we thank!)
(1) The Parsifal production will stay in our repertoire in 2010/2011. 
(2) There will be a detailed television broadcast about Parsifal in summer 2010. The exact date is still to be confirmed and will be published on or website



  1. Thank you so much for all this. Wonderful review and I am so jealous. It sounds so exciting, great music and a great piec of theatre. Have you any idea if there will be an audio broadcast or a DVD recording?

    I guess Andrew Richards has fuelled the anticipation with his wonderful blog - and the fact that he did all of this, and had to appear naked, is a remarkable achievement!

  2. That certainly added to an excitement that precedes every new Bieito's productions -- especially those of the Wagner operas.

    The nudity moment wasn't that big a deal because it was naturally fitting the dramatic action.

    No idea if there is a DVD release planned. I certainly hope so, but I doubt they'd do it the first year... I'll double check about the radio broadcast.


  3. Thanks for the report, OC!

    FYI: There are no plans to make a DVD unfortunately. Due to cost the company does not have the funds to film this production. However, there IS a movie being made on the experience. This documentary debuts in October 2010. Read here for more info:

    Again, thank you for your insightful review and taking the time to share it with others.

  4. Many thanks Andrew!

    That's bad news actually. I am pretty sure a DVD with this production would be commercially viable...

    On the other hand --now when the ghost is out of the bottle and the buzz is this big-- whenever the Stutt.Opera management decides to rerun this show they can be sure to have loads of 'opera-pilgrims' coming to see it. ;)

    Thanks for the link. I see they collaborate with Arte-TV, so hopefully they'll show it on Arte later this year.

    Toi toi for the tonight's 3rd show!

  5. Thank you for this long report of such an interesting performance.I like opera productions that make me feel deeply and think about the real significance of the argument.Do you know if it will be more performances in next Stuttgart Oper Season?

  6. I must say I would like to hear a clip. The German reviews were not exactly unanimously enthusiastic. I never go by reviews, I have to see and hear something myself.

  7. Hi Dandini. I don't know. My guess is that we'll see this Parsifal back on stage sometimes in 2011-2012.

    Anonymous. I wish I had a clip to back up what I've said. But even if I had one you must go and listen to it in their auditorium. It's a whole different experience...
    The German press is very enthusiastic about the musical quality of the production. I really don't know how you could not to be.
    BUT, the critics are divided in their appreciation of the Bieito's ideas. The traditionalists are outraged from the get go, while some of the more open-minded journalists said that many Bieito's ideas were seen before, in the Herheim's production in Bayreuth.
    Some journalists were unhappy because there was too much blood ("over the top")... But that's what you get when you shake the boat :)

  8. Great review. I am so jealous. I wish I had been there. I love Parsifal and it is always such a pleasure when careful attention is paid to bringing it off properly. Thanks so much!

  9. Having shared an elevator with Gregg Baker, may I say: DAY-UM!!! At least 6'5", by my guess, he's like a living, breathing romantic novel cover. Handsome as hell with a voice to match... It's no wonder that he's played more than a few Crowns in his career.

  10. Thanks Opera Cake, I am referring more to the vocal reviews. I don't get too worked up about productions, they can be outrageous or traditional as far as I am concerned; we need it all, to keep things interesting. In my opinion Gregg Baker is one of the solid American singers who is being marginalized unfairly right now. It's so ridiculous, the political environment of this business! (Corrupt is more like it.) All I can say is, poor public. They are not hearing every great voice, and it's not the singer's fault or the agent's fault. It's the fault of those in a position to do casting. The status quo in the US is not working, they need thinking outside the box or they are going to start losing more fans than they already have. People will just lose interest. They aren't going to shell out hundreds of dollars to hear and see a "name" if that singer is no longer of any real quality. Sometimes I think people like Peter Gelb take their public for absolute fools.

  11. We can't wait for your take on Act III!

  12. Hey Mark ;) I hope you saw Tristan in Berlin and Seiffert was in much better form than 2 weeks ago when I was there. Parsifal is one of my fave operas too and this production was definitely worth the trip to Stuttgart. It's very different in style but comparable in quality with the Herheim's production in Bayreuth. So now you know what to do next year ;)

    Thanks SilvestriWoman. You should see and listen to his Amfortas. It's a large voice expressing an incommensurable despair... The others I knew what to expect but he and his voice was an enormous surprise to me.

  13. La Cieca dear, I already mentioned most of the content of Act 3 when talking about the Good Friday. There would be so much more to talk about -- especially about religion (conventional and our intimate religious being), but I fear I may insult someone's feelings... Plus you definitely should see this production yourselves.

    So I contacted the press person from the Stuttgart's Opera and she said:

    (1) the same production of Parsifal will remain on the program next season [2010-2011]

    (2) there will be a "detailed TV-broadcast" of this production in summer 2010. The exact date is still to be confirmed and will be published on their website

    (3) The 90 minutes documentary mentioned by Andrew Richards will be shown on 3sat [German TV] in Summer 2011. Again, the exact date will be announced on their website on time.

  14. Anonymous I totally agree with you regarding traditional productions. We need them all!

    I get crazy when the traditional productions are done with no clear idea, with no clear direction, where the whole dramatic action resumes in a pile of decor and soprano rolling her eyes & waving her hands.

    I also get crazy when the Regie productions try to "be cool" by only shocking the public rather than offering any extra value to a given opera.

    There is good and bad on both ends, but I find the traditionalists far more assertive in their knowledge of "how an opera should be staged" (Zeffirelli). That's where the discussion usually derails and I tend to defend the witty, enlightening and "disturbing" productions.

    As for Gregg Baker, I must say that I was really surprised to discover the man only now. He's not very young and normally we should have heard him sing much more often in Europe too...

    Another strange American surprise was Jonathan Boyd. He sang in The Rake's Progress, a few months back in Paris. OK it was in one small theater but that was like - Bang! Great stuff. He's one of those rare birds who --with a little training-- may become a very good helden-tenor. Yet he sings Alfredo, Tamino, Romeo, Tom... with stunning aplomb.

  15. Agreed, Opera Cake, about good and bad showing up in both approaches. The art form will die if newer interpretations are suppressed, however. As you say, a complete lack of ideas is not acceptable, even in traditional stagings. As far as the more modern ones, I must say I am not terribly into violent stuff, or kinky stuff, call me conservative... If I see any more rubber gloves or black leather I am going to throw up. It's really just cliche at this point, isn't it?

    And yes, there are a lot of excellent non-name singers around the world. What they are able to do within the context of a brutally competitive environment may vary, and in the end they need to make a living just to keep going. You might not see them as much as would seem appropriate. It would appear that much high level casting is done through videos (unreliable and often misleading sound quality and conditions), teacher/coach/program recommendation (can you imagine?), and agent/casting staff relationships. In other words, going around the world to hear emerging talent with their OWN EARS, whatever the age and stage of the artist (some fachs take longer), is not a top priority for these lazy people. Why should they bother, when they are led to believe that the "top" agencies have all the best talent and can be trusted to bring singers to their attention? Well, it isn't necessarily so that they have all the best artists, and we are seeing the results of this rigorous administrative professional ethic at places like the Met ;-).

  16. This productions sort of epitomizes the word abomination, right? Why even associate it with Wagner's Parsifal. Just do it as a Dumb-Show Tableau. Parsifal doesn't deserve this kind of crap.

  17. That cannot be farther from the truth but if you think it's so...

  18. You talk about the extraordinary talent of the director, but Parsifal is Wagner's creation, not Calixto Bieito's. Parsifal has lasted for 150 years without Calixto Bieito, and it will survive for many years beyond Calixto Bieito. It's the gall of allowing a director to "rethink" Wagner's masterpiece that is so offensive. Do you not believe that Wagner knew what he wanted or what he was doing? Did Richard Wagner not give you enough to work on the way he created it. According to various other reviews, the singing and the orchestra playing was second rate. Next time, try just bringing the performance level up to professional standards.

  19. Opera Cake, you are an utterly terrific reviewer: engaged, thinking with both your head and your heart; a director's dream! Please keep them coming; living in Ireland makes it hard for me to see all the productions I would wish too, but you depict the them in such illuminating detail I can imagine what actually takes place on the stage. Oh, and thanks for the heads-up on the DVD of Jones' Lohengrin :_)

  20. Sounds like good news about a broadcast!! The discussion about this production is fascinating -Andrew Richards should write a book about it.

  21. Thanks Cloud. I was not crazy about the Richard Jone's production of Lohengrin, but the singing is terrific and the orchestra at their best. My judgment was probably a bit biased because only a few months before that Lohengrin in Munich I was in Berlin to see the Herheim's new production, and that was just soooo much better, more inventive, more "disturbing" [Lohengrin is a nasty manipulator, Elsa an apprehensive woman who is warned by Ortrud, the only illuminated person who see the manipulating game Lohengrin has been playing and tries to warn Elsa... - but it's weaves easily through the original libretto, which is why it's so disturbing to watch --> it kicks you out from your system of references], and --as usual with Herheim-- the story happens at 3 different levels.

    The Jones' production is all focused on the elusive idea of family values (personal V traditional), and it lacked the gravy [to me!]

  22. Oh, how could I have missed noticing Lohengrin as a nasty manipulator and Ortrud being the enlightened one. Silly of me to fall into the trap of reading the libretto and following the score, especially the ethereal music accompanying Lohengrin and the darker music accompanying Ortrud. Maybe I fell into the same trap when I failed to see Iago as a saint and Lady Macbeth as an innocent who wanted clean cutlery.

  23. There you go! Next time you'll know how to read the stuff between the lines, especially when it comes to artistic creations. TIE and enjoy your WE ;)

  24. Very jealous you saw the Herheim Lohengrin! What I have managed to see looks phenomenal: challenging but so aesthetically wonderful (particularly love the huge Wagner puppet conducting the action!)
    Also liking your refusal to engage with sarcastic Annoymous who seems to miss the point of a text: every staging involves an act of interpretation, it is testament to the quality of the work how far you can reach beyond what is safe and literal.

  25. Oh yes, THAT Lohengrin was very special. I saw it again in November but it was less good: Herheim didn't practice with the new cast and the cast was much less good than the first one.

    Every Herheim show is a new surprise. Contrary to Bieito, Herheim deconstructs every opera he decides to put on stage. By the magic of quick images he somehow manages to make the traditionalists silent. His genius is in the way he deconstructs the operas, i.e. he never modifies them entirely [only The Abduction was 100% changed as far as I know], but he builds something new founded on the original work, OR he superposes another story thematically connected to the topic of a given opera. His shows are always fast paced, plenty of transversal ideas and every little detail is there on purpose. You have to be 100% focused during every show not to miss the thread that you can easily lose in that sea of ideas that are constantly playing with your prejudices and your "well-formed-opinions".

    His theatrical language is complementary to that of Bieito's. Bieito takes it easy, shocks you a bit but at the same time builds his concepts, very humanistic views... and manages to place them deep in your brain. Days after the show some of the questions are coming back to you.


  26. Honeck is music director here in Pittsburgh . We can not get enough of him !

  27. He is a gem! The idea to cast Gregg Backer in this production was like a blast. Then first Parsifal for Andrew Richards was apparently his idea too. Plus there is a special chemistry between him and the Stuttgart Opera's orchestra. The whole thing was truly sensational (even if there was no Calixto in the mix -- but with Calixto it was just one of those shows...)