The scenes with the knights of the Holy Grail in Acts I and III are especially laden with visual allegory and symbolism. These are drawn come from Wagner's own time, from long before, and go well beyond. If you know what these things mean, they can enrich Syberberg's vision for you (but not necessarily enhance Wagner's vision); if you don't know what they mean, they're simply confusing, if not annoying. I won't bother uncoiling the plot of the opera here. Suffice it to say it is a typical Wagnerian synthesis of diverse elements, in this case a blending of the Holy Grail legend with the principles, practices, and pageantry of Christianity. The theme of redemption plays the main role here, as in nearly every Wagner opera.
I personally had to sweat to get through Syberberg's first act (amidst my jarring acclimation, the music saved the day). But Act II picks up the pace. Here we meet Klingsor, the evil sorcerer, out to entrap the wandering "innocent fool" Parsifal. The greatest seductress of them all, Kundry, will be used to entice him to the dark side. After an initial dalliance with more symbols, these get stripped away, and the long, gorgeous, transformational duet between young fool and temptress really takes off. Finally the film starts working a genuine magic, and it is chiefly due to Syberberg's choosing to set things naturally and simply. Suddenly the acting starts to work (the expressive actress Edith Clever and the luscious soprano of Yvonne Minton team to create a wondrous Kundry); suddenly the music seems to come to life and make vivid the inner turmoil of the two characters. The camera work stays simple and quietly fluid. In other words, Wagner is allowed to tell his story more on his own terms. And it works beautifully. For me it was the most engrossing part of the film.
With the re-entrance of the knights in part 2 of Act III, the weird extraneous symbolisms unfortunately creep back in. Some other loony Syberberg ideas: using a huge Wagner death-mask as a major set-piece (causing the composer's protuberant proboscis to loom comically large); dressing the Act III knights in all manner of costumes, wigs, and makeup (what is the director saying? That the knights are a bunch of buffoons? That they express multiple or timeless layers of significance beyond their surface functions? It's anybody's guess); the insertion just after the incredibly touching baptism of Kundry by Parsifal of rear-projection footage of the conductor rehearsing, in modern-day realism, his orchestra in the studio (this completely snapped my dramatic thread, requiring a few minutes to regroup); the complete avoidance of having any time pass between Acts II and III (when we meet the knight and "narrator" Gurnemanz again, he should be an old, old man, and Parsifal should re-emerge as a world-weary but wiser middle-aged man); but certainly the most bizarre stroke is to split the Parsifal character into male/female components. Some find this the most brilliant stroke. No doubt I can credit Karin Krick, who plays "Parsifal 2," with acting of strength and dignity (she also happens to be the best lip-syncher of the whole cast). But please...Wagner's conception of Parsifal is already so complex. His growth from a completely innocent boy who knows nothing of his past, to his breakthrough realization in Act II of what Amfortas's eternal wound means and how it has become his own, to his return as the great Redeemer of Act III this is the journey of a masterfully constructed character. The bi-sexual emphasis is just gimmicky and absurd. (And what's with this nonsense about a homoerotic Gurnemanz and Parsifal?? Can't we just accept a mentor/apprentice relationship, which is marvelously reversed in Act III?)
The Monte Carlo Philharmonic under Armin Jordan plays with passion and beauty (though the chorus is disappointing). But after watching this film I only wanted to whip out my Solti-led recording (HIGHLY recommended) and get my Wagnerian bearings straight again. The film experience for me ranged from bizarre to entertaining to infuriating. To Syberberg's credit, he's created a visually arresting work, and he certainly offers a unique take on an important opera. But instead of sticking to "Parsifal," he seems to have wanted to bring in all things Wagnerian: the man, the life, the enormous influence...all of it in crude symbolic code. "Parsifal" the opera is already full of weighty symbolism: the Grail, the Spear, the Holy Sacraments, baptism, Amfortas's ever-bleeding wound, Klingsor's self-castration, the Kiss, Kundry's Curse, and on and on. This is not to mention the *musical* symbolism sounding constantly in the score, in the form of Wagner's leitmotif system. "Parsifal" itself is one huge symbol! Getting back to my first-paragraph question, Syberberg's whole hog is all way too much for me. But if this project sounds like something to tickle your fancy, then go for it. I won't recommend just staying away from this; you may find yourself heartily satisfied. Or if you need something to crack your Wagner barrier, try it...but please, please, don't stop here. "Parsifal" is in a late, very ripe league of its own.