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Richard Wagner: Parsifal
Andrew Richards (Parsifal), Anna Larsson (Kundry), Thomas Johannes Mayer (Amfortas), Jan-Hendrik Rootering (Gurnemanz), Tómas Tómasson (Klingsor), Victor von Halem (Titurel), Chorus of la Monnaie/De Munt, Winfried Maczewski (chorus master), Youth Chorus of la Monnaie/De Munt, Benoît Giaux (chorus master), Symphony Orchestra of la Monnaie/De Munt, Hartmut Haenchen (conductor), Romeo Castelucci (director, set, costume, and lighting designer), Cindy van Acker (choreographer), Dasniya Sommer (bondage choreographer), Apparati Effimeri (video)
Live recording at La Monnaie/De Munt, Brussels (February 20, 2011) – 239’
2 DVDs BelAir Classiques BAC097 – Booklet and subtitles in German, English, French, and Dutch

ConcertoNet gives a ranking to CDs, DVDs, etc of from zero to four eighth notes. While watching this DVD, I sometimes felt it deserved zero while at the same time certain aspects of it (notably Hartmut Haenchen’s conducting) deserve top marks.

As we all know, the opera world is awash in controversy about various approaches toward stage direction, and the German word Regietheater (“director’s theatre”) has nosed itself into the lexicon. Of all operas, Wagner’s enigmatic Parsifal arguably lends itself to (and thus gives rise to) the widest extremes of interpretive approaches. The director of this production, Romeo Castellucci, is referred to as an “experimental director” although even so-called “conventional” directors might be similarly described. He has also been described as a provocateur.

The production begins with a visual pun: as the prelude plays, the profile of a man is projected on the curtain; visible through the curtain right at the level of his ear, is a large yellow snake (yes, it is a real snake, and it appears later). This obviously represents the German expression Ohrwurm (“earworm”) for a tune that keeps running through your head. And, by the way, the man’s profile is that of Friedrich Nietszche, the philosopher who roundly condemned the drama of Parsifal while praising its music. Nietszche also appears in Act II in the guise of Klingsor (Or maybe Klingsor is in the guise of Nietszche) - in fact there are two of them, each pretending to conduct the music. Some find these kinds of staging references fascinating while others might not understand them or, even if they “get” the references, do not see the necessity or importance of them. While this production is not as dense with references as Christoph Schlingensief’s production of Parsifal which was performed at Bayreuth from 2004 to 2007, its style (various styles, actually) of presentation can be confounding.

The recording was made of just one performance of the opera’s run at the opera house in Brussels. Parts of it simply don’t come across on film, notably the start of Act I where all one can see for a lengthy period are a few points of light while we hear two men’s voices (Gurnemanz and Amfortas). We eventually see that they are deeply embedded in greenery - in fact the greenery seems to be alive (a large number of supers are listed in the credits; some take their bows swathed in greenery). When we get to the transformation for the religious ceremony, all we see is a white screen; I can only surmise that Castellucci couldn’t think of anything to do with this. Act II presents a grey, chalky scene; female dancers do most of the supposedly alluring movements credited to the “Shibari bondage choreography” of Dasniya Sommer; there is full genital exposure. Act III shows us the full cast and supers, all in ordinary modern clothing, endlessly walking toward the audience on a series of treadmills. A large disk seems to represent the grail. Gurnemanz appears with a German shepherd dog. Obviously the enigmas within Parsifal remain unrevealed.

The singing is mostly very good. Jan-Hendrick Rootering displays a few dry patches in his lengthy narrations; actually this isn’t inappropriate for the role of Gurnemanz. Thomas Johannes Mayer has a fine voice but fails to express the all-out anguish of the suffering Amfortas. Andrew Richards is a forthright Parsifal and Anna Larsson a distinguished Kundry. Hartmut Haenchen moves things along more quickly than many other conductors (Act I is about 100 minutes long, for example), but it never seems unduly rushed (other conductors take note!)

As mentioned above, this is a recording of a single performance. Some problems might have been eliminated with the second take: there are a few blips in the pickup and the wind instruments sometimes have a harsh edge (I’m sure this is not how it sounded in the theatre).

Neophytes who are curious about Wagner and want to be introduced to the opera won’t know what the heck is going on here. Those with some knowledge will find frustration, especially during the murky goings-on at the beginning. This leaves only those who are mad keen on Regietheater who will want this DVD. Others: approach with caution.

Michael Johnson




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