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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal (1882) [239.00]
Andrew Richards (tenor) - Parsifal; Anna Larsson (mezzo) - Kundry, Voice from Above; Thomas Johannes Mayer (baritone) - Amfortas; Jan-Hendrik Rootering (bass) - Gurnemanz; Tómas Tómasson (baritone) - Klingsor; Victor van Halem (bass) - Titurel; Willem van der Heyden (tenor), Friedmann Röhlig (bass) - Grail Knights; Ilse Eerens, Angélique Noulis (mezzos) - 1st and 2nd Squires, Flower-maidens; Gijs van der Linden, Guillaume Antoine (tenors) - 3rd and 4th Squires; Hendrickje van Kerckhive, Anneke Luyten, Tinke van Ingelgem, Margriet van Reisen (sopranos) - Flower-maidens
Monnaie Chorus and Symphony Orchestra/Hartmut Haenchen
rec. La Monnaie, Brussels, 20 February 2011
BELAIR CLASSIQUES BAC097 [102.07 + 136.23]

When reviewing the Nikolas Lehnhoff production of Parsifal last year, I complained bitterly about the total lack of any sense of the world of natural beauty in the settings. This completely eliminated an essential element in Wagner’s scheme, and not only in the ecstatic sense of redemption in the Good Friday Music.
The cover illustration for this DVD therefore roused high hopes, with its depiction of an atmospheric forest conjuring up the prospect of a production which gave full weight to the healing power of the natural world. In the event this expectation was only partially fulfilled. During the statement of the ‘Faith motif’ in the Prelude, we saw an albino python suspended on a trapeze far above the stage, presumably a symbol of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. As the Prelude came to an end - at the point where Wagner indicates that the curtain should rise - this faded out to be replaced by a brazier burning in the darkness.
The whole of the opening scene with Gurnemanz, the squires and the two knights was presented in almost total gloom. It was not until the appearance of Kundry that any human presence on the stage was detectable at all. After that the forest was very slowly revealed, with Gurnemanz and the Grail Knights dressed in leafy camouflage and the trees moving about them in the style of Peter Hall’s Glyndebourne production of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. We had a further natural element in the sudden and unexpected appearance of a placid Alsatian dog during Gurnemanz’s description of Titurel’s building of the Temple. As this section of the score concluded, the dog turned its back on the action and disappeared from the sight until the end of the Act when it appeared to accompany Gurnemanz’s dismissal of Parsifal.
Oddly enough given all this livestock onstage we were not given a live swan for Parsifal to shoot, although his appearance during the singing by the squires of Durch Mittleid wissend brought the right sense of dramatic frisson. Instead of a swan, he unearthed from the undergrowth the skeleton of what looked suspiciously like a goose - it was certainly too small to be anything else - only to discard it again. During the transformation music the forest faded into darkness, only to be revealed again when the lights rose. The change of scene then occurred during the opening choruses of the Grail Scene, with the forest slowly descending into the earth to be replaced by a rather utilitarian Temple illuminated by strip lighting. At the end of Amfortas’s lament a darkness spread out from the singer to engulf the whole stage. After this the communion scene itself was played out against a white front curtain with nothing visible on stage at all except a small black apostrophe projected against it. This was not only incomprehensible, but also a total cop-out. We need to see what Parsifal sees here.
At the beginning of the second disc the unwary might well suspect that they have acquired the wrong DVD altogether, as we are abruptly presented with a series of encyclopaedic articles describing the effects of mustard gas and other noxious chemicals. When the music does finally begin, the curtain rises immediately to show us Klingsor’s laboratory where he is preparing these substances. He also appears to be experimenting with cloning himself, since he is accompanied throughout by a stage double in a look-alike mask and plastic surgical gown. His main function appears to be torturing a collection of topless female dancers by hanging them up from the ceiling in some weird sort of sado-masochistic ritual. Under these circumstances the presence of Kundry seems to be almost superfluous. One is relieved to see that when Parsifal enters at the beginning of the second scene - although there is here no change of scene whatsoever - he is suitably accoutred in a chemical warfare protective kit.
There is no sign whatsoever of Klingsor’s magic garden - nor indeed of the Flower Maidens, who are lodged in the orchestra pit. This makes nonsense of their dramatic interplay in their two groups. Instead we have the topless dancers prancing around a plinth on which one of their number lies with her legs spread apparently ready for a gynaecological examination. Parsifal quite rightly ignores this as much as possible, but the sheer bareness of the stage makes it totally impossible for Kundry’s sudden cry of Parsifal! to have any dramatic effect whatsoever since she is in position long before then. After their kiss she and Parsifal hardly look at one another, and there is no interaction at all between them. Parsifal appears absorbed in a filmed vision in which he sees himself consummating his physical relationship with Kundry. Then he moves to the back of the stage to imitate the crucified Christ as she describes her mocking of the Crucifixion. Wagner specifically and famously rejected any identification of Parsifal with Christ, stating that Christ would never be a tenor. Almost immediately afterwards however he seems to be intent on having onstage oral sex with one of the dancers, before he settles down to very slowly unbind one of Klingsor’s experimental subjects. Both he and Kundry seize the opportunity to fiddle with their makeup: she painting her face black and he painting his white. She scrawls a number of meaningless slogans on the backdrop. They seem to be English, including the singer’s own name ANNA, but they make no sense to me. Klingsor himself appears well before Kundry has actually summoned him, having apparently mislaid his clone but supported by a number of retainers. There is no spear for him to throw at Parsifal. Instead the latter seems to ignore the sorcerer until he slinks away of his own accord. This is before the earthquake demolishes his kingdom - not that there is anything much of it to demolish anyway.
Nor do things improve scenically in Act Three. Gurnemanz’s dog reappears to waken Kundry, then lopes off for no very obvious reason. Gurnemanz is left totally alone on stage talking to an invisible Kundry and a Parsifal who also remains in the shadows for a very long time indeed. There is once again only a token demonstration of the natural world. This is in the shape of one illuminated branch which hardly conjures up the image of the Good Friday meadow which the music so potently presents. This is especially the case since Gurnemanz plucks it to weave into a crown for Parsifal which he then fails to actually put on his head. As this happens the chorus appear in full strength in the background. As the Good Friday music begins they start to march slowly forward on a treadmill set into the stage. They continue to do this throughout the whole of the following transformation music, the funeral march for Titurel and Amfortas’s lament. They only come to a halt as Parsifal starts Nur eine Waffe taugt. Needless to say, he has been prominently present at the head of the march throughout this long sequence. The idea of a march might be a good one, but when presented at this sort of length - I would guess over quarter of an hour - it becomes simply ridiculous. There is no Spear, and no Grail - so two of Wagner’s symbols go missing. This leaves Parsifal with nothing to do except deliver his final aria as a sort of concert performance after which everybody slowly leaves the stage. So nothing much has happened here, then.
All too often with modern operatic productions one must complain about the introduction of concepts which run counter to the music that the composer has provided. Romeo Castellucci certainly has plenty of ideas, as he explains in an extensive note in the booklet: “I saw Parsifal’s appetite for life change into an ontological fear of being - being born - and the wrong of all that. The wrong which becomes a wandering…I saw the mother’s genitals as the icy unmoving centre of the drama. I saw a town overturned. And he kept going, and the road was his prayer.” Now one can’t blame the translation for this; it seems to be the original; the versions in other languages are given credited translators. Whatever it means, and most of it seems to be meaningless, it is hardly of assistance in helping us to understand the production.
In fact what this production displays time and time again is a lack of ideas. The music - glorious though it is - is simply left to carry the burden of the action in isolation. If you want that sort of production on DVD, then Wolfgang Wagner’s tired old Bayreuth presentation in the 1980s at least has the advantage of not presenting occasional effects that jar on the senses. If you want a production of the traditional type which respects Wagner’s directions there is not much on offer apart from a rather somnolent Metropolitan Opera production by Otto Schenk. If you want something really progressive you’re spoilt for choice, but this wouldn’t seem to be it. A number of reviewers who relish Regietheater seem to have fallen for this one without realising how little it actually achieves, although some of them have commented that ideas which were tried out in rehearsal were actually abandoned before they reached the stage. One of them singled out for mention a dimly glimpsed photograph during the Prelude of “Parsifal fan Nietzsche”. Well, Nietzsche was not really a fan - in fact he was quite the opposite. Mike Ashman in the WNO production of 1983 put him on stage in the guise of Klingsor, which was nearer the mark. 
Musically, unfortunately, things are not always good enough to rescue us from the central vacuum of the production. Andrew Richards as Parsifal, dressed throughout in modern costume, sings well and with expression but is unable to convey any sense of the development of his character although he would certainly fare better in a different production. Anna Larsson as Kundry is quite a find, a deep mezzo who I last encountered as Erda in Barenboim’s La Scala Rheingold. She is well able to take the most strenuous passages in her stride and is full of venom in her final scenes during Act Two. She also sings a nicely controlled Ich sah’ das Kind without any sense of strain during the final phrases.
There is a long tradition of Wagnerian bass-baritones taking on the role of Gurnemanz in their later careers. I fear that Jan-Hendrik Rootering does not do great credit to that tradition. His voice sounds worn and often unsteady especially on sustained notes. He brings little sense of illumination to the text and is not assisted by the fact that he is often plunged into darkness on the stage. His delivery of his address to Parsifal about the swan, for example, completely misses the delicacy of the music at this point. He is not much better in the Good Friday music. The similarly veteran Victor von Halem is far steadier as Titurel. Thomas Johannes Mayer is a fine and expressive Amfortas. He has the sort of sense of nobility that one recalls from Norman Bailey although the climaxes tend to find him submerged by the orchestra. Tómas Tómasson does what he can with the ungrateful role of Klingsor. None of the minor singers make much of an impression, and it seems oddly wrong for the offstage Voice from Above at the end of Act One to be taken by the same singer as Kundry.
Hartmut Haenchen in his booklet notes makes big claims for the fact that he is attempting to reproduce Wagner’s original tempi at Bayreuth - although Wagner himself only conducted the final scene in one performance, assigning the remainder to Hermann Levi. Haenchen contends that the tendency towards slower tempi in Parsifal began during the Third Reich, but accounts of Wagner’s conducting in the one performance he undertook suggest that he was himself somewhat slower than Levi. In the event what we have here is not, as might be suggested, a speedy traversal of the score in the Boulez vein. In fact Haenchen makes a number of substantial ritardandi which are not marked in the score - for example at the moment the python appears during the Prelude, and during the transformation music in Act One. These presumably derive from Wagner’s instructions to Levi during rehearsals, certainly make sense and work well. What is less satisfactory is the fact that Haenchen, conducting without a baton, sometimes fails to achieve unanimity of attack at the beginning of phrases. The first statement of the ‘Dresden Amen’ during the Prelude is a particularly obvious example. The orchestral playing is generally good - much better balanced than Kent Nagano managed to achieve in the Lehnhoff production - and the chorus are fine, if a bit under-powered in the funeral music of Act Three.
Claims are also made by Haenchen for the authenticity of the orchestral instruments used, in particular the reconstruction of Wagner’s original thunder machine for the earthquake scene at the end of Act Two; in the event this goes for nothing in this staging. Whatever solution is found to the problems of Wagner’s deep bells during Acts One and Three is most unsatisfactory. Wagner himself had a “bell machine” made by Steingräber which looks rather like a snooker table with its insides removed; it can be heard on Solti’s Decca recording. What we are given here is a combination of ordinary tubular bells - which are some three octaves too high - together with some sort of bass reinforcement which may or may not be the Steingräber bell machine. This simply throws the whole of Wagner’s orchestral textures out of balance, with the high bells dominating the sound in quite the wrong sort of way. To my mind the best modern solution is the patented synthesised tape by Eckhard Maronn and Rainer Hecht of Hamburg. This produces exactly the right sort of effect. It was first used at Bayreuth by Horst Stein in 1976 and on Reginald Goodall’s recording for EMI in 1983. I don’t know why it wasn’t adopted here.
A Freudian slip in the subtitles during Act Three substitutes “The divine bread is now defined us” for the correct phrase “The divine bread is now denied us”. That unfortunately is the complete antithesis of this production, which denies where it should define. It avoids some of the worst solecisms of modern presentations, but only by virtue of simply avoiding the issues involved. Its ability to convey the producer’s ideas is often vague and sometimes simply totally obscure. It is taken from one single performance - although there is no sign of any audience applause until the end of Act Three - so there are a number of minor slips which might become annoying on repetition. There are no extras of any description.
Paul Corfield Godfrey