stuttgart calixto bieito parsifal (+ andrew)

It seems the nature of seeing a performance in another city also involves lengthy missed trains on the return for Dasniya and I. Departing a minute before our arrival (or probably while we were stumbling around Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof looking for the line to Berlin), we decided to jump on one to Frankfurt on the next line over. Opting not to get off at Frankfurt Flughafen, instead waiting 11 minutes to arrive in Frankfurt itself, those minutes passed until we landed in Bonn.

S-Bahn to Köln, another quick change and on to Berlin via Hannover and other interesting places. Only an hour late arriving but the last three nights had been short on sleep, so I proceeded to do just that.

Calixto Bieito is new to me. Andrew Richards told me about him in Brussels and thought I’d love his style of mayhem, and with Andrew being Parsifal in both productions, taking a cheap-ish train to a city I’d never been in for a night of Wagner seemed like a good idea.

Firstly to say that while I made comparisons between the Castellucci and Bieito versions while watching and after, there is also a gulf between them which makes some a matter of aesthetic preference. Nonetheless, even though the two directors are quite distant from each other in both intellectual and aesthetic concerns (as meta-analysis in the role of director as well as in artistic choices within Parsifal), they seem to me to share a commonality I’ll try and elucidate.

The music then. (And the theatre.) I thought the orchestra was smaller than at La Monnaie, though also heard different that it was larger. Stuck in the right crook of the gods for the first act (a not-good location both for acoustics as well as line of sight due to the staging construction), it all felt a little distant. Acts two and three though — we spied a couple of seats, stalls second row far left, empty! (Turns out these were probably the ones reserved for us anyway). A brilliant location, close enough to feel the warmth of the flamethrower!

I can’t compare the conductor here favourably with Hartmut Haenchen. It’s a matter of intensity. Haenchen has spent years immersed in Wagner, his understanding of subtleties is acute, from the phrasing of consonants to the speed in different sections; the build at the beginning of act 2 for example. The audience thought Manfred Honeck did a fine job, but for me I feel a little spoiled after Haenchen.

Two moments underlined this. The first being the shout of the knights at the end of act 3. Heanchen (ok he also had 200 extras adding weight), timed it a little later, just before a melodic change, and also the shout was more of a roar, like the ocean, it had a pronounced, shivering emotion, yet not one specific emotion, somehow this gave a resolution that the roaring in Stuttgart seemed artificial in comparison.

And the ending, “Höchsten Heiles Wunder! Erlösung dem Erlöser!”, the harmonics, this is an earth-shattering moment, it should bring one to tears with its beauty, its finality. But it was lost. Perhaps in part because the knights were all dead, but this still left the female chorus, yet all of this felt truncated and unclear, all the way to the last notes, which sounded unsure and lacking in certainty.

Flamethrowers! I’d seen this in the trailer for Die Singende Stadt and thought, who the fuck would put a flamethrower on stage? and how did he get away with it? Especially with Klingsor wielding it like a two-handed battleaxe. And dirt and grime and mess and blood. And testicles. (I thought they were fake, some kind of horrific goiter swimming in blood, as most of the cast were afflicted with ruinous weeping sores on face and head, but it turns out not.) And smoke too.

It’s not until the end of the third act, where Parsifal, now returned as the redeemer, leads the grail ceremony (which is preceded by slaughtering Titural in an iron bathtub with an axe passed around to each knight for a hack or two), and heals Amfortas’ wound by shoving the spear through his ribs, that the sarcasm and blasphemy of Calixto is made unavoidably clear.

This brings up the question of how Calixto engages with Wagner. Visually, he follows the dramatic path and action of the libretto closely, and in one respect there is nothing especially radical about the staging. There is a grail, a spear, the ceremony in the third act, all as Wagner had written. That they are a gang of LSD-fueled apocalypticarians and Parsifal might have more in common Frank from the Wasp Factory, nonetheless doesn’t alter this.

Under this perhaps, lies Calixto’s engagement with Wagner proper, he of the erotic, almost orgiastic on one side, and the one seeking redemption in a chaste religion on the other. Whereas Roméo regarded Wagner from a specifically intellectual perspective here, engaging with Neitzsche, Calixto seems to do similar but almost loutishly mocking him.

As with Roméo, he celebrates the music, but also as with Roméo is not uncritical of whence it springs.Not bothering with obvious philosophical references, he simply piles religious icons one on top of another, pointing to the confusion within the libretto (and in Wagner by adding his bust to the idols hanging from Parsifal’s gown). It was in the third act this mockery became clear, and perhaps if I’d seen the whole work with this in mind from the beginning, I’d think of it differently.

As it was, until the final act, I found at times an incessant busyness, a lack of pause to think upon what was taking place. Whereas Roméo used the profile of Neitzsche and the snake to pass the first act’s overture, before plunging us into darkness, from which emerged a single source of light, Calixto had the desolate highway overpass seething with action even before the first note.

It’s admittedly a difference of aesthetics, and perhaps if I’d seen only this version I wouldn’t be saying this, but even so, I felt the need for a pause at times from this, which didn’t come. And while Roméo’s performers struggled with doing nothing, and the sloughing off of performance artifice this entails, Calixto’s seemed to at times be unaware that performing chaos and mayhem doesn’t always mean chaos and mayhem. Dasniya here remarked that having dancers involved would have helped in providing a corporeal attitude that wasn’t simply one of performing-anarchy.

Which may sound like I didn’t enjoy it all, or thought it was weak. Not So! I feel very fortunate to have seen two exceptional productions in as many months, either of them alone would have given me an inspiration for theatre I’ve been missing. I think it also would have been a remarkable work to have been involved in, one of those where you come away feeling this is what theatre should be.

And to finish with Andrew. From the asceticism of Roméo to Calixto’s bacchanalia, he really belongs in such theatre as this (even when performing the most miraculous undressing in which he reveals absolutely … nothing!). Besides a voice which can drive a nail into the gods, he is believable — all the more terrifying when his face is awash with a mad smile.