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Powerhouse in the Wasteland

02/13/1999 -  and 17, 20, 23, 26 February, 3, 6, 13, 16, 19 March 1999
Richard Wagner Parsifal
Gwynne Howell (Gurnemanz), Kathryn Harries (Kundry), Jonathan Summers (Amfortas), Kim Begley (Parsifal), John Connell (Titurel), Peter Sidhom (Klingsor)
English National Opera Chorus, English National Opera Orchestra
Mark Elder (conductor)
Nikolaus Lehnhoff (director)
Translation by Michael Stokes

The programme notes on this new production of Parsifal at the English National Opera describe the opera as "science fiction", and the director Nikolaus Lehnhoff has emphasised in interviews its modernity, its characters' uncertainty about who they are and where they belong. But, while clearly not aimed at Wagner traditionalists, the production is beautiful and deeply moving, and delivers the opera's mythical power and emotion with austere coherence. The ending is painful and indeterminate, following the music rather than the text, as Parsifal leaves the crown on Titurel's corpse and departs with Kundry back along a railway track which peters out at the Grail shrine. For the ENO, however, this is certainly a moment of redemption, even triumph, after a rocky season of pretty good revivals and uneven new productions.

Lenhoff starts from Wagner's original conception of Parsifal as a work on Buddhist themes, and homes in on the idea of renunciation of attachment which overlaps with the Christian asceticism, or self-mortification, traditionally found in the opera. The decor and costumes reflect this blending of eastern and Christian-monastic elements, although the total effect could be called "Star Wars", something evocative and coherent but alien.

The set is abstract, a single grey curved slope, with the steep part hidden by a wall before the act one transformation, and industrial-looking side buildings during act one. Strikingly, the wasteland strewn with rocks and rubble in acts one and three is also a Buddhist stone garden. The entrance to the Grail Shrine is blocked by a massive stone which rolls dramatically around and away in imitation of Christ's tomb.

The Grail Knights wear monastic grey in act one, first world war greatcoats and gas masks in act three, perhaps a nod to T.S. Eliot's wasteland. The flower maidens wear sweeping brown mediaeval dresses, with conical extensions to the sleeves. Their allure comes purely from the fluid patterns their dresses make, from pink lighting, and from their music. Kligsor, dressed as a Japanese potentate in red and white, the only non-neutral colours in the production, appears suspended in a circle behind a scrim depicting the pelvis of a skeleton, an image which is tasteless, slightly comic and powerfully appropriate. Titurel's semi-skeletal remains are prominent in act three.

The parallel journeys of Parsifal and Kundry form the core of the action. In act one, both appear in rich brown, with red "masks" painted across their eyes. Parsifal looks like an exotic version of Papageno, until in act three he appears transformed into the holy-picture saintly knight who appears in the production publicity.

Kundry, whose path is more complex and original, appears in a range of guises, often sculptural. In act one she has a hairy body-suit (following images of the penitent Mary Magdalene grown hairy) and a nest-like shell which also resembles wings, suggesting a cocoon and perhaps her possible status as a fallen angel -- her history of reincarnation recalls Gnostic Sophia, embodied as Helen of Troy and a sequence of other puzzling women. At the start of act two, as Klingsor reclaims her, she appears trapped under the fabric of the set with only her head and flowing hair visible, like the Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia. She appears to seduce Parsifal in a massive golden garment, walks out from behind it in golden baroque armour, and ends up in a golden slip-dress suitable for clubbing. In act three, she is a mummy with only her upper face and flowing hair visible, emerging from the wraps.

Musically also, this is probably not a production for purists but it is striking and powerful. Mark Elder and the ENO orchestra brought out the unease, and the extreme emotions, of the score in a way which at times recalled, not even Schoenberg, but the eastern-influenced minimalists. For example, the instantly hypnotic but impossible-to-analyse opening of the first-act prelude had the meditative focus of something of LaMonte Young's. Elder seemed to move the music along between such interludes, frantically rather than confidently, until the anxious calm of the ending.

The singers, all ENO regulars with no big Wagnerian names, gave committed and striking performances without exception. Kathryn Harries as Kundry had a luscious voice, with a slowish vibrato, and a physical presence and questing sadness which made it impossible not to watch her, even when she was a silent bystander. Gwynne Howell's singing doesn't have the power and resonance it once did, but he was an emotional Gurnemanz, his confident narrative dissolving into irritation with Parsifal and then into complete confusion and silence in act three. Jonathan Summers as Amfortas and John Connell as Titurel were solid vocally and to the point dramatically, while Peter Sidhom as Klingsor sang resoundingly but acted, well, impotent as well as sinister.

Kim Begley was recently reported as saying that he does not like singing the role of Parsifal in English, because Wagner's music is so closely tied to the German text. (In this production, the music has controversially been adapted slightly to fit English speech rhythms. There were, though, still passages where the word setting wasn't exactly idiomatic.) If Begley had reservations about this production, they didn't show. He is a fine actor, and gave an apparently straighforward account of Parsifal's journey from a gauche, stupider-than-Siegfried, youth to a hero matured by his experience of suffering. His encounter with Kundry in act two was a heart-wrenching study of need and disgust. Above all, Begley's singing tonight was absolutely clear and forceful, appropriately heroic and completely musical.

H.E. Elsom



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