Wagner – Parsifal at the ROH

Parsifal – Bühnenweihfestspiel
(libretto by the composer)

Gurnemanz – John Tomlinson
Amfortas – Thomas Hampson
Parsifal – Stig Andersen
Kundry – Violeta Urmana
Klingsor – Willard W White
Titurel – Alfred Reiter
First Knight – Robin Leggate
Second Knight – Graeme Broadbent
First Esquire – Leah-Marian Jones
Second Esquire / Voice from Above – Clarissa Meek
Third Esquire – Peter Auty
Fourth Esquire – Timothy Robinson
Flowermaidens – Susan Gritton, Geraldine McGreevy, Rachel Nicholls, Sally Matthews, Gail Pearson & Leah-Marian Jones

Klaus Michael Grüber – director
Ellen Hammer – associate director
Gilles Aillaud – sets
Moidele Bickel – costumes
Vera Dobroschke – lighting

Joint production with Fundación del Teatro Lirico, Madrid

Royal Opera Chorus (Terry Edwards, director)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 14 December, 2001
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Religious ritual, symbolist epic, disguised racial tract, psychological drama, creative confessional: Parsifal has been all of these things and more over its 120-year existence. Whither the true ’sacred festival play’?

It is a question that director Klaus Michael Grüber goes some way to answering. For the main part this is an intimate staging of Parsifal, dealing neither in cumbersome Romantic realism nor symbolic or metaphysical abstraction, and honouring the work’s antecedents in morality and mystery plays, with – as a glance at the programme-book illustrations reveals – more than a nod to Paul von Joukovsky’s designs for the Bayreuth premiere in 1882.

The monochrome set employed throughout Act One, with its gaunt cylindrical columns, makes for a credible forest clearing; then (with a little Brechtian intercedence from the stage-crew) it forms an immutable backdrop to the Grail scene. With its rectangular, ’widescreen’ appearance, this is an uncanny recreation of Leonardo’s ’The Last Supper’ mural, down to the exquisite similarities in light and space: an overwhelming sense of ritual made real. Significantly, the depiction of the Grail as solid matter accords with Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval poem rather than the Biblical narrative – a reflection, perhaps, of the Pagan/Christian contradictions at the core of Wagner’s text.

Following such elevated austerity, Act Two is almost bound to seem wilful – though, overhanging stuffed shark aside, Gilles Aillaud’s surreal sub-aqua sets, replete with Joan Miró-like mobiles, rarely feel obtrusive. Even the Pythonesque rockery representing Klingsor’s domain only claims attention when split asunder, following what must be one of the most breathtaking ’spear transferrals’ yet seen. The main criticism must be Grüber’s failure to establish the seriousness of the magician and his threat to the continuation of the Grail. Rather than the subversive magical aura intended, a feeling of caricature persists for the duration of the act.

The woodland backdrop which opens Act Three suggests an Oriental (Buddhist?) influence, with its delicate vernal hues and a deepening luminescence as the ’Good Friday’ music approaches. Here, as in the Grail scenes, Vera Dobroschke’s lighting is a marvel of intimation. The final scene adopts Max Ernst-like expressionism, the decrepit knights taking refuge behind their suits of armour; the dead Titurel aptly represented by a supine husk. The lowering of a gauze curtain to underline Parsifal’s becoming Lord of the Grail (here as elsewhere, the opus is surely blasphemous only from a narrow, institutionalised perspective) is a judicious touch – making him a link between them and us, then and now: a telling completion to this flawed but meaningful staging, balancing its interpretative options by withholding an ultimate commentary. Which is where the music takes over.

The cast, an experienced one, is generally well served by Moidele Bickel’s costumes – avoiding both slavish adherence to tradition and imaginative excess. As Gurnemanz, John Tomlinson is an inspired hermit-attired Knight of the Grail, adapting both his voice and stage-presence with unassuming mastery. In the opening scene, his subtly detailed delivery offsets monotony in the long arioso passages, which ensures continuity over the spare instrumentation. His beneficent presence in the Grail scene represents certainty in a context of decay and dissolution, while his welcoming of renewal in the ’Good Friday’ music combines authority with humanity to heart-warming effect.

Thomas Hampson surpasses himself as Amfortas, the broken and infirm Keeper of the Grail – driven to delirium and beyond through succumbing to sensual temptation. His lengthy and tortuous monologue in Act One finds him paring down his normally expansive baritone to a lacerating cry from the depths, intensified by a range of gestural acting which draws on the visual archetypes of Leonardo and Joukovsky in no uncertain terms. For once, the unveiling of the Grail is a true visual analogy to some of Wagner’s most plangent music.

By comparison, Stig Andersen can seem unexceptional as Parsifal, his Papageno-like outfit during the first two acts (Bickel’s one miscalculation) serving to promote him as a robust simpleton rather than a ’holy fool’. His gradual comprehending of Christ’s suffering and his experience of compassion is fitfully conveyed, though his presence gains conviction in the final act, culminating in a powerful assumption of the Grail office – affecting in its absence of undue heroics. There is human empathy in his characterisation, moreover, and a sense of compassion attained at the close.

Violeta Urmana is a capable, believable Kundry, far removed from the demented wild woman or supplicatory whore often depicted. Again, there’s a certain reticence to her portrayal, notably through the stages of her attempted seduction of Parsifal, which makes for musically satisfying if theatrically less than compulsive results. Yet her remorseful return and anointing of Parsifal’s feet has a touching humanity, something that a more commanding interpretation may well have precluded.

Willard W White is a secure if unimaginative Klingsor, his vocal acting not ideally provocative as he employs his frustrated sexual desires towards the destruction of Monsalvat. Encased in gelatinous armour as he bids the presentation of the Grail, Alfred Reiter is a grave, marmoreal Titurel – not even the memory of a communal ’golden age’. The Flower Maidens combine vocal entreaties and sensual eurhythmics with beguiling ease, while the Knights of the Grail have clearly (and rightly) been encouraged by Terry Edwards to convey their chivalry through musical rather than histrionic means. The offstage choral contribution in the Grail scene, and the tolling of bells in the ’Transformation’ music, has both appropriate atmosphere and spatial impact.

Simon Rattle made his debut as a Wagner conductor with Parsifal, the Netherlands Opera production a success at last year’s Proms. There, the playing of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra had a keen sense of line and phrasing within a cool, translucent overall ambience. From the outset, the Royal Opera’s forces have demonstrably greater expressiveness – capturing the sense of integrated timbre that Wagner was at pains to secure.

The emotional concentration invested in Gurnemanz’s narrative serves to intensify the Grail scene, its implacable ’ur-rhythm’ underlining a reading which eschews monumental aloofness, focusing – as indeed does the staging – on the expressive essence of the ritual. Rattle’s pacing of Act Two is now slightly broader, with a fractional loss of momentum during the confrontation between Parsifal and Kundry, though the re-emergence of Klingsor is thrillingly brought off. The lyrical, diaphanous playing throughout Act Three is a joy, avoiding both heaviness and cloying emotion. The renewal of the Grail, balancing its unveiling in Act One, caps the whole, dramatically and musically – a rare feat that confirms Rattle’s innate understanding of the work’s overriding harmonic-rhythmic process, in which the sense of an ever-evolving spiral towards fulfilment is palpable.

The outcome is exceptional Wagner conducting – combining with the staging in a production which, whatever its shortcomings, convincingly reaffirms Parsifal as a music-drama of and for the future.

  • Further performances on 17 & 20 December at 5pm, and on 22 December at 4pm
  • Box Office: 020 7304 4000 www.royaloperahouse.org
  • A recording of Covent Garden’s Parsifal is broadcast on Wednesday, 19 December – BBC Radio 3 at 6pm. Click here to Listen on-line

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