Thoughts on “Parsifal”
Richard Lorber (RL): Is Parsifal a religious work?
Uwe Eric Laufenberg (UEL): We could say it is a pan-religious work, or a post-religious work, a work that goes beyond religion and that at the same time explores the origin of religion. This basic feature is also present in Wagner’s music. The second scene of the first act, for example, is a through-composed ritual. We only wonder what kind of ritual it is.
RL: Titurel asks, ‘Amfortas, my son, are you in your place?’ (German literally: ‘… performing your office?’). Is it a liturgical High Mass that is to be performed here?
UEL: It’s a fully composed ritual. The only question is, what kind of ritual? On the surface, the scene naturally reminds us of the celebration of the Eucharist or the Protestant Holy Communion, though it’s not clear here whether wine is transformed into blood or blood into wine. This also varies in Wagner’s multiple drafts of the text. Moreover, at the conclusion of the first act, the ‘Wagner community’ felt, and in today’s performances still feels, that it has taken part in a genuine ritual, and for this reason is hesitant to applaud. To me it is interesting that Wagner abstracts this ritual, constructs it anew, and takes it out of its religious-historical context by combining it with the unveiling of the Grail. The spear also belongs here, but because it was used as a weapon in war, is no longer available. The ritual in ‘Parsifal’ is thus not about performing a traditional rite, but symbolizes instead the work’s theme, man’s need for redemption, which is what Gurnemanz, in his long narrative, had previously only talked about. Implementing it on stage, however, we don’t want to avoid the ritual’s symbolic representation, but come as close to it as possible.
RL: What consequences does this have on stage?
UEL: Amfortas has sinned: in the language of Schopenhauer, the philosopher Wagner drew from, he was trapped in his egoism and the drive of his will. He is portrayed as some¬one who, like Jesus but not representing him, is compelled to perform an act of sacrifice. Amfortas is physically disabled, his wound is bleeding. The community of the Grail needs this visual reminder, they need the blood (even though it is sinful blood) to gather strength. And they don’t seem to mind that a man is being subjected to perpetual torment in the process. Amfortas is not a martyr, since he is not taking suffering upon himself of his own free will. Moreover, this suffering does not earn him spiritual liberation or redemption. The knights evidently need to see his physical torment, or at least they accept it without thinking twice. I always wondered about what it actually means for the knights to gather strength simply by looking at the Grail. This probably involves more than just spiritual nourishment. For me it is frankly a contradiction: on the one hand, we have the suffering Amfortas, and on the other, the knights piously eating and drinking bread and wine.
RL: Beyond this dramaturgical and stage interpretation, you obviously need to set the work in some kind of location. In your production, where does the story take place?
UEL: In places where Christianity is under threat, where it is not present as a large institution and power factor – in precisely the places where (and this is something the last three popes have repeatedly emphasized), because it is under threat, it is capable of being regenerated. In other words, in the places where it has no choice but to exist as a community of its own, withdrawn upon itself, and at the same time offering refuge to anyone seeking protection. We imagine a church in an area that is dangerous for Christians, and follow the story from there, as Wagner wrote it, incorporating our experiences of today.
Dramaturge Richard Lorber in conversation with director Uwe Eric Laufenberg. The complete interview can be read in the programme booklet of the 2018 “Parsifal” production.
Richard Lorber (RL): The first work you conducted by Wagner was Parsifal, in 1997 in Florence at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Isn’t it unusual to start with Wagner’s last work when working with this composer?
Semyon Bychkov (SB): It was my choice. Parsifal is undoubtedly a work that makes a universal claim and with which Wagner aims at human existence as a whole, which in my opinion nobody has been able to do since Johann Sebastian Bach. And that is something that still captivates me today.
RL: When you speak of a universal claim, do you mean the context of the history of ideas, for example a philosophical or quasi artificially religious statement underlying the work, or more a certain musical structure?
SB: Both. Parsifal is certainly not sacral music, but something like the sum of his life’s work and views. So these are questions that belong in the district of religion. This can also be seen in the music, not only in the libretto. The music of Parsifal has a peculiar, continuous intensity, which, however, moves less towards individual highlights. It is an intensity of constant change, an ongoing transformation. Or take the key intervals. Each key represents a kind of galaxy in this work, and Wagner often travels from one galaxy to the other several times within one bar. Here, too, there is this constant travelling and wandering. […]
I would like to describe one more incident in this context. The first performance I heard in Bayreuth was Parsifal. I was in the second row. Before the first note of the prelude sounded, I felt it vibrate from the floor with my feet. It was something like the birth of a note and less the beginning of an opera. In Parsifal there is actually no beginning, but an awareness of the first note, something that then radiates over the overall impression of the piece. This also shows the basic musical-philosophical approach.
This effect is of course strongly connected to the acoustic situation in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus and the covered orchestra pit, which creates a kind of immaterial sound from which you do not know where it actually comes from.
RL: You have often conducted Parsifal in Florence, Vienna and Madrid. Will your interpretation be different in Bayreuth?
SB: No. I always try to approach what makes Bayreuth so special elsewhere. My conception does not change.
RL: So the beginning of interpreting Wagner started with a visit to Bayreuth. You then also looked at the sources.
SB: I studied the original score of Parsifal and the original orchestral parts of the Parsifal premiere, which were in use until about 1910. The musicians recorded the duration of the individual acts. You can see that the conductors slowed down over the course of time until Richard Strauss hit a very fluid tempo again in 1933. When his tempo was criticised, he is said to have responded that it wasn’t him who had become faster in Parsifal , rather, ‘you in Bayreuth have become slower and slower’.
Dramaturge Richard Lorber in conversation with conductor Semyon Bychkov. The complete interview can be read in the programme booklet of the 2018 “Parsifal” production.