Richard Wagner - Parsifal
Salzburg Easter Festival, 2013
Christian Thielemann, Michael Schulz, Johan Botha, Michaela Schuster, Wolfgang Koch, Stephen Milling, Milcho Borovinov, Eva Liebau
Deutsche Grammaphon - Blu-ray
The Salzburg Easter Festival production of Wagner's most enigmatic work is not the most attractive you've ever seen, nor is Michael Schulz's strange take on the work particularly obvious in its intentions. Even with the use of actors playing doubles of the main characters, their personalities and motivations remain for the most part remote, flat, mysterious and largely lifeless. If the production is difficult to fathom, it does nonetheless hold close to the mood and meaning of Parsifal. The real insights, innovations and illuminations on the work here however are almost entirely on the musical side. This is very much Christian Thielemann's show, which means that it may not meet the expectations we have of Parsifal, but it is never less than a thoughtful, fascinating and revealing exploration of this remarkable work.
Since there's not much in the way of a narrative line to follow, there's consequently a lot of room in Parsifal for a director to find ways to explore and express its themes, its symbolism and its philosophy. There's no indication here then in Michael Schulz's production of Monsalvat existing in any earthly location, nor of the Holy Grail being protected by any traditional kind of medieval knights. This Parsifal takes place in abstraction, Monsalvat in Act I being a mostly bare stage with plastic tubes, almost glaringly lit with the knights wearing what looks like white radiation suits. Klingsor's kingdom in Act II is just as brightly lit and bare, with broken statues of dead ancient Gods scattered around, while Monsalvat on Parsifal's return in Act III is a barren frozen waste, with bodies lying on representations of shards of ice and a few snarling wolf-like creatures at the sides.
It's a fairly lifeless production, with no sense of meaning, and - critically for this particular work - little in the way of mood or atmosphere. Part of that could be down to the nature of the film recording, the lighting boosted to ensure pinpoint detail in the High Definition image, but in the process it almost completely sucks any theatrical ambience out of the performance. The DG recording of the Vienna Anna Bolena, also directed by Brian Large, similarly suffered from the same over-brightness of the image. I usually at least find Large a solid and reliable television director, but in this respect and in the camera work he fails to do justice to the stage presentation here. There's no rhythm or approach consistent with the work and the cameras often miss the action or look to the wrong characters when there are both singers and actors on the stage. It all feels very static, forced and artificial, more like an art installation or a piece of performance art.
While the appearance might be a little unsettling, unfamiliar and alienating, it's clear nonetheless that the production addresses many of the themes in Parsifal. There are five young boys and then five young men who shadow Parsifal; a bruised and battered Jesus who appears to be a physical representation of Kundry's curse; and a dwarf actor who represents the evil of Klingsor (who is sung moreover for extra significance here by the same singer who plays Amfortas). Two almost naked dancers meanwhile clinging to Amfortas are credited as Nike here may be representations of the pain that clings to him in his eternal torment. Whatever the meaning, there are clear references here to youth and innocence, age and experience, death and rebirth, suffering and redemption, and together with the musical expression, the meaning in this imagery does come through in those key moments with immense power.
Much more significant and much more interesting in the expression of the work however is Christian Thielemann's musical direction. Whether Parsifal can work as effectively outside of the very specific design of the Bayreuth stage that it was written for is debatable, but Thielemann's most unusual approach attempts to redress the balance of the instruments for the very different acoustics of the Grosses Festspielhaus in Salzburg, and it really is an extraordinary account of the work. You really have never heard a Parsifal like this. Between the strangeness of the production and the unfamiliarity of the sound, it's hard to know what is going on in Act I, but the two come together to powerful effect at the conclusion of the act that they have clearly been building towards.
Act II however reveals the true nature and the merits of the approach. This is a Parsifal delivered with delicacy and sensitivity, the reduced orchestration not only working for the requirements of the auditorium and the singers, but finding another way to deliver the extraordinary beauty of the compositional elements so that they reveal the true brilliance of the work. Act II might appear too delicate then for the dark content and drama of Parsifal's encounter with Klingsor and Kundry, floating aimlessly and almost evaporating, but Thielemann's conducting of the orchestra finds the warmth and Romanticism within the work and still commands tremendous force. Act III is still familiar but in an entirely new way. Nothing sounds like a routine account of the work, but every note is carefully delineated, measured, weighted and balanced. It's extraordinary, the delicacy actually revealing even greater force of expression in this most enigmatic and unique of musical works.
It's not just a matter of toning down the orchestration to prevent it overwhelming the singers either. All of these singers here are capable of singing with considerably more strength, but the choice seems to have deliberately made to allow them to sing the words softly, sweetly and soothingly, avoiding any sense of declamation. The sweet tones of Johan Botha are perfect for this Parsifal then, but he moves around awkwardly and the suit is most unflattering for his very large frame. Michaela Schuster is not a typical Kundry either and difficult to fathom, but her interaction with her own "personal Jesus" and with the other characters can be utterly shattering in its intensity. Wolfgang Koch has a very difficult task by taking Amfortas and Klingsor as a dual role and does tremendously well. Stephen Milling's soft cooing Gurnemanz lacks the traditional authority and wisdom, but his beautiful timbre and the staging really does bring another dimension out of the character.
It's not how you expect to hear Parsifal then, but it is surprisingly effective. The abstraction of the production design often makes it harder to relate to the characters, or at least difficult to see them in their traditional roles, but each act seems to be paced quite deliberately for effect, building in intensity, leading towards moments of almost transcendent release, and when it gets to those moments, the impact is fully achieved. That's largely down to Christian Thielemann, and his contribution and that of the Dresden Staatskapelle orchestra is fully recognised at the curtain call with the orchestra even invited onto the stage. For the musical interpretation alone this Parsifal a very worthwhile experience, but that doesn't mean that it should be separated from the stage presentation, which may be unusual but exercises a strange fascination of its own.
The High Definition presentation of the opera on Blu-ray from Decca is also exceptionally good. I don't think the production is well served by the lighting or the filming, but the image quality is flawless and the audio tracks - LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0 - are superb at capturing the warmth and detail of the orchestration and the singing. There are no extra features on the disc, but there's a synopsis and an essay in the enclosed booklet. Subtitles are in German, English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.