Richard Wagner - Parsifal
Wiener Staatsoper, 2015
Adam Fischer, Christine Mielitz, Michael Volle, Stephen Milling, Johan Botha, Angela Denoke, Ryan Speedo Green, Boaz Daniel, Catherine Trottmann, Hyuna Ko, Jason Bridges, Peter Jelosits, Michael Roider, Ileana Tonca
Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 5 April 2015
It strikes me that there are broadly three ways to approach a staging of Parsifal. You can do it straight traditional with knights in helmets, you can try to impose a more abstract interpretation of the meaning of the work, or you can try to find some middle way that is more attuned to the mood of the piece rather than the letter of it. None of these ways is the 'right' way, none of them are entirely satisfactory, but all of them have something to offer. Such is the nature of Wagner's last opera, Parsifal, neither real world, fantasy nor purely conceptual either. Even 'opera' is an inadequate a word for it.
A consistent approach is made all the more difficult through the way that each of the three acts of the opera has its own distinct tone, each of the acts are linked, but there is no consistent narrative arc or even an underlying conceptual theme or philosophy that brings them together in any meaningful way. It's possible to impose one, highlighting the Christian imagery or looking for the sexual symbolism that runs through the work, but that usually runs into difficulties when it comes to purposefully tying it all together. It's probably better to take each of the three acts individually, find the precise tone that each of them require, and try to let that stand on its own terms.
You could, for example in the case of the Vienna State Opera production of Parsifal, spend a long time trying to work out what the purpose or meaning of the setting is in Act I alone. Monsalvat, the domain of the Grail, looks here like a fencing school where the knights hone their sword skills. Act II leaves that world behind for a living room where a rather less than demonic Klingsor lounges around on a sofa rather than directing forces against Parsifal from his tower. The domain of the Grail in Act III is a different place from the one in Act I, but much has changed in-between, even if we haven't followed it through in a straightforward linear narrative way. Time really has no meaning here.
What does have meaning here is the notion of a journey. Each Act is a stage along that journey, and, much like the three ways you can approach Wagner's opera itself, it makes a journey from real-world, to concept, to myth. Pinning those three stages down to any one interpretation or description isn't particularly helpful, and you could just as easily describe the journey across the three acts as one of innocence through reason leading to enlightenment; sin through repentance leading to salvation; birth through love leading to death (with rebirth implicit); or in its most simple form as waiting through action leading to an outcome. None of these holds true with any consistency or purity of purpose, but the pattern should emerge - and in Christine Mielitz's production it does so very clearly - even if the words/concepts used to describe it will be different for everyone.
Even within each of those individual three acts however, a similar three-stage pattern can be discerned, and the director here finds a way of emphasising and drawing that out, without necessarily imposing a reading on the audience. In Act I alone, for example, the slow opening clearly shows a world in waiting, its people in pain, the knights seeking purpose, gearing themselves for action. Whether you find it meaningful or not, a fencing school does at least give this sense of preparation, of the young knights seeking the wisdom of its elders like Gurnemanz. Interestingly, fitting in with the whole nature of the contradictions within Wagner's philosophical outlook, the spur to action here comes from a holy fool, an innocent who sins in the killing of a swan.
The key moment in Act I however is the leap taken to the third stage - myth, enlightenment, transformation, death - whatever you want to call it. It occurs in Parsifal when Gurnemanz invites him to take that extraordinary journey through time and space. In Christine Mielitz's production, the Christian symbolism is used to spark off recognition of the mystery of transubstantiation, the knights physical needs met through the dispensing of bread, their spiritual strength found in the sight of the grail (deliberately not made visible as a physical object as such here), their fight to continue with their purpose both a literal and a symbolic one. Parsifal is profoundly affected by his witnessing this act of faith and mystery, and Wagner's scoring of it is just some of the most extraordinary music ever composed.
The impact and importance of the act, and the patterns within it, is brilliantly established in this first Act in the Vienna production. Similar attention is given to the respective journeys in Act II (Kundry - 'Bekenntnis wird Schuld in Reue enden, Erkenntnis in Sinn die Torheit wenden' - 'Confession will end guilt with remorse, And the knowledge will turn folly into sense') and in Act III, cumulatively building towards the End itself with its gravity, quiet glory and transcendental healing redemption in death with the promise of rebirth in a dimension beyond time and space. Even as it finds a concrete form to express the action of each of the three acts, in as far as any of them have any real action, the direction leaves interpretation open. You settle on one interpretation to the exclusion of others and to the loss of the totality and the enduring mystery of Parsifal as a whole.
I don't know if the staging and direction are the determining factors here, or how much of a part Adam Fischer's soaring musical direction of the work plays, but this was a different kind of performance from Johan Botha from the other Parsifals I've heard him sing. His voice has darkened somewhat, there's more gravity in his delivery, and a greater engagement with the character in his demeanour. Botha is never a strong actor, but the director seems to be able to work to his strengths by not getting him to act at all. With this voice, he doesn't need to. Angela Denoke is much the same here as in her other performances of Kundry, scarcely able to keep her slight slip on as usual, fiercely committed in her performance, but inconsistent in her singing. Her pitch becomes increasingly wayward as Act II progresses, but Denoke never fails to bring a sense of compassion (another important characteristic for Parsifal) to Kundry in the third act.
We had another familiar and capable Parsifal performer in Stephen Milling's Gurnemanz, while Michael Volle impressively adds another Wagnerian role to to his recent Hans Sachs in the Met's Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg, with a notable Amfortas. Klingsor needs a little more drama and force than Daniel Boaz can manage, but there was little else wrong with his performance. This was a strong, experienced cast who seemed to adapt well to the considered direction of Christine Mielitz, and with Adam Fischer managing Wagner's sublime score masterfully from the pit, this was every bit as warm and uplifting as an Easter Parsifal should be.
Parsifal was broadcast live on Easter Sunday from the Vienna State Opera as part of their Live at Home programme. This month sees a new production of ELEKTRA with Nina Stemme on the 11th April, Elīna Garanča in DER ROSENKAVALIER on the 12th April and L'ITALIANA IN ALGERI on the 30th April. May sees Juan Diego Flórez in DON PASQUALE, Plácido Domingo in NABUCCO and the beginning of Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production of DER RING DES NIEBELUNGEN, conducted by Simon Rattle. Details of how to view these productions live at home can be found in the links below.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video