Parsifal


ParsifalRichard Wagner - Parsifal

The Metropolitan Opera, 2013 | Daniele Gatti, François Girard, Jonas Kaufmann, Katarina Dalayman, René Pape, Peter Mattei, Evgeny Nikitin, Rúni Brattaberg, Kiera Duffy, Lei Xu, Irene Roberts, Haeran Hong, Katherine Whyte, Heather Johnson, Ryan Speedo Green, Lauren McNeese, Jennifer Forni, Mark Schowalter, Andrew Stenson, Mario Chang, Maria Zifchak | The Met: Live in HD, 2 March 2013

If it did nothing else The Met’s new production of Wagner’s Parsifal at least emphatically confirmed a few points. Firstly, Parsifal is one of the most unique, beautiful and truly spiritual works ever written for the stage. No great revelation there, but it’s good to come out of a performance of this remarkable work feeling that it has been proven. Secondly, Jonas Kaufmann, singing the title role, is one of the best tenors in the world today - if not actually the very best. Again, although he has only sung this particular role once before, this won’t come as a surprise to anyone. A third point that many people also already know, is that Parsifal is an incredibly difficult work to stage. Unfortunately, François Girard’s production for the Met’s production confirmed that point, and just as emphatically as the other two points were made.

Part of the reason why Parsifal is such a difficult work to stage of course is because it is not an opera in the strictest sense, and not even a Wagnerian music-drama. Wagner coined a new category for the work for its presentation at Bayreuth, calling it a Bühnenweihfestspiel (”A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage”), which seems like a minor distinction (or a rather pompously Wagnerian one, take your pick), but in reality, with its religious subject matter, Parsifal is indeed closer to an oratorio than an opera. In terms of dramatic action, there’s not much that happens over the course of the three acts that take up over four and a half hours running time. While there may be little in the way of incident, much of the dramatic action conveyed through narration in long recitatives expressing noble sentiments and grand choruses of heavenly praise, Parsifal is nonetheless a remarkably dense work, filled with Christian imagery, Buddhist philosophy and ancient mythology. The meaning, the mystery and the ambiguity of the work, as well as its sheer beauty, is given its fullest expression however in Wagner’s music, the majestic summit of his career, some forty years in the making, completed in 1882 just six months before his death.

In the Met’s production however, Daniele Gatti’s conducting of the score tended towards a languorous levelling of pace and dynamic towards an enveloping somnolence. The only dimension that the viewer was likely to enter in this transcendentally spiritual work was that of unconsciousness. It wasn’t dull, it wasn’t boring, it was performed and sung magnificently and often with great sensitivity by a wonderful cast - but Parsifal is a work with countless levels of meaning and interpretation and there was no particular vision in either Gatti’s solemn even-handed conducting of the work or in Girard’s stage production. Set in a dark vaguely futuristic/timeless post-apocalyptic landscape, the knights dressed in modern black trousers and white shirts instead of armour, there was certainly a concerted effort to remove or at least downplay the traditional imagery and specific Christian elements in the work (in complete contrast to the recent Philipp Stölzl production that I saw at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin) in favour of a more universal spirituality.

This certainly worked for the First Act, reflecting the onerous task of the knights in their defence of the Grail, creating a sense of dark despair that weighs on Gurnemanz over the loss of the Spear, and emphasising the near overwhelming sense of pain that is felt by Amfortas in his eternal suffering from a grave wound that never heals. The black, cracked and scorched earth is further divided by a stream that has women on one side and knights on the other. Even Kundry cannot cross this river, which runs red with blood and widens at the end of the act, creating a powerful impression that feels in tune with the tone of the work and the wound of Amfortas, but the symbolism doesn’t particular add anything to what is expressed in Wagner’s score and libretto, nor does it encourage the viewer to consider the themes of the work anew. Returning to the same set in Act III - as dark, barren and desolate as it was in Act I - doesn’t give any sense of the redemptive force of Parsifal’s purity of purpose and sense of healing compassion.

Act II however is at least highly striking and original in its dark imagery of Klingsor and his vampy, ghostly Flower Maidens with spears wading in blood. Avoiding traditional interpretations of this scene, it at least contrasts with the seductiveness of Wagner’s score or could be said to draw out its sinister undercurrents, but it’s hard to imagine Parsifal being seduced by either the maidens or Kundry here. As the most ambiguous figure within the work, there is certainly a case for emphasising Kundry’s different roles as a woman in the work - and the symbolism certainly suggested as much - but it’s difficult to establish a sense of the character being anything more than all things to all men. She’s a mother with deep reserves of love and compassion, a lover, a whore and a temptress a distraction from the man with purity of purpose. She doesn’t need to be quite so open, but like all the other concepts in this production, it seemed unable to settle for any one interpretation or even unifying concept, leaving all possibilities there to be read as desired.

If there was a lack of vision in the production’s visual and conceptual interpretation of the work, it often looked marvellous and at least provided a suitable platform for the singers to bring a much needed sense of humanity and meaning to the words. The Met’s casting was the principal attraction here. Jonas Kaufmann was a memorable Parsifal, his performance here likely to be the standard that any modern production of Parsifal in the world today is likely to be judged against. His voice, his delivery and his interpretation made this an almost soulful performance. We had to really wait until the third act to get the full impact - his Act II duets alongside Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry were less effective than those in Act III with René Pape’s Gurnemanz - but this was glorious, dreamy singing and deeply persuasive of the real character and meaning of the work that was lacking elsewhere in the production itself.

It helped that Pape was able to reach deeply into his character also with a beautiful soft Wagnerian line free of bluster. He was strong in his long first Act narration, but unassisted by anything to work with in the production design and concept, it wasn’t until the transcendental third Act that he was able to lift this to another level, presumably buoyed by Kaufmann’s sensitive performance. Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry was wonderfully sung, but I failed to gain any sense of who or what her character was supposed to be from this production or from her interaction with Kaufmann’s Parsifal. Philipp Stölzl’s recent Deutsche Oper production of Parsifal had its flaws certainly, but it at least put Kundry at the centre of the work and Evelyn Herlitzius explored the vocal and emotional range of the character more effectively. Dalayman’s performance was by no means weak however, and there were no weaknesses to be found elsewhere in Peter Mattei’s painfully agonised and deeply moving Amfortas, while Evgeny Nikitin brought a sense of real danger and purpose to his Klingsor that avoided all the evil-villain clichés - notwithstanding his being bathed in and wading in blood throughout the second Act.

You could go down as far as Rúni Brattaberg’s Titurel the individual Flower Maidens here and you’d still not find a single weak link in the singing performances. Gatti’s conducting, which I found more persuasive divorced from the images when I listened back to the performance on the radio broadcast, the beautiful playing of the work by the Met orchestra and the strong consistent singing of a fine cast, all did at least work hand-in-hand with Girard’s direction and Michael Levine’s set designs. Even if it lacked a visionary edge to match Wagner’s majestic final testament, this was a mesmeric Parsifal that did justice to one of the greatest works in all of opera.

ParsifalRichard Wagner - Parsifal

Deutsche Oper, Berlin 2012 | Donald Runnicles, Philipp Stölzl, Mara Kurotschka, Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester, Albert Pesendorfer, Matti Salminen, Klaus Florian Vogt, Thomas Jesatko, Evelyn Herlitzius, Burkhard Ulrich, Andrew Harris, Kim-Lilian Strebel, Annie Rosen, Paul Kaufmann, Matthew Pena, Hulkar Sabirova, Martina Welschenbach, Rachel Hauge, Hila Fahima, Annie Rosen, Dana Beth Miller | 25 October 2012

Director Philipp Stölzl’s approach to the Deutsche Oper’s new 2012/13 production of Parsifal in Berlin is immediately and firmly established by the extraordinary setting for the work’s Overture. On a rocky recreation of Golgotha, Christ hangs from a cross in a meticulously detailed tableau vivant representation of the Crucifixion. Surrounded by onlookers freeze-framed in various states of anguish and despair, with Roman soldiers guarding the area, one significantly (as far as this opera is concerned) with a lance, the figures move in slow motion as Christ dies on the cross during the length of the overture, his side is pierced by the soldier’s spear and the blood that runs from it is caught in the chalice and respectfully coveted by his followers. It’s a powerful way to start a performance of this work, and when you have as beautiful a piece of music as the Overture to Parsifal, why waste it on something less than monumental? Solemn, respectful and dignified, the scene is however also completely relevant to the opera’s Passion play exploration of suffering and redemption through death and rebirth and appropriate in how those concepts are tied up by Wagner into the symbolic images of the Lance and the Holy Grail.

Any performance of Wagner’s remarkable final work should indeed be something of a spiritual experience over the course of its four and a half hour length, but there was a sense that Philipp Stölzl’s production here (co-directed by Mara Kurotschka) was perhaps a little too solemn and reverential - or perhaps somewhat too grandiose - to really touch on the transcendental elements of the work. If there’s a touch of kitsch to the production - something characteristic of this director - it’s appropriate to one where the iconography and glorification of Christ’s passion adheres to a certain Catholic tradition. You don’t need to look too far beyond the condition of Amfortas - the Knight of the Holy Grail in agony from a perpetual wound caused by the lance, his suffering deepened by each display of the Holy Grail that gives sustenance and renewed vigour to its followers - to recognise that it’s the question of suffering that is central to the work in how it can be a redemptive force. There was certainly plenty of pain on display in the Deutsche Oper’s new production - the opera house celebrating its 100th anniversary - but little sense of it leading to any kind of transcendental enlightenment.

Despite the prettification of the visuals, every ounce of the earth-shattering, curtain-tearing pain depicted in Christ’s Crucifixion and the despair in the faces of his followers (most notably in one Mary Magdalene/Kundry figure at the margins) is there in the opening scene and retained to be built upon by the events recounted by Gurnemanz and enacted in Parsifal’s journey to recover the Holy Spear from the hands of Klingsor. Stölzl recognises that all that suffering shown in the opening scene is going to be caught up in the musical themes established by Wagner in the Overture, and it consequently becomes impossible to disassociate the suffering of Christ himself every time those leitmotifs swirl and swell throughout the remainder of the work. And just in case the musical expression isn’t powerful enough (and under the baton of Donald Runnicles it often was, even if lacked any real character or vision), the director also uses every visual element to emphasise and add to the near overwhelming display of agony and despair.

That can be as simple as the Monsalvat set design sharing many of the rocky structures and contours of the opening Golgotha scene, but the subsequent scenes also reflect the opening, being mostly static in arrangement, each scene like a 3-dimensional engraving of one of the Stations of the Cross, a single image frieze set in slow motion movement. The set designs by Conrad Moritz Reinhardt and Stölzl moreover allow every element of the work to be examined in detail and every character to be explored for their own personal suffering that contributes to the collective pain. Even every element of the backstory narrated at length by Gurnemanz is depicted visually in mini scenes, as beautifully arranged and brutal as a Caravaggio painting, that are played out in the background on the tops of rocky outcrops. This production of Parsifal is as visually striking as previous Stölzl productions I’ve seen (Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini and most notably his production of Wagner’s Rienzi, also for the Deutsche Oper), beautifully arranged, lit and coloured, more than a little kitch but - within its own designs - it’s also much more respectfully faithful here to the tone of the work in question.

It’s actually perhaps a little too literal and respectful for a work that should also have a life in a spiritual dimension. (That might sound like a pretentious statement for any other work, but not for this one). There’s no doubt that this production - musically as well as visually and conceptually - is completely faithful to the spirit of the work, but it never seems to get beyond it to illuminate or elevate the underlying meaning. That’s evidently a tall order for a work that is wrapped up in Wagner’s complex and contradictory ideas and philosophies, but while Stölzl’s production is not without its own personal touches in its examination of these concepts, they don’t really amount to much and don’t resolve into any kind of satisfactory conclusion. The confusion is best exemplified within the role of Amfortas - the Christ figure of the work - who is not healed by the lance at the end here, but allowed to escape from his pain through death at its touch. This perhaps relates to the very specific Good Friday notions of death and rebirth in a work that the composer described as a Bühnenweihfestspiel - “A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage” - but quite where the necessary rebirth/transcendence is supposed to come from is less than clear. There is a suggestion however that the key to this interpretation could lie within the figure of Kundry.

More so than Parsifal or Amfortas, or even Gurnemanz, the focus in this production is very much on that contradictory element of Kundry, whose role is one of the ambiguities that the work principally revolves around - the saint and the sinner, the serpent and the agent of salvation. In this production she’s there at the crucifixion in the guise of Mary Magdalene, and is therefore the single element of continuity (other than the Grail and the Lance) that runs through the whole work, appearing in Gurnemanz’s backstory, being instrumental in bringing about Parsifal’s self-enlightenment, and in the end recognising her role to serve the new protector of the Grail. Here however, in the very final scene of the production, she seems to become terrified of the prospect of the worship and power that this inspires in Parsifal and the Grail’s followers, and where such Christian fervour might lead - a reference perhaps to future religious conflicts or perhaps, since it now seems almost obligatory to acknowledge in a Wagner opera, a premonitory vision of the rise of Nazism. As depicted by Evelyn Herlitzius in the role, Kundry remains a (female) figure of considerable interest and ambiguity, but quite how it all ties together must - perhaps necessarily considering the nature of the work - remain a mystery.

If the work never comes together musically or conceptually in a way that entirely lives up to the proposal put forward in the audacious opening scene, it’s through no fault of the singing performances. Now 67, Matti Salminen was simply superb, fulfilling everything that is required of a Gurnemanz, his deep, beautifully weighted sonorous tones providing the solid basis and solemn gravity that anchors the work in the real world while simultaneously hinting at timeless mysteries. One would think that Klaus Florian Vogt’s light lyrical tenor voice would not be as well suited to the Heldentenor role of Parsifal as it is to his angelic Lohengrin (even though the two characters are mythologically related), but yet again he brings another vocal dimension to a familiar role, demonstrating a capability of pulling those deeper resonant chest sounds out where necessary - such as in his cry of ‘Amfortas!’ at the recognition scene of the meaning of pain, suffering and love - and filling them with an expressive lightness and sensitivity. Dramatically however and in expression of his character, he was given little to work with by the director. Evelyn Herlitzius on the other hand had a rather more substantial personality as this production’s Kundry and rose to the challenge exceptionally well, emoting and projecting the sentiments of the work through some fine singing. Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester (Amfortas), Albert Pesendorfer (Titurel) and Thomas Jesatko (Klingsor) were more than adequate if they didn’t make quite as much of an impression as the principal roles, but there was also some lovely singing from the three Flowermaidens.

ParsifalRichard Wagner - Parsifal

English National Opera, London | Mark Wigglesworth, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Iain Paterson, John Tomlinson, Tom Fox, Stuart Skelton, Jane Dutton, Andrew Greenan | The Coliseum, London - February 19th, 2011

Wagner’s final opera, written and first produced in 1882, a year before his death, takes around four hours to relate a story that could be easily summarised in a couple of lines. It’s about a group of knights, protectors of the Holy Grail, who hope one day to recover the equally holy spear that pierced Christ’s side while on the cross. It has been prophesised that only a pure innocent holy fool will be able to achieve this, wresting it from the clutches of the evil Klingsor and thereby bring about redemption for Amfortas, the leader of the knights who suffers from an eternal wound that the spear has inflicted upon him. The person who comes along to fulfil this prophecy is Parsifal.

It seems like a very simple storyline and not one that would fill four hours of an opera, one would think – or at least one would think that were they not familiar with Richard Wagner. The key word in the above description is ‘suffering’, and, no, I’m not describing what an audience listening to four hours of Wagner has to undergo. On the contrary, Parsifal is filled end to end with some of the most exquisitely beautiful, thoughtful and indescribably sublime music that the composer, or indeed any composer, has ever written. The opera, rather, was inspired by Wagner’s attempt, late in his life, to come to terms with the idea of suffering, endless suffering, life as sufferance, and question what humanity gains through endurance of such torment.

Parsifal

There’s evidently a heavily Christian undercurrent to Parsifal then (although Wagner was in fact largely inspired by Buddhist teaching on the matter), with many of the characters undergoing Christ-like trials and torments to ultimately achieve purification for humanity, rediscover innocence, peace and an end to suffering, and through this the inspiration to continue to wage a holy war against infidels and those whose blood is less than pure. That makes the concept that Parsifal explores rather more complicated, not to say, in the light of the composer’s notorious anti-Semitic sentiments, even somewhat sinister.

The huge undertaking of the various concepts, and the Christian ideals that are explored in Parsifal however can be seen not even as an undercurrent, but in the very overt subject matter of the Holy Grail itself and the powerful symbolism of this image – according to Wagner “The most profound symbol that could ever have been invented as the content of the physical-spiritual kernel of any religion”. One need only think of how the term is applied in a modern context as the be all and end all, the ultimate aim, aspiration and desire of every human being – something that they are prepared to sacrifice everything for and endure so much suffering to attain.That’s why Parsifal takes four hours to express its ideas, since this is something that has to be worked for, won through long suffering, endurance and purity of purpose. Almost all of the characters in the opera are single-minded in their pursuit of this aim, and it is not too difficult to fathom their motivations, but there are some, Amfortas, and particularly Kundry, who have conflicting behaviours and rather more complex personalities, and it is ultimately through them, as much as through Parsifal, that true enlightenment is reached. All of the characters however are given infinitely more depth through Wagner’s sensuously contemplative score that lifts the piece out of any earthly existence and out into a realm “beyond time and space”.

Parsifal

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s superb 1999 stage production, revived here for its final performances at the English National Opera, brilliantly works on multiple levels, creating a place that seems to exist in an otherworldly domain, while at the same time being resolutely physical and austere in its expression of the nature of the characters and their struggles. In stark contrast to Mike Figgis’ first attempt at opera direction with Lucrezia Borgia, seen on stage at the Coliseum the previous night, Lehnhoff – renowned for his productions of Wagner’s music dramas – demonstrates a deep understanding of Parsifal and, in what can be a very static opera, makes full use of the stage to express it. The restlessness of the characters and their relation to one another is played out in their movements and proximity to one another, lighting and colouration used for emphasis and to highlight the tones expressed by the music. And not only is full use of the stage made in this respect, but, like the score, it even takes it beyond the confines of the physical dimensions of the Raimund Bauer’s set designs. That sounds like hyperbole, but the staging and Wagner’s remarkable orchestration is so persuasive that it really does take the audience into another dimension.

The playing of the orchestra of the English National Opera, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, could not be faulted, nor could individual performances by a uniformly strong cast or the powerful presence of the chorus. It would be unfair to single out any one singer when every element works together in such a fashion, but John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz proved to be an impressive narrator to anchor the opera with his wonderful bass tone and clear English diction. There are only a few performances of this opera left at the Coliseum, and although it has been recorded for posterity and is available on Blu-ray disc, it is still well worth making the effort to see it in a live performance before it disappears from the stage forever.