This new Parsifal was meant to be the main event in the Royal Opera’s 2013 commemorations of the Wagner bicentenary. I had a ticket to the last night — which was one of the performances that contributed to this film — and was very much looking forward to it. If nothing else, it couldn’t be any worse than the previous production, a stinker from Klaus Michael GrŘber. It wasn’t, but I remember leaving the theatre feeling distinctly nonplussed. Watching it on DVD more than a year later, my feelings towards it have both crystallised and moderated, but I still can’t shake the feeling that Parsifal
is an opera that the Royal Opera just can’t get its head around.
On film, I was more impressed with Alison Chitty’s sets than I was in the flesh. The stage is full of squares and straight lines, dominated by a cube that takes up much of the centre stage action, and shown in the photo on the cover. The cube’s sides are sometimes opaque and sometimes reveal elements of the action. More often than not, it shows Amfortas’ sick bed with the king writing in agony as he suffers from his wound, but director Stephen Langridge also uses it to show elements of the backstory. We see, for example, Klingsor’s self-castration and Kundry’s original seduction of Amfortas as the events are related by Gurnemanz. Surrounding this are more squares that are used to striking effect in the Grail Temple and Klingsor’s garden, while the forest that surrounds it consists of straight, bare tree trunks, bereft of any foliage. It’s on the ugly side, and it was uninspiring in the theatre, but it fits the small screen rather well, and serves as a good frame for the action, if little else.
On the whole though, I wasn’t at all keen on Langridge’s production. Its biggest problem is its confusion over the role of the Grail Brotherhood, where I was genuinely bewildered about what he was trying to say. The knights are business-suited gents, as if to suggest City bankers or other Establishment figures, and the Grail appears as a young boy in a loin cloth, who Amfortas slices in the abdomen during the ceremony. The boy is then carried around in a mock PietÓ
as the knights all scramble to touch him. There is more than a hint of paedophilia here and, when Parsifal heals the brotherhood at the end, the boy’s adolescent replacement is found to have disappeared, suggesting the curing of their perversion? Having set this up, however, Langridge doesn’t go anywhere with it, and he ignores the obvious problem that, if paedophilia really were at the heart of the Brotherhood’s existence, why would it attract such noble figures as Gurnemanz or Titurel? To add to the confusion, during the ceremony we see various members letting their own blood and later putting on beanie hats, pistols and briefcases, but the reasons for this are never explored. No doubt Langridge is trying to be suggestive and open-ended, but ultimately it is a device for obfuscation, not clarification, and I found it very unsatisfying, as well as downright contradictory.
The other big crowd scene, with the Flower Maidens, is clunky and jumbled, as they come on wearing raincoats and head scarves, but quickly change into sparkly cocktail dresses. Several other touches make little more sense: Kundry’s transformations are half-hearted and not particularly seductive and, for some reason, she blinds Parsifal during the curse at the end of Act 2 and then restores his sight after her baptism. Langridge also seems interested in Kundry’s laugh (it appears on the curtain during the prelude and on the masks of the Flower Maidens) but, again, he presents it without doing anything with it. It felt, really, as though Langridge had too many ideas but not enough self-discipline: I couldn’t sympathise with the characters, and I didn’t get the impression that this was a story with direction or purpose, and when you’re spending more than four hours with a music drama, that’s a problem.
All was not utterly lost. The two principal basses anchor the musical side of the production triumphantly. Gerald Finley acts and sings very movingly to underline the agony of Amfortas he effectively evokes the king’s isolation and psychological horror. His Wehvolles Erbe
in the first act is full of self-accusation, and the climax over Titurel’s body in the third act is sensational. Next to him, RenÚ Pape’s Gurnemanz combines beauty with quiet majesty. He sings the narrations grippingly, and every nuance of character is brought to the fore as he questions Parsifal after the shooting of the swan. He is also very moving in the Good Friday music, and sings the anointing with majestic brilliance, refusing to shirk any of its power. He is, surely, the finest exponent of the role in the world today, and it’s both a shame and a mystery why he doesn’t appear at Covent Garden more often.
They are the highlights, however. Simon O’Neill has all the vocal equipment for the role, but his voice is abrasive and has qualities of harshness so that he never attains the lyricism that the role requires. He also looks rather ridiculous on stage, galumphing around in a way that suggest idiocy rather than innocence. Angela Denoke identifies with Kundry very excitingly, but aspects of the vocal writing elude her, and the top is particularly ragged during the key sections of the Act 2 duet. Willard White has all the malice required for Klingsor but, like Denoke, there just isn’t enough at the top of the voice to carry it off. Robert Lloyd sounds, frankly, terrible. When is he going to stop?
The sound made by the orchestra is wonderful; shimmering, quivering and intense. Pappano ekes every ounce of beauty out of them, and he manages the set-piece climaxes very well, most notably the Act One Grail Temple choruses and the anointing scene of Act Three. On the whole, though, I found his view of the piece rather episodic, built around the climaxes rather than structuring in a great, seamless arch. The sound and picture are good, though, and the surround sound option is effectively caught. There is a brief (and unenlightening) interview with elements of the cast and production team, together with a brief extract from Act Two sung by O’Neill with Pappano at the piano.
This simply can’t stand up to the best of them, though. Too many elements of the production are unsatisfying and, despite the heroism of Pape and Finley, the singing cast are too uneven. The other great 2013 production is much more satisfying, namely the one from the New York Met on Sony
. It has Jonas Kaufmann in the title role at the peak of his form, with Pape’s Gurnemanz, Dalayman’s wonderful Kundry and a brilliant showpiece of Wagnerian conducting from Daniele Gatti. In this case, New York beats London hands down.
Previous review (Blu-ray):
Paul Corfield Godfrey