Yesterday, Easter Saturday, I got to see the Royal Opera House production of Wagner’s Parsifal. It was broadcast live to many locations of December 18th last year but hasn’t been seen in Toronto until now. It was very much a three act experience. At the end of the first and longest act I thought we were perhaps seeing greatness in the making. Stephen Langridge’s production concept supported by Alison Chitty’s fairly abstract modern designs were making all kinds of sense to me. At centre stage is a white, semi transparent cube serving as both grail shrine and Amfortas’ hospital room. Within it, various aspects of the back story are shown to us and it comes off as a place of knowledge; perhaps of a much deeper kind than has yet been revealed. This impression is reinforced with the unveiling of the Grail late in the act. It is a young, Christ like boy. The grail ceremony involves Amfortas cutting him to release the blood for the ceremony. There’s a lot of blood letting but it makes sense. We are seeing a very wounded and dysfunctional polity.
The production is matched by the performances at this point. René Pape is rock solid and terribly, terribly human as Gurnemanz. Gerry Finley portrays Amfortas’ agony in an almost unbearably realistic way and Robert Lloyd is a suitably querulous Titurel. Angela Denoke’s Kundry, at this point bald or shaven headed, is a twitchy masterpiece. She knows and doesn’t know. She hopes and has lost hope. It’s in every note and every gesture. Simon O’Neill’s first appearances as the “pure fool” are promising even if he is a bit of a shambling hulk; more John Vickers than Jonas Kaufmann. Anthony Pappano conducts with marvellous sensitivity. He’s not bombastic (of course Wagner helps here) and very much reinforces the timeless, meditative nature of the music in which orchestra and voices blend beautifully.
Unfortunately all this isn’t really sustained in Act 2. A lot of this is Wagner’s fault but Langridge certainly doesn’t transcend the work’s limitations. The flower maidens, in Essex girl cocktail dresses, aren’t particularly sexy and parsifal doesn’t seem particularly seduced. The very effective staging and acting at “Amfortas! Die Wunde!” almost seem to undermine what follows. There is great clarity and conviction in Parsifal’s moment of revelation but it makes the next half hour of repepetive assaults by Kundry on his virtue all the more incomprehensible. There’s a basic plot flaw here, and more than a touch of misogyny. Here, with Kundry at her most vulnerable, the disproportionate nature of her curse is painfully apparent. Is she a mass murderer? Did she crucify Christ? No, she laughed inappropriately. No wonder scholars and critics have searched for deeper and darker meanings for Wagner’s treatment of this character.
Here the dissonance is only reinforced by Denoke, now a redhead. She’s a force of nature; her mental anguish matching Amfortas’ physical pain. Fine singing too from O’Neill and a Willard White makes as much as one might from the rather one dimensional role of Klingsor. The music gets more bombastic, perhaps more Wagnerian, in this act too and Papano can’t quite tame it. Somehow performances and staging both conspire here to show up structural weaknesses in the material.
In Act 3 we are back in the world of the Grail Knights. Gerry Finley, with walker, brilliantly depicting the despair brought on by decades of intolerable pain. The confrontation/recognition scene between Parsifa and Gurnemanz is very affecting with O’Neill more convincing as the older, wordly wise Parsifal. The music too is gorgeous and Pappano really shines. There are hints of the power of the Grail and its shrine when we get a brief glimpse of an older Christ within but when Parsifal finally enters the shrine it is empty. The Wound has been healed, Kundry (now a blonde) and Amfortas symbolically reunited, the community apparently restored but there’s nothing else. It’s all a bit Peter Sellars like. A group hug conquers all!(1) And that’s it. Much of he third act is pretty effective really but it doesn’t really realize the promise of the first.
Whatever I think of the production/performances I do have to say that I vastly prefer the way the Royal opera House transfers its product to the screen compared to its obvious competitor. The camera work is much netter and much less fussy. In fact, looking at the auditorium shots I get the impression that comparatively few cameras are used; mainly one either side of the orchestra stalls about half way back plus one or two up higher. There’s no rabbit cam and few other gimmicks. The approach is also much less bombastic and self-congratulatory and I’d far rather have a few minutes of thoughtful introduction to each act by the likes of Simon Callow than an endless series of “Hello mum” interviews with tired, sweaty singers.
(1)Yes, unpublished comments about Hercules by Lydia Perović may have influenced this…
Photos: Clive Barda 2013