Sunday 9 November 2014

Wagner - Parsifal (Royal Opera House, 2014 - Blu-ray)

Richard Wagner - Parsifal

Royal Opera House, London - 2013

Antonio Pappano, Stephen Landridge, Simon O'Neill, Angela Denoke, Gerald Finley, René Pape, Willard White, Robert Lloyd, Dušica Bijelić, Rachel Kelly, Sipho Fubesi, Luis Gomes, Celine Byrne, Kiandra Howarth, Anna Patalong, Anna Devin, Ana James, Justina Gringyte, David Butt Philip, Charbel Mattar

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Richard Wagner's Parsifal is a work of supreme brilliance, the final work of a musical genius. It's the summation of a career that marked the highest achievement in the world of opera not only up to that point, but it's debatable whether it has ever been surpassed. More than just standing as one of the greatest works of opera ever composed however, it's also a work of art that is practically a philosophical summation of everything it means to be a human, suffering in an imperfect world while searching for meaning and a higher sense of purpose. Musically, the work even seems to go beyond itself and expand into another realm or dimension that lies outside conventional space and time, and it can even take the listener there with it. If you've experienced Parsifal, you'll understand that is not hyperbole.

No pressure then for any opera house who has to put it on and live up to such high expectations. While there are ideological problems and contradictions inherent within Parsifal, there is at the same time a degree of openness to interpretation in how to present a work that is far from conventional and difficult to stage as a traditional opera that makes it an intriguing prospect, but there are dangers in trying to pin it down to any one meaning. It's perhaps unreasonable then to expect anyone to have anything new to add to what is inherently great in itself, just that the work be allowed to weave its magic. As such, it's hard to find any fault with the Royal Opera House's 2013 production of Parsifal, but inevitably some parts fare better than others.

In terms of just the pure performance of the work and indeed the purity of the performance, the concept, the casting, the attention to meaning in the musical detail and the manner in which every element of the work contributes to the piece as a single interlocking whole, everything about this production is well-considered and judged to near-perfection. Every element brings out the quality of Wagner's writing to its fullest expression and is performed with passion, purpose and complete commitment. Other than René Pape singing Gurnemanz, the cast might not have been the Wagnerian's first-choice for these roles, but my goodness, they all perform like they ought to be.

Most extraordinary of all is Angela Denoke, who gives an utterly magnetic performance, seemingly possessed with the spirit of Kundry. Kundry is evidently no ordinary woman but something mythical and superhuman, so it's a bit much to expect anyone to really embody this character to the extent that Wagner developed her but... well, there you go, Denoke is something of a phenomenon here. It's such a strong and committed performance, from a vital central role, that it anchors all the others - not that they aren't spectacular in their own right. Gerald Finley feels the pain as Amfortas, director Stephen Landridge working with this aspect of the work as the driving force for the stage conceptualisation. Finley's singing is as smooth, precise and as measured as his Hans Sachs for Glyndebourne, but perhaps just a little too calculated. Combined with the pain of the grail itself (a new idea of which more anon) and the pain of Kundry's long, troubled existence that Denoke takes to a new dimension, it all serves to underpin the central concept in a variety of complementary ways.

Simon O'Neill might not quite have the character or the acting ability to lift Parsifal up to a similar level, but you can't really find any serious fault his singing or his unstinting commitment here. He gives it everything and perhaps over-expresses when sometimes a singer just needs to surrender to the role. His stamina however is impressive, and he doesn't just hold firm and steady throughout, but finds near-impossible reserves to keep up a consistent level of performance across the almost four hours that the role of Parsifal calls for. You know that you can rely on that level of professionalism and consistency from René Pape as Gurnemanz and we aren't disappointed. I'd say we get even a little more from Pape this time around, particularly in his third act performance as a shuffling near-broken knight who finds his long suffering and his faith have been rewarded. It's all there in those finely sung lines and Pape delivers them with self-contained dignity.

Knights of the Grail are there in name only in Stephen Landridge's abstract-modern production, all of them wearing immaculate grey suits rather than suits of armour. The staging is a little bit cold and clinical in this respect, Alison Chitty's symmetrical geometric stage design dominated by a large cube that serves principally as a hospital room for the bed where Amfortas was being looked after by concerned doctors. The use of lights and sometimes projections however also use the cube to reveal backstory elements in flash-frames and live-action slow motion. Nothing should overwhelm the senses more than the music or the expression in the singing in Parsifal, and every element here seemed well-judged to suggest and engage the audience rather than over-emphasise or impose a false reading. The bloody depiction of Klingsor's auto-castration, for example, is a strong image, but it ties into the sense of pain, of the image of sick world in need of healing that is there throughout the work and brought out in Landridge's production. And it must be said, brought out also in Willard White's performance and his presence throughout much of the second act.

Landridge's production continually engages with imagery that relates very closely to the original stage directions, but with a distinct twist that makes you re-examine what it all means. Most striking (and controversial) of all is the image of the Grail itself. There might be an inward rolling of the eyes when the cube opens up at the behest of the knights to reveal that the Grail is actually a child wearing nothing but a loin cloth, but the sense of a sacrificial act and the question of blood - both so vital to the underlying message of Parsifal - as well as the sheer pain of Amfortas's role as the keeper of the Grail, is unquestionably intensified when the ritual involves the actual cutting of the child and spilling his blood for the faithful.

Such touches don't perhaps reveal any new vision for the work, but they certainly find a thought-provoking way to touch on the philosophical mysteries and the religious significance of the work without having to rely on over-used Christian imagery that has become detached from its original significance and meaning. The meaning of Parsifal may remain elusive but as Simon Callow succinctly put it in his perceptive commentary during the intervals when I viewed this at the cinema screening, it's really just about the world being in a mess and being healed by a return to innocence. The Royal Opera House's production, led from the pit by Antonio Pappano with attention to detail and with genuine feeling for the work's Good Friday message, ensures that it touches upon and brings together every aspect of the transcendent beauty of Wagner's great masterpiece.

On Blu-ray, the clinical qualities of the production design are perhaps made even more evident. The image quality in the High Definition transfer is however impressive, and it benefits considerably from the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix that warmly expresses the detail and the beauty of the orchestral playing. The BD is a two-disc set, with Act I and II on disc one, and Act III on disc two. There are only a few short features on the discs - a 6-minute Introduction to Parsifal that takes into account the production and the characters, and a five-minute piano run through of a scene from Act II between Simon O'Neill and Antonio Pappano. The booklet explains the significance and the intent of Alison Chitty and Stephen Landridge's production design, and there's a fascinating essay by Lucy Beckett on the writing of Parsifal, with reference to Wolfram von Eschenbach's 13th century text that serves as a basis of the libretto.