Syberberg’s Parsifal

Parsifal and Flower Maidens from Syberberg's Parsifal
Parsifal and Flower Maidens from Syberberg’s Parsifal

One thing that bothers me about opera is that the stage directors are constantly getting into the act, injecting their often weird interpretations into productions, often to the point of destroying the intent of the composer and librettist. Certainly interpretation of a score has a place up to a point, but one can’t redo a Beethoven symphony as hip-hop without fatally distorting the meaning of the music.

The most OCD of operatic composers was Richard Wagner. Not only did he compose the music, he wrote the libretto of each of his operas. Not satisfied with this, he built his own opera house designed especially for the performance of his operas. The stage directions he wrote into his scores are very detailed, and pushed the limits of the technology of his time. Even today, depicting Rhinemaidens singing as they swim in the river, or the burning of Valhalla, or the Valkyries flying through the air on their horses necessitates leaving more to the imagination than can be technically depicted on the stage.

Yet despite this (or maybe because of this?), stage directors think nothing of ignoring these directions and instead impose their own sometimes harebrained interpretations on these finely crafted works. No one would dream of substituting an oom-pah band for the orchestra, but yet anachronistic reinterpretations of the Ring, for example, sometimes bear a closer resemblance to Star Wars (e.g. this) than Norse mythology. Fortunately in most cases the singers, the music, and the text are able to overcome what otherwise would be a cringe-worthy staging.

Case in point: I have seen Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg performed live on two occasions. The first time, years ago in Denver, was a traditional staging, set in the time of the Meistersingers, with period costumes and scenery. It was very enjoyable. This past year, in Paris, I watched the Stefan Herheim version. This version is very cleverly staged, though the bottom line of the production is that the whole opera is just a dream of Hans Sachs’s. The scenes take place on giant versions of his desk and other parts of his room, and various characters from German legends float in and out of the scenes. I have to say that this was entertaining in its own way, but it also somewhat subverted the sad nobility of Sachs in his affection for Eva. I preferred the Denver version that was truer to Wagner’s intent.

All this is just preamble to my feelings about the 1982 film of Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, directed by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. I had heard of the film, but had never seen it until recently. The complete plus-4-hour film is available (at least at the moment) through the magic of YouTube. At first glance, the film seems to do all the things I complained about above. The setting is a giant death mask of Wagner. There are tacky puppets and front-screen projections. There are deliberate anachronisms, like Nazi flags. The protagonist, Parsifal, changes between a male and a female. Only a few of the actors actually sing their roles; most are just lip-synching. So, given all this, I am surprised that I really liked the film.

Parsifal, Wagner’s final opera, is a strange work. After the Norse mythology of the Ring, Wagner turned back to the medieval Christian mythology he had previously explored in Lohengrin. Here we find the Knights of the Holy Grail, and Parsifal, “der Reine Tor — Pure Fool” who ends up saving the order of the Grail. Based on medieval tales such as Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (point of trivial for cardiologists: von Eschenbach in the 13th century describes treating pericardial tamponade with a hollow reed — something that didn’t make it into Wagner’s opera), Wagner as usual wrote his own libretto and has his own interpretation of the tale. This contains many “un-Christian” elements, including a self-castrated evil sorcerer, a knight suffering from a non-healing wound inflicted by the lance that pierced Jesus’ side on the cross, a woman doomed to live forever under a curse because she mocked Jesus at the crucifixion, and over an hour of the most intense seduction scene imaginable, first by a group of flower-maidens, and then by Kundry, the aforementioned conflicted, cursed, unsaved, undying woman/witch. Apparently this mixture of the sacred and profane was met with mixed reactions when the opera premiered, as it does today.  Underpinning all this is Wagner’s music at its finest  — motifs intertwined more intricately than those of Die Götterdämmerung, his penultimate opera. There are many odd and intriguing aspects to Parsifal. It seems that the Castle of the Grail is located in some kind of parallel universe. There is this odd exchange, which make me wonder if Albert Einstein ever viewed the opera:

Parsifal: Ich schreite kaum, doch wähn' ich mich schon weit.

Gurnemanz: Du sieh'st, mein Sohn, zum Raum wird hier die Zeit.

Parsifal: I scarcely move, yet already it seems I have travelled far.

Gurnemanz: You see, my son, here time becomes space.

So what is so great about the Syberberg film? It’s hard to pin down. I think mostly it is the acting. In particular Edith Clever, the German actress who plays Kundry, the tormented, schizophrenic woman at the center of the opera, is wonderful. Using close-ups, film is able to capture the emotions of her and the other actors much better than can be done on the operatic stage. So, despite all the tackiness and weirdness of this production, it is nevertheless a moving experience and, perhaps because Wagner’s opera is so strange to begin with, the extraneous elements don’t seem to distract from the performance.

I would like to see more operas on film. Not films of opera performances (though these are enjoyable too and some are on YouTube), but movies with real actors. Just as Tolkien had to wait for advances in movie special effects and Peter Jackson for his Ring to be filmed, perhaps the apotheosis of Wagner’s Ring will be found in the modern cinema. Through the magic of CGI maybe one day we will see the Rhinemaidens swimming around the Rhinegold as Wagner envisioned the scene in his mind originally.

By mannd

I am a retired cardiac electrophysiologist who has worked both in private practice in Louisville, Kentucky and as a Professor of Medicine at the University of Colorado in Denver. I am interested not only in medicine, but also in computer programming, music, science fiction, fantasy, 30s pulp literature, and a whole lot more.


  1. I have to admit I have never gotten into opera. Your description of Parsifal has intrigued me enough to search for it on Netflix (without success). I did find a DVD of a 1998 documentary on Wagner and Parsifal hosted by Placido Domingo which I have put in my queue.
    Speaking of opera, I recently rewatched Burden of Dreams a documentary on the making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo which features Klaus Kinski obsessing over opera and creating an opera house in the Brazilian jungle.

    1. If you have not much exposure to Wagner I would start with Die Walküre. Or the whole Ring from the beginning. Norse mythology is more fun.

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