wed 22/10/2014

Parsifal, Royal Opera | Opera reviews, news & interviews

Parsifal, Royal Opera

Passing musical pleasures can't redeem a bloody betrayal of Wagner's holier intentions

The repellent 'grail ritual' with Gerald Finley's Amfortas left and Robert Lloyd's Titurel rightAll images by Clive Barda for the Royal Opera

Is anyone else sick of creepy brotherhoods skewering the transcendent in Mozart’s and Wagner’s late operas? Both Sarastro’s cult and the company of the grail are in sore need of change - "fresh blood" would be an unfortunate term under the circumstances - when we first encounter them. But both Simon McBurney’s production of The Magic Flute at English National Opera and now Stephen Langridge’s unleavened Royal Opera Parsifal suggest that these are sects not worth joining or saving. If I were Wagner’s hero in this unholy hall, I’d get the hell out of there and call the police.

Langridge, who along with the present design team has done fine work on the powerful myth of Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur, is no doubt right to insist so much on grail celebrant Amfortas’s sickbed and drip. Central, certainly, is the horror of the undead ruler, pierced and wounded by a near-fatal dalliance with the most “dangerous” of the women who live on the margins of the secret society. So it's fair enough to present the hospital room, strip-lit in another cliché of alienation shared with the ENO Flute, as an ever-present centre-stage cube which “transforms” into the heart of the ceremony supposed to bring both daily relief and never-ending torment to the man who can’t die. Only here, in the first of many false steps, it’s the act itself – blood-letting of a pubescent boy (and to hell with the spoiler) – which disgusts both Gerald Finley’s tormented Amfortas, compelled to serve the needs of wheelchair-bound bloodsucker dad Titurel (Robert Lloyd), and Simon O’Neill’s appalled novice onlooker of a Parsifal. And us, too, if we’re human: this Parsifal wasn’t the only one who wanted to run away.

Simon O'Neill and Rene Pape in the Royal Opera Parsifal by Clive BardaYour attitude to all this will depend on whether or not you feel, as I do, that the director’s first duty is to honour the moments of grace amidst all the apocalyptic darkness – and it isn’t just a question of having a grail cup and a shining light. Langridge's repellent ritual cancels out all the good intentions in conductor Antonio Pappano’s finest half-hour-plus, his gentle pacing of Wagner’s transformation music and grail ceremony. With Pappano, though, if the sounds are always right and tell us how modern and pre-Debussyan the textures of this extraordinary endgame always are, the pacing isn’t.

It felt especially unhelpful to the long narrative of past history unfolded by René Pape’s patient Gurnemanz after the Prelude. Pape (pictured above right with O'Neill's Parsifal in Act Three) has the most beautiful of bass timbres, he inflects the meaning well, but how – for the first time in my experience – all this essential information sagged perilously in the mouth of a narrator made by Langridge an unsympathetic cult-promoter. Pape is tested, too, by the generous outbursts of the last act, where Langridge comes closer to Wagner’s intended narrative with a Good Friday cleansing of the injured, newly experienced Parsifal by the “good father” and the now Magdalenesque Kundry.

Who remains, in Angela Denoke’s dedicated interpretation, the most fascinating character in the opera: shaven-headed, dishevelled grail servant (pictured below with O'Neill in Act One), vamp under spell-bound compulsion and a woman finally restored to her noble wits. The voice isn’t exactly beautiful, there’s essentially only one colour, and it barely holds out for the final rants against a Parsifal newly aware of the weight of sin – but then the overtouted Waltraud Meier, for stage reasons alone the Kundry of choice over the past 30 years, couldn’t cut the mustard vocally there either.

Angela Denoke and Simon O'Neill in Royal Opera Parsifal pictured by Clive BardaIt doesn’t help that Pappano is again much too slow, however beautiful and sleepy the string sound, in Kundry’s weird incestuous seduction where she takes on the role of Parsifal’s mother. The red wig is the giveaway, along with the many tableaux of What Happened Earlier played out in the cube (in Act One, where they include acolyte-gone-bad Klingsor’s self-castration, they’re no substitute for the reactions of a Kundry who should be on stage all through Gurnemanz's narrative but for some reason isn’t here).

With Gerald Finley’s Amfortas severely overparted and taxed to the extreme by Pappano letting his two narratives drag when at that point in each of the outer acts we want to get to the end, and Willard White’s Klingsor going through now familiar motions, it’s left to Simon O’Neill to provide the best-connected singing of the evening. He’s no great shakes as an actor, at least under Langridge; here he stumbles and totters less convincingly than everyone else, and his get-up, especially the vest in which he slays the warriors of Klingsor’s castle, isn’t flattering. But how he can pull out the stops as he realizes the significance of Amfortas’s wound after Kundry’s kiss – the production has its moment here as a second cube is unveiled with the suffering grail king revealed behind the first – and how nobly he returns the stolen spear to the brotherhood at the end. It’s just a shame that the ultimate "redemption to the redeemer" is nothing more than a Wizard of Oz moment, a dissolution which should have happened much earlier.

Flowermaidens and Parsifal in Royal Opera Parsifal pictured by Clive BardaO'Neill also manages to be playful with the Flowermaidens of Klingsor’s enchanted garden (pictured right with O'Neill), who eventually shuck off their widows’ headscarves and do what we usually expect of them; there are some promising voices here in the mix, chiefly Anna Devin, Celine Byrne and Anna Patalong. The female chorus, too, has a chance to make more of an impression than its male counterparts, marginalised by the ritual. Alison Chitty’s designs and Paul Pyant’s lighting come into their own for the magic; either side of it, they're far too stuck with red, grey and black. So much for a forest which ought to be a sanctuary of green but consists only of leafless timber, much of it fallen in Act Three.

So Act Two, as usual with directors who don’t know what to make of the essential holiness, works best. Nor is its short Prelude scuppered like its counterparts in the outer acts - the first with a video image of Kundry's mouth - laughing at Christ, presumably - which has nothing to do with the music that's unfolding, the last with the deracination of the grail community when the strings speak of Parsifal's endless wanderings. The uncomfortable truth remains that with a grail gathering that’s the exact opposite of what Wagner intended – and it’s one of the few elements in the mystifying drama where we can be sure, however vaguely, that he intended celestial good - this evening, for all its fleeting musical pleasures, falls at the first hurdle.

Comments

Just seen it at the cinema. I

Just seen it at the cinema. I thought Kundry was magnificent thruout. The interpretation left me doubtful but I certainly don't think it didn't show understanding of 'holiness' but it did force one to question things and that is surely good.

I went to see this live

I went to see this live performance in my local cinema, first wagner experience, sublime singing, totally ghastly and incomprehensible production, uncomfortable, creepy and totally without merit.. how did the singers agree to perform at all

OK - we get that you didn't

OK - we get that you didn't personally respond to the production. But you have to allow for directors to be able to explore works and challenge audiences to consider themes or interpretations that may not always sit congruent with the composer's initial concept, otherwise you would end up with endless iterations of essentially exactly the same story telling. This applies as well to Parsifal as to any other opera. Yes, Wagner may have wished to have preserved Parsifal as a Bayreuth only ritual, but those shackles have long since disappeared. Yes, the ritual has repellant aspects, but looked at completely dispassionately the Christian rite involving the eating of the flesh and blood of Christ or the symbols thereof might appear repellant or certainly peculiar. As a ritual, it is relevant to the Brotherhood in the terms portrayed. There is a thread of self-harm from the knights stabbing at there palms (perhaps representing the other wounds of Christ, namely from the nails on the cross), through to the ultimate self-harm undertaken by failed Brotherhood member, Klingsor. The mere fact of it being portrayed in the fashion it was, repellant or otherwise, has no impact on Pappano's conducting of the score in the scene, which was extremely fine. To say it cancels out all his good intentions is logical and actual nonsense. This production made one think about the nature of the Grail, and Brotherhood's special devotion to it, and their rituals and how it impacted on their members, from Tinturel through Amfortas and onwards to Parsifal himself. You could have perhaps thought about the portrayal of the Christ-like figure - how he was trapped in the bounds of the Brotherhood (the cage as an outward physical symbol of this) as a perpetual child, and subjected to recurrent ritual wounding, only capable of developing into the crucified Christ when the Brotherhood abandoned their rituals, and ultimately released by Parsifal from the confines of the Brotherhood to be the risen Christ able to be the redeemer for the world and not just the closed community of the Brotherhood. There's your moment of grace - the darkness of the Brotherhood and its repellant rituals, its selfish sequestering of the Christ figure away from the wider world, finally purged by Parsifal and thereupon the Christ figure is freed from his confines and is risen, the tomb shown empty, the stage finally filled with cleansing white light. And an intensely strong message of Christian forgiveness allowing Amfortas and Kundry to be reunited, the sin of their first meeting forgiven (and yes, that isn't what Wagner put in his stage directions). As far from a "Wizard of Oz moment" as you can get, if you are prepared to think about it. The production has a intensely clear and deep holiness that blazes out though the last bars, a sharp contrast to the perverted horrors of the Act I ritual. It is too glib to say that Langridge is a director with no understanding of holiness. I think he displays a highly developed sense of it. Oh, and Pappano did seem to be enjoying the rich sounds of the orchestra almost too much and needs to up the pace in a few places. You did spot that, well done.

I'm all for updates-Richard

I'm all for updates-Richard Jones in Pagliaci at ENO was a case in point. The recent Charpentier Medea also worked for me. However, this Parsifal seemed to bypass the transcendental quality of the music. Mostly, It was a frustrating mis-match with the exception of the flower maidens in Act2. I also thought the swan incident in Act1 was better handled than in either of the two previous productions i've seen.

Very well argued

Very well argued rationalisation, Tim, thank you. I get what you're getting at and possibly Langridge too. And I'm absolutely in favour of new productions opening up fresh possibilities so that one says, "I never saw the music in that light". But I think there has to be a novel approach to what's actually there (Richard Jones has shown us that time and again).

Surely, though, the music of the grail ritual around Amfortas's anguish - and I have a problem with the knights' chorus later on - is pure light, and can't be contradicted by something shocking and sick. I hadn't grasped the significance of the reappeared Christ figure at the end - it wasn't made clear enough in the action, and throughout I couldn't see from far back what the knights were doing to their hands, or sometimes what objects they were carrying or giving to each other  - but I still don't think it serves as a post hoc rationalision of a horrible rite. Amfortas going off with Kundry, yes, I liked that. But the means didn't justify the end for me.

Excellent review. I thought

Excellent review. I thought it was a very weak production from Langridge. Such a pity.

Very detailed and informative

Very detailed and informative review as is to be expected. On the continent more often than not now the 'Kundry of choice' is Petra Lang who can certainly hold out for the 'final rants' and everything else. I hope it not too long before she is back in some Wagner at Covent Garden.

Agreed, Joe. I think Michaela

Agreed, Joe. I think Michaela Schuster is probably heading to the top of the list, too. I saw her at the beginning of her career in a Graz Parsifal (directed by David Alden) which seemed to me to hit every target.

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