Parsifal occupies a sacred place in the hearts of committed Wagnerians. In the opera’s concluding moments, Parsifal heals Amfortas’ mortal wound, absolves Kundry of her curse, and becomes King of the Knights of the Holy Grail. And, at the moment the Grail is revealed... Spongebob Squarepants is lowered from the ceiling, accompanied by a chorus of Vulcans and anime schoolgirls. Welcome to the world of Jonathan Meese and Bernhard Lang’s Mondparsifal.

<i>Mondparsifal</i> © Jan Bauer, courtesy of Jonathan Meese
Mondparsifal
© Jan Bauer, courtesy of Jonathan Meese

Little wonder that Bayreuth got cold feet about Meese’s proposed staging of Wagner’s final music drama, this redemptive and spiritual “festival play”. The provocative wunderkind of German art (now 47, yet in many ways an overgrown child) had his initial concept for Parsifal rejected, prompting a vicious tirade against the “Dictators of Art”. Meese channelled his frustrations into what he calls an “Erz-Parsifal” (arch-Parsifal), with a musical re-imagining of Wagner’s score by Austrian composer Bernhard Lang.

After the “Alpha 1-8” premiere of Mondparsifal in Vienna earlier this year, this Berlin production was “Beta 9-23”. Meese sets Wagner on a collision course with 1970s sci-fi and shoots the opera’s titular hero into space, dressed in the red nappy and thigh-high boots of Sean Connery’s “Zed” in 1973 fantasy film Zardoz. The production is a joyous and irreverent multi-media collage, rich in symbols and the artist’s own mythology and referring to everything from Schopenhauer to Star Trek. 

<i>Mondparsifal</i> © Jan Bauer, courtesy of Jonathan Meese
Mondparsifal
© Jan Bauer, courtesy of Jonathan Meese

Keeping Wagner’s libretto and basic musical structure, Lang pastes his own compositional style, based on repeating loops, onto the drama. Ghostly reminiscences of the original score rub up against hard-edged atonality as well as jazz. The prologue to Act 2 is reimagined as an urgent jazz-funk groove, featuring an outrageous baritone sax solo by Gerald Preinfalk. Lang proved himself more than a match for Meese with this sensational score, masterfully played by the Klangforum Wien under Simone Young, herself a top-notch Wagnerian.

As Parsifal, countertenor Daniel Gloger was the standout in a committed cast. He threw himself into an extraordinarily physical role that demanded both literal and vocal somersaults; Lang’s score lives up to the vocal demands of the original. Magdalena Anna Hofmann was unflappable as an Oedipal Kundry; Tómas Tómasson made a charismatic star-captain Amfortas. The Arnold Schoenberg Chor shone in the revelatory final chorus, lifted almost exactly from Wagner. 

<i>Mondparsifal</i> © Jan Bauer, courtesy of Jonathan Meese
Mondparsifal
© Jan Bauer, courtesy of Jonathan Meese

Mondparsifal is a spectacular and vital display of sheer artistic energy, but it certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. Meese’s idolisation of Wagner is almost idolatrous, and his obsession with wartime iconography is inexcusable for some. His sense of humour is often puerile and his sensibilities that of a teenage boy. He would have been torn to pieces at Bayreuth.

Their loss is our gain. Mondparsifal is an utter triumph. In Lang, Meese has found a composer sympathetic to his cause, and in the Wiener Festwochen and Berliner Festspiele open-minded and tolerant promoters willing to accommodate (and pay for) his flights of fancy. This cosmic riff on Parsifal is a rare act of artistic homage that works on its own terms, in its own universe. To infinity, and beyond!