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S & H Opera Review

Truth, Illusion and Time: Wagner’s Parsifal, Welsh National Opera, 4th October 2003 (BK)

WNO’s new Parsifal, a co- production with Scottish Opera, is little short of a triumph: it blends a remarkable musical experience with thoughtful direction which together show obvious respect (or even reverence) for Wagner’s conception of the work as bühnenweihfestspiel, a festival play for the consecration of a stage.

Director/Designer Silviu Purcarete is concerned with the tension between truth and illusion that he finds in the Parsifal libretto, both in terms of staged action and set. He is equally concerned with Time, in the sense of time’s passage and effects on human experience, but also with Time in another sense too: how ‘timeless’ vision sustains human ideals.

Within these frameworks, Purcarete’s Gurnemanz (portrayed as a young man for once) represents the discernment of ‘truth’ while Kundry and Klingsor are deception and illusion. Thus the self-evident ‘truth’ of Amfortas’s guilty suffering is emphasised in this production at both physical and psychological levels; Amfortas is swathed in bandages throughout the whole work. Kundry and Klingsor, on the other hand, are the prisoners and servants of illusion in equal measure and Kundry is the more afflicted. Illusion claims her so firmly that even her redeeming service to the Grail Community is debased; her well-intended gift to Amfortas of balm from Arabia is actually useless sand.

Purcarete’s set for Act I is relentlessly cheerless, as if to point up the effects of a lost, sustaining truth on Montsalvat. The Squires awake to Gurnemanz’ call from uncomfortable hospital-style beds in a large room otherwise unfurnished except for an enormous statue of a Knight (rather like Rodin’s ‘Thinker’) which may be of Amfortas himself. When Amfortas arrives for his morning bathe, he lies bandaged on a hospital trolley and only the sight of the Swan and the morning sunlight provide hope for him. After Parsifal has killed the Swan (shown only as a few feathers and some blood) the bleak room transforms into the Grail Hall. The Grail is portrayed as a glass of water that turns blood-red as the ceremony proceeds. Parsifal is bored, falls asleep and is evicted.

Act II has Klingsor’s garden as a theatre, something between cabaret and brothel. A large mirror, centre-stage, acts as a scrying-glass while simultaneously allowing the voyeuristic audience to watch itself watching the ‘performance.’ The Flower Maidens at first are beautiful seductive women but like everything else in Klingsor’s realm they are illusions: in reality they are lifeless skeletons over which the Spear hangs horizontal all the time.

Klingsor’s domination over Kundry is total, even to the extent that he dresses as she does. His hair is long, his robe is the same red velvet. Kundry is seen to exist only as Klingsor’s slave, only to do his exactly his bidding, while the ambiguity of the motives behind his self-castration is also referenced obliquely by his clothing. Kundry’s taunting about this, ‘Bist du keusch?’ – ‘Are you chaste?’ is answered and yet ignored simultaneously by the ‘fashion statement.’


The only point at which Purcarete’s symbolism feels a touch heavy-handed is when Kundry first confronts Parsifal. She appears to him as a giant figure, towering over him, perhaps much as a mother appears to a young child, while she recounts his childhood and his mother’s heartbreak. This could represent some kind of Freudian flashback in Parsifal’s consciousness of course or maybe it’s another illusory ‘theatrical’ trick by Klingsor: it does smack of rubbing the hero’s nose in it a bit, but then Klingsor would do that, wouldn’t he? Mercifully, Kundry is her normal size for the seduction however.

A sense of reverence for both music and libretto really does pervade this production and is almost tangible from the opening bars of the Prelude. Vladimir Jurowski , fresh from his successes as Music Director of this year’s Glyndebourne Summer Festival, mentions in his excellent programme note, ‘Here Time becomes Space: a Parsifal Meditation,’ two things that go some way to explaining this. The first of these is his account of a sudden realisation during a train journey that there can be a ‘weird….sweetness. (in)..pain caused by love, and even a masochistic wish for the pain not to cease,’ while he was thinking about the winter landscape through which he was passing at the time, and which brought to his mind the minor version of the ‘Last Supper’ theme in Parsifal. His interpretation of the music in this performance reflected that sense with an extraordinary beauty, the like of which is (sadly) too rarely heard in Wagner performances these days.

The second aspect of Jurowski’s understanding of Parsifal that seems extremely significant in the light of Purcarete’s production has to do once again with Time. Jurowski explains how Wagner felt that the ‘Last Supper’ theme (the first in the Prelude) does not appear in the present: rather it is a reminiscence of the past. If I understand him rightly, Jurowski seems to be saying here that there is a special interplay between ‘passing time’ and ‘timelessness’ in Parsifal which is different from all other music and which accounts for the ‘spiritual’ quality of the music, when it is grasped by performers. I hope that this is what he meant to imply: it is certainly how I experienced the performance.

The singing in this production is almost uniformly excellent throughout. Alfred Reiter, although younger than many people who sing Gurnemanz, has great command of his voice and conveyed a wholly appropriate sense of dignity throughout. Sara Fulgoni, as Kundry coped admirably with all aspects of this demanding role: her singing was refined, powerful and once again perfectly controlled, a splendid achievement. Equal honours however are due to Robert Hayward ( Amfortas,) Donald Maxwell (Klingsor) and Ian Paterson (Titurel) all of whom were in tremendous voice and brought true conviction to their roles. Stephen O’Mara as Parsifal coped perfectly adequately: his is a rather light voice however (where have all the Heldentenors gone?) and there was a distinct sense of strain about him by the end of Act III. The WNO chorus and orchestra (always a pleasure in themselves) responded nobly (there is no other word) to Vladimir Jurowski’s direction helping create a truly extraordinary musical event.

Bill Kenny



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