Lunar ‘Parsifal:’ Toto, We’re Not In Bayreuth Anymore

A scene from ‘Mondparsifal,’ a futuristic production based on Wagner’s opera, at the Theater an der Wien.
(Production photos by Jan Bauer)
By Rebecca Schmid

VIENNA — Of all operas to rewrite, Wagner’s Parsifal may be the most controversial. This Bühnenweihfestspiel (“festival play for the consecration of a stage”) was intended only to be performed in Bayreuth and remained embargoed outside the German town 30 years after the composer’s death. When plans fell through for performance and installation artist Jonathan Meese to stage Wagner’s final opera at Bayreuth (the festival cited excessive costs, while Meese, who was once taken to court in Germany for giving his signature Hitler salute, claimed the reasons were artistic), he teamed up with the Austrian composer and librettist Bernhard Lang for Mondparsifal, Alpha 1-8, a new version of the work that displaces the action to the moon in an unspecified “revolutionary year of the future.”

Director Meese stands behind Parzefool/Parsifal (Daniel Gloger).

Lang, who made his international breakthrough in 2003 with the piece  Theater der Wiederholungen (Theater of Repetition), has already “rewritten” music by Mozart (The Stoned Guest), Bruckner (Linzer Sinfonie — Das kecke Beserl), Haydn, and more. Using cuts, loops, and repetitions, he casts an ironic glance at canonical works while obscuring a linear sense of time and history. Mondparsifal, seen on opening night June 4 at the Theater an der Wien during the Wiener Festwochen, is a fascinating vessel for such techniques. The production runs through June 8 at the Wiener Festwochen and will be presented in its so-called Beta 9-23 version on Oct. 15, 16, and 18 at the Berliner Festspiele.

The repetition of lines such as “Durch Mitleid wissend – wissend — wissend” (a statement of the veteran knight Gurnemanz about Parsifal, the “pure fool”) makes for a mocking, critical take on a work that has inspired quasi-religious devotion and includes possible undercurrents of racial supremacy. In Wagner’s original, Kundry, who has been forced to wander the earth after laughing at Jesus on the cross, finds redemption only by falling lifelessly to the ground; in Lang’s libretto — penned in a combination of German, English, and French — she survives to dance with Parsifal.

Through the use of synthesizer, sub-bass synthesizer, and accordion, Lang creates a futuristic hue in his instrumentation that ideally complements Meese’s science-fiction aesthetic (which draws upon 1970s films such as Zardoz, The Wicker Man, and Barbarella). The score teems with cheeky allusions to Wagner, from the undulating synthesizer arpeggios and warped harmonies in the prelude to the Good Friday bells that are transcribed for small gongs in the final scene. The three-hour plus work loses traction in the last act, however, drawing from the same pool of ideas without shedding new light on Mondparsifal‘s philosophical substance.

Meese’s sets (designed with assistance from Jörg Kiefel) are strongest in the first act, featuring an installation-like structure where the knights scale the foamy ground with pick axes and Gurnemanz lives in a meat locker. The title character, Parzefool/Parsifal, draws laughs from the moment he walks onstage, dressed in a scanty get-up à la Zardoz and carrying a flag emblazoned with the Meese slogan “Diktatur der Kunst” (Art Dictatorship). When the Grail is mentioned for the first time, a cut-out of Spongebob descends from the ceiling.

Tómas Tómasson sings the role of Amphortas/Amfortas in ‘Mondparsifal.’

Less amusing, at least for this viewer, is the overbearing presence of Meese’s persona in the production. The artist himself stands in a balcony beside the stage, at one point drawing video projections in real time on a scrim. An egg-shaped image of his mother’s face sits at the edge of the stage. One-liners ranging from “Humpty Dumpty” to “Richard Wagner is coming” flash in red letters throughout the evening. In an interview with, Meese admits that he sees himself as Parsifal, the “Überkünstler” (absolute artist) who has arrived on Earth to restore radicalism to Wagner’s opera. His fanatical self-image is very much on a par with Wagnerian aesthetics and at times renders Mondparsifal as cult-like as the original, despite the absurdist humor that Meese and Lang share in their approach.

A talented cast rises both to the technical challenges of the score and Meese’s theatrical demands (directional assistance: Wolfgang Gruber). Countertenor Daniel Gloger brings vocal stamina and fine comic timing to the role of Parzefool/Parsifal. As Cundry/Kundry, mezzosoprano Magdalena Anna Hofmann is both seductive and caricature-imbued, morphing from a Wagner doppelganger, to Barbarella, to an armored Teutonic princess. Bass-baritone Wolfgang Bankl gives a stand-out performance as Gurnemantz/ Gurnemanz, as do the female voices of the Arnold Schoenberg Chorus as Hitler-saluting flower maidens in the second act.

Heldenbaritone Tómas Tómasson impresses as Amphortas/Amfortas; he oscillates between falsetto and his natural range, making a caricature out of the wounded ruler of the Grail Kingdom. The Klangforum Wien, which has collaborated with Lang for 25 years, performs under Simone Young with expert attention to the score’s nuanced textures and ironic commentary.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.

The Hitler-saluting Flower Maidens in Act 2 of ‘Mondparsifal’ at the Theater an der Wien.