A simple story...
12/08/2001 - and 11, 14, 17, 20, 22 December 2001
Richard Wagner: Parsifal
John Tomlinson (Gurnemanz), Robin Leggate (First Knight), Graeme Broadbent (Second Knight), Leah-Marian Jones (First Esquire/Flower Maiden), Clarissa Meek (Second Esquire/Voice from Above), Peter Auty (Third Esquire), Timothy Robinson (Fourth Esquire), Violeta Urmana (Kundry), Thomas Hampson (Amfortas), Stig Andersen (Parsifal), Alfred Reiter (Titurel), Willard W. White (Klingsor), Susan Gritton, Geraldine McGreevy, Rachel Nicholls, Sally Matthews (Flower Maidens)
Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Simon Rattle (conductor), Klaus Michael Grüber (director)
You wait years for a Parsifal, then three come along together, at Christmas. This production at Covent Garden, like the two in Berlin, was of course planned long before September 11. But maybe the opera's seamless fantasy of purity and danger, where macho (or male) aggression both risks destroying itself and lives in fear of destruction by female degeneracy (or women), is resonant when an apparent fool who espouses conventional piety is the nominal leader of the most powerful country in the world, while the leader of the global bad guys is apparently highly educated but driven to fanaticism because he doesn't fit in with the way things are (though the Taliban's misogyny is also reminiscent of that of the Grail Knights). Parsifal claims the fool can win, provided he is uneducated enough not to succumb to liberal arguments, for example, about not harming wild creatures. But Wagner also depicts, in detail and at length, the pain involved, for the fool and for those who encounter him, to the point where compassion for the right people takes precedence over the wisdom it is supposed to bring, and suffering seems to be desirable because it leads to compassion. Like the Christian model of redemption through suffering that Parsifal tries to subsume and transcend, Wagner's work can be both repellent and profoundly moving at the same time.
Klaus Michael Grüber 's production at Covent Garden (shared with the Teatro Lirico in Madrid) presents a different kind of mercy by being almost completely free of such thoughts. Grüber and his collaborators seem to see Parsifal as a Nordic literary fairy story, where the characters are underwritten to leave for the pseudo-mythology and grand situations. The sets for the first and third acts -- austere trees and a meadow with melting snow -- indeed looked decidedly Tolkeinish, while Klingsor's realm was beneath the sea, and the flower maidens lay on their sides and wafted beneath Miró-inspired shapes. (A note in the programme refers to Paul Klee, but the colours were those of Catalunya.) The total visual effect was almost embarrassingly sparse -- only an elegant near-monochrome reproduction of the Last Supper for the end of act 1 had any impact -- but it left space for the music, and for the performers, who looked exposed, small and utterly human, though many of them simply played types in a world dominated by the divine presence of the music, leaving a sense of something missing.
The exception was John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz. He was utterly sympathetic but also expressed awareness of the divine in every note, most wonderfully at the end of his great first act narrative where the fool theme emerges from his music. Tomlinson is singing the same role in Berlin, and is in less than perfect vocal shape, but (as long as he's not actually damaging his voice by singing) his rough patches and thin high notes seemed to work as part of his character's sadness, though there are moments, for example, in his Good Friday music, when you want beauty that wasn't there on the first night. Violeta Urmana is also commuting to Berlin as their Kundry, but her voice is in superb condition. She was sympathetic as Kundry, but perhaps the production gave her too integrated a personality, so that she lacked outbursts of passion and instability that would have given her more dramatic impact. This was even truer of Stig Andersen as Parsifal: his singing was fine, and he looked the part, blond and amiable, but there was only one thing to him. Except that he wore green in the first two acts and black armour in the third, you wouldn't have known that he was meant to be massively transformed.
Thomas Hampson's first Amfortas in the house was one of the main points of interest about this production, and he was landed with its one silly gimmick, a floor-length false arm with a hexagonal wheel on the end. He too sounded terrific, but somehow not in extreme agony. Even the greatest singer can only do so much, and the production didn't provide a context for the total horror of what Amfortas goes through.
The other main point of interest was Simon Rattle's too rare presence conducting opera in London. The orchestra clearly responded to him, and the music was generally focussed, perhaps a touch incense-scented at times in the first act, but always rich enough to fill the emotional space left by the etiolated production.
Willard White's sinister Klingsor, the chorus, knights, esquires and vocally gorgeous (if sartorially wishy-washy) flower maidens were all nearly impeccable. It would be great to see this ensemble in a production that understood that Parsifal is a Gesamtkunstwerk, not a comic strip with a sound track.