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Richard Wagner: Parsifal
Simon O’Neill (Parsifal), René Pape (Gurnemanz), Gerald Finley (Amfortas), Angela Denoke (Kundry), Willard W. White (Klingsor), Robert Lloyd (Titurel), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Antonio Pappano (Conductor), Royal Opera Chorus, Renato Balsadonna (Chorus Master), Stephen Langridge (Stage Director), Alison Chitty (Set and Costume Designer), Paul Pyant (Lighting Designer), Dan O'Neill (Choreography), Thomas Bergman and Willem Bramsche (Video Designers)
Live recording: Royal Opera House, London, England (December 2013) – 270’ (+ Bonus material 12’)
Opus Arte #OA 1158D (or Blu-ray #OA BD7159D) (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese, Korean – Booklet in English, French, German

Musically and vocally this is a very fine performance. Unfortunately director Stephen Langridge offers a smorgasbord of dramatic techniques that only fitfully work, while the visuals are mostly mundane if not drab.

For those not familiar with the slender plot of this lengthy, much puzzled-over and much-loved opera, here is a précis: the setting is medieval/legendary Europe. A naïve young man (Parsifal) stumbles across a group of monastic knights led by a very elderly man (Titurel) and his agonized son (Amfortas) who suffers a wound that will not heal. An elderly priest, Gurnemanz, explains some of what transpires as a ceremony deploying the holy grail unfolds. The group awaits the arrival of an innocent simpleton who can release them from a curse. Throughout, an afflicted woman, Kundry, utters puzzling statements. Act II takes us to a magic garden ruled by one Klingsor. It is populated by rather creepy Flower Maidens; Kundry appears among them. Parsifal arrives and he becomes the object of profane desire. Kundry attempts to seduce him (we learn something of Parsifal’s origins - he seems ignorant of them but Kundry is all-knowing). He rejects her advances and Klingsor hurls his spear at him. He catches the spear, and Klingsor’s realm collapses. In Act II we are back at the scene of Act I; many years have passed and Parsifal, fatigued after lengthy wandering, trudges in. It is Good Friday; Titurel has died and Amfortas mourns. The arrival of Parsifal apparently revives the languishing brotherhood. He presides over the ceremony while Kundry, released from her torments, dies.

Many have observed about the work that not much happens and it all takes a long time for it not to happen. Fair enough. It provides a huge challenge for directors, who have responded with a bewildering variety of approaches, a few of which are on display in this production.

Alison Chitty’s designs (both sets and costumes) serve mainly to dampen down one’s interest in the characters. In Act I Gurnemanz, Amfortas and the grail knights are dressed in banal, ill-fitting, present-day suits, while the set (for all three acts) is dominated by a glass cube that opens up to reveal a hospital bed. For the first act’s transformation scene (normally a welcome relief in a lengthy act almost devoid of action) the cube becomes encased in an even larger glass cube - the whole thing resembles a high-end office lobby. In Act III the scenery is supposed to resemble a blooming spring morning, but instead conjures up a winter sunset. To signal the passage of time, Gurnemanz in Act III wears dusty clothes.

To liven things up, the cube is also the source of vivid flash images, such as of a screaming mouth (this turns out to be a reference to Kundry’s mocking laughter that has condemned her to a life of endless penance); we also see an image of Amfortas’s castration. As if this isn’t sensational enough, the revelation of the grail turns out to be a prepubescent boy clad in a loin-cloth. Amfortas uses a scalpel to cut an incision on his torso (mimicking Christ’s spear wound); the boy collapses but is not killed. Another gory innovation occurs in Act II when Parsifal catches Klingsor’s spear - which at the same time blinds him, and there he is, like Samson, with blood streaming from his eye sockets. In Act III (the magic spear has led him back to the temple) Kundry restores his sight. The knights denigrate Amfortas.

We also get quick glimpses of figures wearing expressionist masks; during the first act’s ceremony some men stab themselves in the hand (self-inflicted stigmata?) while later a group of burglars (?) make off with something or other.

As for the enigmatic, shape-shifting Kundry: in Act I she is bald; at the start of Act II she has short red hair, becoming long by the end of the act. In Act III she has long blonde hair. In this production she does not die.

The title role of the work is frequently just a cipher. Simon O’Neill is burly and grizzled - hardly the naïve youth called for (and who so few Wagnerian tenors can convincingly portray). However he has a sweet directness in his handling of the role, much like an ordinary bloke who has stumbled into a deeply puzzling situation. And his bright voice has a youthful freshness to it - no leathery baritenor here. (The bonus track features O’Neill and Pappano going over a scene.)

Angela Denoke superbly maintains focus both musically and dramatically; if at times I wish she were more intense, she (like all the cast) keeps to the musical line so firmly and lovingly established by Antonio Pappano. Gerald Finley maintains a steady (and very expressive) vocal line while avoiding the howling that many singers portraying Amfortas resort to. Willard W. White vividly establishes the villainy of Klingsor - in fact one wishes the role were longer. René Pape, as one would expect, is the ideal Gurnemanz, whose lengthy narrations drove audiences to distraction before the blessed invention of supertitles. Orchestra and chorus are fully up to Covent Garden’s high standards.

There are several productions of Parsifal available on DVD, all in competition with one another both musically and dramatically. Not only do we have to decipher what Wagner intended, but also what each production intends to say. There really ought to be one of those impressive German words that means “deciphering the producer’s intentions, especially re Wagner and most especially re Parsifal”. This set certainly deserves consideration.

Michael Johnson




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