Richard Wagner - Parsifal
Dutch National Opera, 2016
Marc Albrecht, Pierre Audi, Anish Kapoor, Ryan McKinny, Bjarni Thor Kristinsson, Günther Groissböck, Christopher Ventris, Bastiaan Everink, Alexandra Petersamer, Elena Pankratova, Marcel Reijans, Roger Smeets, Lisette Bolle, Rosanne van Sandwijk, Erik Slik, Jeroen de Vaal, Maartje Rammeloo, Lisette Bolle, Inez Hafkamp, Tomoko Makuuchi, Caroline Cartens, Rosanne van Sandwijk, Eva Kroon
Amsterdam - 9th December 2016
Parsifal is such a unique piece of music drama that it permits many ways of presenting it; there's no right way and there's no wrong way. It has little of the dramatic action that you would more commonly find in opera and is limited in the stage directions it needs to put its message across, so it's surprising how versatile and open to exploration Parsifal remains. The conceptual, symbolic or abstract approach however seems more like its natural medium, rather than say a production that explores character or one that attempts to provide an interpretation of the meaning of the work. Other approaches are valid however, which of course is a measure of its greatness as a supreme work of art, which seems to me to be something that is indisputable.
That was my impression anyway coming out of the Pierre Audi's production of the work at the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam, which suggests that they must have got something right. Just quite how they did it is, as is often the case with this opera, somewhat more difficult to define, but surely it is at least by remaining true to the spirit of Wagner's intentions for his final masterpiece. That doesn't mean that you have to be slavishly literal however, and Pierre Audi's direction and Anish Kapoor's sets are firmly in the conceptual mode. By which I mean that they attempt to create a visual representation of the deeper meaning of the work rather than holding to its surface representation. And by which I mean there is scarcely any overt religious iconography, but plenty to allude to the work's spiritual and transcendent content.
That very much depends on how much you want to read into it, but obviously when it comes to such an approach, the onus must be placed on the individual member of the audience. For me, the representation of Montsalvat as a solid mass of jagged rocks bathed in blood-red light gave it the appearance of a raw open wound. That is evidently a key image in relation to this opera, and in fact it's also the image of a bleeding wound that is projected onto the screen during the overture. The pain and suffering endured by Amfortas, an eternal wound from the spear that that pierced Christ on the cross, is so great that it can't simply be confined to a single body; it engulfs the whole of Montsalvat. Everyone there feels the pain, and if you can't hear that in the music, you aren't listening closely enough.
Arguably that is what the staging should be striving to represent by whatever means necessary. It's more important to sense that than it is to see medieval knights and the Holy Grail on the stage. The second scene of Act I, the transubstantiation scene, literally builds on the first scene. The configuration is slightly altered and wooden scaffolding around it bears the faithful. There's a sense here of the need to build the world anew, build upon the pain, putting it to use. The wooden beams picked up by the reinvigorated knights are not crosses then, but crossbeams that symbolise or serve as building blocks.
Anish Kapoor's designs for Klingsor's castle and gardens in Act II are even more abstract, consisting only of a large circular mirror of uneven distorted clarity hanging above the stage, the background of the set merely a curved black wall. Again, it's a representation of the tone of this Act, the world seen through a glass darkly (a Biblical reference without the religious iconography). Reflected in this mirror the flower maidens are indeed a dazzling kaleidoscopic display that holds Parsifal back from what it is he must do. Kundry attempts to bring some light to Parsifal's quest for enlightenment, but it still represents a distortion of the truth. It is only when Parsifal recalls the suffering of Amfortas that his eyes are opened and he is able to recognise the truth for himself.
Act III is the exact opposite of how this Act is usually represented. Instead of a post-apocalyptic Montsalvat, with Titurel dead, Amfortas surely unable to endure further pain, and the faith of Gurnemanz and the knights in tatters, Kapoor depicts a clean, open, ordered scene. It's all pale blue, with geometric shapes on a bare minimal stage, the figures all wearing futuristic robes like a scene from a Robert Wilson opera production (incidentally, I haven't seen his Parsifal, but Robert Wilson doing any Wagner and preferably a Ring Cycle would be my ultimate dream production - could someone ask him, please?). The third act however is about redemption, and that is followed through with the associated Christian rituals of feet-washing and baptism, as well as consideration of death and the afterlife.
If it was difficult to pin the production down to a definitive statement, concept or interpretation, there was no mistaking what the music was telling you, and it's there that the 'truth' of Parsifal is there to be revealed. Marc Albrecht conducted with a measured pace, never allowing the work to float or drift, keeping instead a consistent drive - although I might have liked a slower more contemplative Good Friday scene. It was the 'shaping' of the orchestra that counted for more here, lifting the sweeps of strings, emphasising the plaintive tone of the cellos and the spiritual uplift of the brass, with the percussion hammering home the truth. It was an utterly exhilarating performance that demonstrated the beauty and the brilliance of Wagner's orchestration for Parsifal, as well as its ability to reach deeper places.
The performance of the 9th December was slightly delayed while the DNO flew in a replacement for an indisposed Petra Lang. The disappointment of not seeing Lang sing and perform the role of Kundry was however alleviated by the promise of the replacement being Elena Pankratova, who most recently sang the role (impressively) at Bayreuth this year. Delays however prevented Pankratove from getting to the house in time so the first Act was sung very capably by Alexandra Petersamer from the side of the stage while the role was mimed out by the assistant director Astrid van den Akker. The circumstances were not ideal, but in practice it didn't have an adverse impact on the quality of the performance, with Pankratova at the side of the stage for Act II and III demonstrating every ounce of the power that marked her performance at Bayreuth. If anything, a mimed Kundry just gave her and the work an additional sense of otherworldliness.
Also seen at Bayreuth 2016, Ryan McKinny likewise gave another intense, agonised performance as Amfortas. There might not have been as much blood-letting as at Bayreuth, the 'Grail' here being a flow of blood onto a strip of cloth held in front of him for the followers, but the sacrificial nature of gesture counted. I was initially uncertain that Günther Groissböck would have the necessary gravitas for Gurnemanz, but he was more than capable for the role, his voice carrying even over the full force of the orchestra, and he had good stage presence.
Christopher Ventris didn't make the same kind of impression, but it's undoubtedly a challenge for singer and director to give Parsifal any real depth of character. He is a cipher, a symbol, a saviour who will lead the way through pain to redemption in compassion. There was no faulting his singing performance, which was nothing less than lyrical and beautifully articulated. Bastiaan Everink's Klingsor was similarly a cipher, but again well sung. The brilliance of the DNO chorus was truly astounding and deeply moving - reducing the lady beside me to tears at the end of Act I - and the flower maidens here were also exceptionally lyrical and beguiling.
Links: De Nationale Opera