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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal

Parsifal: Christopher Ventris,
Kundry: Waltraud Meier,
Gurnemanz: Matti Salminen,
Amfortas: Thomas Hampson,
Klingsor: Tom Fox,
Titurel: Bjarni Thor Kristinsson,
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchestra Berlin, Festspielchor, Baden-Baden/Kent Nagano
Nikolaus Lenhoff, Stage Director
recorded live, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, 4th, 6th and 8th August 2004.
DVD: all regions
including film "Parsifal's Progress" 317 minutes.
OPUS ARTE OA 0915D [3 DVDs: 317:00]

 

Musically, this production is superb. Visually it is excellent. And the filming itself reaches the level of high art, a further plain of creative insight. It would please Wagner most, though, that this version is a true Gesamtkunstwerk, because it ties in all elements possible, and, moreover, deals lucidly with the philosophic ideas that fundamentally underpin Wagner's concepts.

Even before the first notes are played, there’s a thrust to the dramatic narrative. The stage is covered in dust and shards of masonry. A meteorite is lodged in a wall, as if the universe itself was out of alignment, irreparably damaged. Gurnemanz’s aides are dressed like the thousands of statues in the Terracotta Army in Xian. I shall digress, but bear with me, for the connection seems to illuminate much of what this production is about. The Xian statues were made on the orders of a visionary warrior who united China for the first time, standardized its texts and infrastructure and started the Great Wall. Haunted by his dubious birthright, he exacted cruel revenge on what we’d today call "the Establishment". He became paranoid, tormenting himself to search for "the elixir of immortality". Yet, despite the colossal scale of his achievements, his dynasty collapsed, his idealism tainted by savagery. His great palaces and libraries were burned to the ground. There’s obviously no direct reference to Monsalvat and its past, but the resonances, like half-forgotten legend, shed light on what might be an inner meaning of this opera.

Matti Salminen, as Gurnemanz, exudes dignity and nobility. What grandeur! Nonetheless, we are reminded that something is seriously out of kilter. Here, the medium of film comes into its own, as the camera captures in close-up every grimace on Amfortas’s tortured face. Hampson may not have much to sing in this act, but in this production, he is a central presence, absolutely essential to the action around him. His natural elegant persona is transformed. Silently, through brilliant acting, he conveys both intense Weltschmerz and suffering, yet still convinces as a powerful King and Commander. His tenderness towards his father, and his expression of love and helplessness is exceptionally moving. This Amfortas knows compassion – tellingly, he glances at Kundry with kindness – but it is not enough. His wound is such it must be healed by others. Titurel , in this production emerges in glorious, shining reptilian guise. He may be dying, but he still has more animal spark in him than his wounded, doomed son.

Kundry is the only real stroke of colour in the ashen landscape. Her costume is a masterstroke in itself – Waltraud Meier appears as a battered roadkill, her "fur" matted with what appears to be blood. She writhes, twists and rolls in agony, like a wild animal smashed by an overwhelming force, yet one which refuses to die. Singing her difficult, almost alto, lines is a tour de force at the best of times, but here she conveys an almost elemental, supernatural instinct; it is she who proclaims by silent rapture the approach of the "pure fool" even before he bursts on stage. This is another detail which would be lost in performance without the focus of film. Christopher Ventris has made Parsifal his own, through many performances. While his face lacks the mobility of Hampson’s or Meier’s, he acts with his voice. Like Meier’s Kundry, he is a wild, scratched animal, youthful sounding but with an unblinking, solid physicality that contrasts well with Hampson’s cerebral anguish. Gurnemanz’s account of how things came to pass is sung with stunning dignity and nobility. Even though Salminen has sung the role many times and we know the story, he still exudes an almost hypnotic effect on us. But not quite so on the young man, who listens avidly but is no overawed cipher. It is Kundry’s movements and the orchestra who convey the prophecy "By compassion made wise the poor Fool". Kundry alone has power to rotate the meteorite – symbolic of her central role in the proceedings.

Tom Fox’s Klingsor is convincingly sung, but the effect is unfortunately spoiled by his costume, which is frivolous mock kabuki, quite out of synch with the rest of the visual production. Perhaps, though, this is not unintentional. In the documentary that follows, Lenhoff and Fox say that this Klingsor loves Parsifal and is glad to be beaten because in death he will be released from his struggle. The Flower Maidens are depicted in context again, like Chinese tomb figurines of courtesans, their long, floating sleeves frozen forever in stylized dance. The choreography is excellent. The maidens weave a maze around Parsifal but cannot touch him, as if he were encased in the invisible armour of purity. They move with an organic unity, like waves, like leaves. In a telling reference to the dead swan, Kundry hides behind an edifice that resembles folded wings, only her head showing, like a bird. Gradually she sheds parts of her costume, like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, until she, too, looks as vulnerable as a newborn.

Again, a beautifully played Vorspiel, simply filmed, marks the transition to the world of the Final Act. Gurnemanz is old and weary. Kundry lies at the end – or is it the beginning? – of a curved railway line that leads offstage. Gurnemanz, ever the representative of ritual and order, reproaches the strange, black knight who comes bearing arms on a Holy Day. Yet the spear Parsifal brings is not a weapon, but a healing agent. He has been on a long journey, searching for Montsalvat, but it is a journey of self-realization, of gaining insight and maturity as well. Some productions may make more of the "Christian" elements of the opera, but here the interpretation is far more profound and spiritual – compassion is so essential to life that it transcends religion. Nagano and Lenhoff said that their vision very much focused on the dichotomy between traditional concepts of social and religious convention and the subversive, liberating effects of a "pure", spiritual state of compassion, which transcends all temporal assumptions. The Knights may once have been idealistic and holy, but they have become embroiled in formulaic ritual. Their life force has to be fed by the Grail; not by their innate sense of compassion. This is why they are starving, depicted as a defeated army in rout. They have lost even that sense of humanity that sustained them before. They mob Amfortas like a crowd of grasping, bullying rats. Blind aggression and self-interest motivate them now. They’ve even lost their respect for Amfortas, a human being. It is an incredibly painful scene to witness. The message is clear: selfishness makes people subsume themselves to gang values and mob rule. They may win in the short term by demeaning others but the triumph of the lowest common denominator makes them lose their souls. Again, the choreography here emphasizes the dissonances in the music, so deftly articulated by Nagano.

In this interpretation, Amfortas plays a pivotal role. In a terrifying vignette, he falls into a tomb of "terracotta warriors" where he nearly becomes trapped. But what he has left of his humanity helps him approach his father’s shrivelled corpse and hold it lovingly, in an act of ultimate compassion. The film captures every nuance of emotion on Hampsons face, while from afar, a choir sings of the mercy of the Grail. Amfortas also links the old hierarchy of the Grail through Titurel, himself and Parsifal, when he hands Parsifal his crown, heartfelt hope and faith in a better future. Parsifal, whom Ventris now portrays with great dignity and suppressed strength, puts the crown on Titurel’s corpse. He and Kundry then slowly head off onto the curved railway, leading towards the light. Where does it go? We are left wondering. All we know is that Parsifal represents another way of being, of living in society, one based not on power, hierarchy and conventional ritual but on compassion and respect for the individual. Gurnemanz cannot change – he stands behind, casting all hope on the spear which Parsifal no longer needs. It is a beautiful moment, made even more poignant by the filming. As Kundry steps behind the curtain, leaving the stage, a camera captures her once again as Waltraud Meier, an exhausted singer who has given her all in the service of art and of others.

Whether Lenhoff, Nagano and this unusually intellectual cast realized it or not, the First Emperor of China, the flawed dreamer whose visions ended in flames, believed in a political order known as "Legalism". The concept was that might made right, that group domination was far more important than individual human beings. Because the simple compassion of the ordinary "fool" meant nothing the system collapsed as soon as the controls fell apart. China didn’t discover Buddhism for another few hundred years, but perhaps, you can see the parallels. This may be my individualistic way of taking this interpretation of Parsifal on board, but I don’t think it is all so far from Wagner’s own magpie habit of combining ideas from different places and coming up with a wholly original synthesis. I think he would have loved this interpretation as it would have appealed to the anarchist, anti-capitalist, anti-conformist in him. Could Wagner have been a Nazi with Parsifal and its overall message of compassion and humanity? I think not. Nagano’s ability to pick on the modernist chromaticism in the score bears this out, too. It would be hard to beat this production for performance – all singers are specialists in their prime. But it is as a total work, with a radical understanding of Wagner’s deepest philosophical ideas, that this production will become "immortal".

Anne Ozorio



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