A magical Parsifal

Curtain Call at Parsifal

Curtain call at Parsifal, showing the basic set with woodland surrounding a geometric playing space and the Grail ‘cube’.

I’m not sure Parsifal has ever quite worked this spell on me. It’s entirely possible I was just ‘in that zone’ and receptive to its very special charms. However, I also think that this was one of the most successful new productions Covent Garden has had for some time. Whilst Stephen Langridge’s production is not without flaws, in comparison to a number of recent new productions on London’s stages, it is something of a triumph. With a very strong cast – and some notably outstanding and character-redefining performances – it was a special evening indeed.

In this staging, conscious interventions in the story are few, mercifully. Chief amongst them is the re-imagining of the Grail as a young boy whose blood is the sustaining force of the company of Grail Knights, and the Grail ‘ritual’ as one of blood-letting. It certainly infused some discomfort into the depiction of the Grail Knight community, with an unsettling sense of the danger of a closed community sustaining their own myths without challenge. The disappearance of the boy at the end, when Parsifal has used the spear to heal Amfortas’s guilt-festering wound, I took to be some sort of psychological reconciliation of Amfortas with the past actions that had generated his guilt, meaning he can then accompany Kundry to go and live a freer, ‘healthier’ life. This certainly struck me as a valid interpretation of the opera’s emphasis on compassion, even if it was a little anticlimactic when Parsifal’s final cry of “Enthüllet den Gral! Öffnet den Schrein!” was met with nothing.

Visually, geometric motifs shaped a basic playing area common to all acts, delineated by edging to the raised set that could glow vividly or retreat to a dull metallic grey. Act 1 was dominated by a cubicle for Amfortas’s sickbed, which could be lit in various ways to be opaque, or to suddenly reveal vignettes of the back-story, or to contain the immediate presentation of Amfortas’s suffering or the Grail itself. Lighting was, in fact, quite significant in creating the right mood for each act, with an almost neutral green-grey tint suffusing the close of act 1 beautifully, and a more vivid green/violet combination distinguishing Klingsor’s magic garden. Decay came to Monsalvat in act 3, with the debris of parts of the surrounding forest strewn across the set, and cold, flat lighting relieved only by a fiery red backdrop for the morning sky, which gradually shifted to cooler tones as the act progressed. Set movement was of a pace with the music drama, and the visuals combined something to be looking at with a minimum of distractions. Again, some minor carps: principally that act 2 robbed Klingsor of imposing presence, making the confrontation with Parsifal a bit pedestrian, down to the front of the set, which would have benefited from Klingsor having been granted a more demonstrable entrance. Overall, however, a very satisfying production indeed, and a Parsifal I would be happy to see again in a future revival: it certainly provided plenty of opportunity for reflecting on the themes of the work, which would make a second viewing rewarding.

In terms of performances, René Pape’s detailed and musical Gurnemanz was amongst the chief attractions in a strong cast. His resonant bass was deployed at full whack only sparingly, and for the most part this was a performance of reflective detail, avoiding bluster and declamation in a rewardingly musical portrayal. Willard White was still able to command Klingsor’s scenes, notwithstanding that the production didn’t quite help, but with a remarkably secure voice for a singer approaching 70. In his short appearance as Titurel, similarly veteran Robert Lloyd captured the character’s combination of rage and desperation. Gerald Finley’s Amfortas was as astonishing as his Glyndebourne Hans Sachs: everything thought afresh. His isn’t a voice of conventionally Wagnerian heft, but he plays to that strength with performances of wonderful flexibility and presence. His cries of anguish movingly augmented Amfortas’s desperation to avoid the pain of the Grail ritual.

I am left with a slightly conflicted view of both Angela Denoke’s Kundry and Simon O’Neill’s Parsifal. The dramatic detail in Denoke’s portrayal was utterly compelling: it was hard to take my eyes off her. Vocally, she doesn’t have the steel-edged and secure high notes to be able to hurl out Kundry’s anguished screams, such as her ‘lachte!‘. However, in its place, she recoiled at the word as she uttered it, adding to the shock of the revelation.  The body of “Ich sah das Kind” was floated with a ravishing delicacy, which was considerable recompense for her appearing to run into some stamina troubles at the close of the act 2 confrontation with Parsifal. Simon O’Neill is not a comparable actor, though he was broadly effective – perhaps more so that I’ve seen in any of his previous performances. He certainly threw himself at the role with energy. He stayed the course throughout the long span of the opera, only losing some of the security of pitch and intonation in the last passages, though I’m afraid I have to confess that his constricted tenor sound isn’t one I’m ever likely to really warm to.

Those performances, for all the little flaws I’ve pointed up, were combined with a roster of Young Artists past and present as particularly good Knights, Squires and Flowermaidens, to deliver a complete performance of real power and involvement. Pappano took the score at a measured pace, injecting climaxes with his customary power, and laying out the detail in the orchestration. The chorus in act 3, in which the Grail Knights round on Amfortas, was truly terrifying in its declamatory ferocity.  However, love the overall shaping of the work as I did, I would add a caveat: there was probably room for a bit more of that indescribable ‘shimmer’, the aura of otherworldly (‘numinous’, to quote the programme booklet) mystery, which really sets this piece apart. There were a few slips and timing issues as well, I thought, but doubtless that’s a first night issue that will cohere as the run continues. 

I come back to my opening observation, though: having been unable to sleep properly last night, with snatches of the music intoxicatingly insistent, for me this was certainly quite a magical Parsifal.

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