“Who is the Grail?”

“Who is the Grail?”

By Simon Hatab 24 April 2018

© Ruth Walz / OnP

“Who is the Grail?”

Based on the medieval novel by Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parsifal was created in 1882, only a few months before Richard Wagner's death, and was the composer's last opera. Of all Wagner's works, Parsifal is undoubtedly the most enigmatic: the opera offers a wealth of interpretations as dense as the vast forests of Arthurian legends. On the occasion of the revival of Richard Jones' production, created at the Opéra Bastille in 2018, Octave looks back at the various Parsifals that have been staged at the Paris Opéra.

Wagner did not want Parsifal to be seen as entertainment, any more than he wanted applause to interrupt the performances at his sacred operatic festival in Bayreuth: he forbade its performance anywhere but on the Green Hill. Cosima continued to respect the will of the Maestro for twenty years after his death and had no hesitation in banning disobedient singers from Bayreuth. It was not until 1914, therefore, that Parsifal entered the repertoire of the Paris Opera. In a stroke of irony, this opera about compassion and universal redemption was first performed at the Palais Garnier the very same year that Europe prepared to plunge into the Great War – seven months before the assassination of Jean Jaurès who was present on the opening night. André Messager, then director of the Paris Opera, conducted the work in a production by Paul Stuart. This French production immediately provoked one of those controversies that the critics of the day were so fond of: was it right to wrench this contemplative work away from its Sacred Hill to perform it in a Palais Garnier so close to the grand boulevards? But the polemic was quickly swept aside by the stunned reaction provoked by Wagner’s music: audiences were enraptured, fascinated by leitmotifs whose meaning appears limpid but which elude our understanding just as the significance of the Grail eludes the hero… “One must hear Parsifal, one must listen and watch and let oneself be swept up by the ineffable emotion”, wrote Gabriel Fauré in Le Figaro.

In spite of its success, from 1935 onwards, the work suffered a long eclipse. When it reappeared on the bill in 1954 it was for a tour with Stuttgart Opera. In 1973, for the first year of his mandate at the head of the Paris Opera, Rolf Liebermann entrusted the direction of Parsifal to August Everding, a German director who had taken over from him as director of Hamburg Opera. Meanwhile, in 1951, Wieland Wagner, had inaugurated a new era at the Bayreuth Festival with a legendary Parsifal that swept away the past. With regard to the revolution taking place in Bayreuth, the new production at the Paris Opera adopted an aesthetic in muted tones and although the director claimed to have broken with the austere scenography of the Wagnerian festival, notably through the presentation of a flower-girl tableau redolent of the 1900s, - “Anti-Bayreuth? Why not?” – he was nevertheless inspired by Wieland Wagner’s analysis, abandoning a mystical interpretation in favour of a psychoanalytical reading (Parsifal’s quest thus becomes the pursuit of a synthesis between the masculinity of the Holy Spear and the femininity of the Grail). Revivals of this production succeeded each other up until 1976 and provided an opportunity to hear Jon Vickers (Parsifal), Régine Crespin (Kundry) and Kurt Moll (Gurnemanz).

From 1997, the stage of the Palais Garnier became too small to accommodate the celebration of the cult of the Grail: Parsifal made its entry at Bastille conducted by Armin Jordan with Thomas Moser, Kathryn Harries and Jan-Hendrik Rootering… Hugues Gall entrusted the direction to the English director, Graham Vick. This production with its sober sets, featuring angels with rainbow wings, was also the first Parisian Parsifal with Placido Domingo and Thomas Hampson’s first Amfortas. In 2008, Gerard Mortier entrusted the Polish director, Krzsztof Warlikowski, with the creation of a new Parsifal which brought together Christopher Ventris, Waltraud Meier and Franz Josef Selig. The production bore the stigmata of the 20th century and was haunted by the child in Rossellini’s film, Germany Year Zero: his suicide in the ruins of Berlin was projected as a prelude to Act III. During the final scene however, a family circle constituted by a Kundry miraculously restored, Parsifal and the child celebrated a Grail now more human than mystical – hinting at the possibility of reconstruction after the catastrophe…

Ten years later, under the mandate of Stéphane Lissner, the Parisian audience rediscovered the work in a new production of Richard Jones directed by Philippe Jordan. Andreas Schager, Peter Mattei, Günther Groissböck and Anja Kampe respectively perform Parsifal, Amfortas, Gurnemanz and Kundry in a sectarian universe that is reminiscent of Scientology. 

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