If, to the playwright, all the world’s a stage, and if, to a hammer, all the world’s a nail, then to a political prisoner, all the world’s a jail. Or so it may seem from the current production of Parsifal, directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, at the Vienna State Opera.
The production, which was first presented in April 2021 and which I saw in April 2023, was prepared while the Moscow-based director was under house arrest, later converted to a travel ban, but both prohibiting his joining the company in Vienna. Being barred from use of the internet further complicated matters. Instead, Serebrennikov’s lawyer conveyed USB hard-drives to him in Moscow, and his notes were sent back to the designers and performers in Vienna. Considering the circumstances in which the production was conceived and rehearsed, its existence alone is a wonder.
In this production, a mature Parsifal relates to the audience the story of his former self, a character named in the program “der damalige Parsifal”: Not the “young” Parsifal, but rather the “former” Parsifal — the person before the transformation that is depicted in the play. The former Parsifal was violent and, by being imprisoned, became more violent. He responded to a threat of rape in the shower by an albino fellow prisoner called “Swan” by slitting his throat with a razor, and the other prisoners beat him up in retaliation. By the end of Act I, the young man initiates the beating of another newbie to the prison, and flaunts his sexual violence to a visiting photographer.
Act II takes place in the offices of a soft-porn magazine where the released young man has been invited for a photo shoot. He is stripped, ogled at, and seduced, first by the group of women staffers and eventually by the chief photojournalist (Kundry) under the instructions of her boss (Klingsor). The elder Parsifal says to us what his former self said and did, and on one occasion actually intervenes with himself. The former Parsifal accepts Kundry’s kiss and, indeed, engages in extended sexual foreplay even after the mature Parsifal relates his astonished insight of Amfortas’ pain. The younger man extracts himself from Kundry’s embraces only when she relates her sin in laughing at the Redeemer’s torture. This more express sign of Kundry’s pathology is the turning point for the former Parsifal, not the earlier insight that the older man gained upon reflection.
Act III returns to the prison and the male community, and now the mature Parsifal is himself the actor, entering the group wiser and far more insightful than when he left it. He invites the prisoners to acknowledge their own powers of insight and forgiveness, and his former self joins him in magically opening all the cell doors and setting everyone free.
This synopsis, while offered in good faith, is unfair to Serebrennikov and to the brave Weiner Staatsoper that took on the project. It is beautifully staged and designed, for one thing. It is handsomely cast with Michael Nagy, Klaus Florian Vogt, Ekaterina Gubanova, and Franz-Joseph Selig taking the leads and the beautiful and daring Nikolay Sidorenko portraying the young man. With some important exceptions it is coherent and fits — at times sheds light upon — the progress of the narrative. (One of several exceptions: The whole idea of returning the iconic object (the spear) to the community and thereby healing both it and its king is quite lost.)
This emphasis on sex and violence may strike some as gratuitous, but it seems to me wrong to dismiss this aspect of the production and, indeed, of the work itself. In the text, Parsifal is presented to us as having killed an innocent thing from mere boredom; here, Parsifal kills someone not so innocent, in self-protection. Parsifal’s ignorance in the play is expressed as mute wandering; here as his punching out others and strutting shirtless in the prison yard — not inappropriate. And Parsifal’s being sexually overwhelmed while a beautiful woman licks his nipples is, in fact, what happens in the course of the Act II text. Parsifal is not set in a nunnery and its plot — from Amfortas’ seduction to Klingsor’s self-castration to Kundry’s ageless sexual conquests to Parsifal’s kiss — is not about chastity.
The idea that it is a memory play, that Parsifal relates the story of how he got redemption and came to redeem others, is bold. Indeed, it can’t be said to constitute an improvement on the original sequential narrative. But it nevertheless has integrity in this production and is stimulating and provocative. And, again, it does not seriously depart from the arc of the story. If someone were to propose that the action of Parsifal is that a community of men who were in cages find a way to be released, I would not strenuously argue.
Philippe Jordan led the orchestra with luminousity and sensitivity. The chorus was superb. I hope to attend this production again in March 2024, and I am confident that it will continue to appeal to the ear seeking beauty, the intellect seeking creativity, and the soul seeking release.