Parsifal, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, November 2013Posted on 1 December 2013
The Royal Opera House’s choice for Wagner’s bicentenary is a new production of Parsifal by director Stephen Langridge and designer Alison Chitty, the same team who gave us Birtwistle’s Minotaur five years ago. Here they achieved similar dramatic clarity using a Cube, which changes from opaque to translucent to open, partly to illustrate scenes from the past.
As Gurnemanz tells the knights and squires the back-story, we see Amfortas and Kundry in a joint climax as Klingsor stabs him with the spear, and witness the earlier moment of Klingsor’s self-emasculation. The agony of Amfortas on his bed also takes place in the Cube, which reveals a personification of the Grail itself, first as a 14-year old boy in Act I, and in Act III as a Christ-like adult. Representations of the mysterious Grail vary, a chalice in some productions, or a dish, though in the Parzifal of Wolfram von Eschenbach it is a talismanic stone.
Wolfram’s work had antecedents in Celtic myth, where Amfortas is the Fisher King, and Kundry exhibits some aspects of the loathly damsel. Her multi-faceted character is brilliantly realised in this production, from her first appearance in ultra-short blond hair to the masses of red hair in the seduction scenes, to short red hair later, and finally long blond hair. And at the end when Amfortas’s agonies are over, she and he are reunited as if in Tristan und Isolde.
There are other unusual aspects to this production, such as the blinding of Parsifal at the end of Act II, miraculously cured by Kundry in Act III, and the four supernumeraries in combat gear at the end of Act I. Their departure carrying a bag reminded me of the legend about four men from the Cathar fortress of Montségur who rappelled down the walls one night carrying a bag containing the holy Grail. These curiosities aside, my only complaint is that in the journey to the Grail in Act I when Gurnemanz says zum Raum wird hier die Zeit (space becomes time), there is no point in the two of them leaving the stage.
But this production was marvellous, with excellent placing of figures on the stage, and I loved Paul Pyant’s glorious mauve and green lighting for the Act II seduction of Parsifal, complementing the sudden revelation of immensely colourful dresses for the Flower Maidens. As Parsifal dismisses them all, Angela Denoke’s Kundry released glorious vocal lines after revealing the hero’s own name and begging him tarry. Her performance was superb throughout, fully capturing the many sides of this strangely chthonic nymph who was living here before the Castle of the Grail was built.
As Parsifal himself, Simon O’Neill gave an effortlessly beautiful rendering of the role, singing it for the first time at Covent Garden, and Gerald Finley produced a sublime performance in his role debut as Amfortas, exhibiting huge vocal passion. As Gurnemanz, René Pape gave a peerless performance, and with his powerful presence on stage in Act I, and shuffling gait in Act III, he swept though the vocal lines with huge assurance and immaculate diction. Magnificent diction too from Robert Lloyd as Titurel, who appears in person in this production, rather than being a disembodied voice, and further excellent bass singing from Willard White as a darkly threatening Klingsor, and Charbel Mattar as the second Grail Knight.
Underpinning it all was wonderfully measured and exhilarating orchestral playing under the direction of Antonio Pappano, who conducted a gratifyingly different orchestra from the one that recently made a dog’s breakfast of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet under Barry Wordsworth. The musical experience was thrilling, and the clarity of this production will surely keep it in the repertory for many years to come.
Performances continue until December 18 when there will be big screen cinema relay — for details click here.