Richard Wagner - Parsifal
Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2017
Semyon Bychkov, Alvis Hermanis, Christopher Ventris, Nina Stemme, Kwangchul Youn, Gerald Finley, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Jongmin Park
Staatsoper Live - 13th April 2017
First impressions count for a lot in a production of Parsifal. A full two thirds of the long, slow-moving work is going to take place in the single location of Monsalvat, a place that according to the demands of the work must lie outside of space and time, so it's important to get it right. All the more so in the case of the 2017 Vienna production of Parsifal, which sets all three acts in the same location. The choice of a hospital by director Alvis Hermanis however manages not only to make a strong impression, but it also gives the viewer a new way of looking at a complex and ever-intriguing work.
It's inevitable that the ideas and the philosophy behind Wagner's works must continue to be challenged as they are subjected to the gaze of a more modern outlook and sensibility. Every new production of Parsifal must necessarily provoke the audience to consider its message anew each time. Despite its basis in Christian beliefs and religious rituals relating to original sin, suffering, Good Friday death and rebirth into an afterlife, and for all the difficulty of pinning it down to any one meaning (which you would think must necessarily remain elusive) Wagner's final work is nonetheless the one that has best endured changes in modern thinking and touches more deeply on fundamental aspects of the human condition.
If there is one overriding sentiment in Parsifal however it's suffering and, to undoubtedly over-simplify its message, it's through compassion for others that we can find the path to enlightenment and redemption. There are of course many other angles from which to approach the work, but this central Schopenhaurian aspect of the work is hard to ignore and everything else that is contained within the work - including its mysteries and contradictions - must be made to fit around and work within this central theme. Alvis Hermanis's production takes that challenge head-on, seeking to illuminate and enlighten, and sometimes that means that it appears to be in direct contradiction to what Wagner proposes.
Leaving aside the rather unnecessary and unappealing labelling of Monsalvat as a 'Wagner Spital', the residence of the Knights of the Holy Grail in this production is indeed a hospital. As I say, first impressions count, and in a stroke Hermanis sidesteps those other aspects of Parsifal that are questionable or at least more difficult to relate to a modern outlook on its central theme. Replacing a temple with a hospital, Hermanis excises any notion of religious observance, ritual or conflicting faith beliefs, and instead chooses to see the worship of the Holy Grail as a belief in the supremacy of science, learning and rational thought over superstition and blind faith.
That's not a new direction for a director who brought updated scientific views and even introduced a Dr Stephen Hawking figure into his Paris production of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust. The period chosen for the 'Wagner Spital' however is an interesting and distinctive one, the director choosing to set the Vienna production in Vienna, but significantly during the turn of the 20th century Vienna of Freud and the birth of psychoanalysis. The acolytes, squires, knights are dressed here as patients, doctors and bow-tied bewhiskered professors, and the Holy Grail they worship is... a glowing brain.
A hospital is certainly an acceptable place (at least it's not an asylum) to examine questions of human suffering and compassion, even if it's doubtful that a strictly physiological approach really accords with Wagner's philosophy. But just as it is unwise to attempt to pin down Parsifal to one reading, it's also dangerous to assume that Hermanis is taking such a literal view. Parsifal, in any case, wouldn't permit such an imposition, so perhaps it's safer to see Hermanis's Vienna production as one that 'tests' Parsifal, throws psychoanalysis and psychology at it and sees if it (and Wagner who is just as much being analysed here) can withstand the scrutiny of more 'modern' scientific thought. That's certainly a worthwhile endeavour, and unsurprisingly Parsifal endures.
Setting the work in turn of the 20th century Vienna at least pushes focus onto another interesting and sometimes controversial aspect of Parsifal, and that's the treatment of women in the work. There's much that can be made of a Freudian analysis of the role that Kundry and the Flowermaidens play in the opera. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the doctors and students of the 'Wagner Spital' are mistrustful of the primal and hysterical personality traits of Kundry, who has clearly suffered trauma and abuse, and they keep her locked in a caged bed-cot. The openly sexual advances of the Flowermaidens too with their sensual allure - all bloomers and corsets here on hospital trolley-beds - are not to be trusted either, threatening to distract Parsifal away from his true purpose of self-realisation. Parsifal is even constrained by the memory of his dead mother, seeing in Kundry a means of returning to being a baby safe under her protection.
If that is how women are broadly viewed or simplistically categorised in Parsifal, Hermanis's production allows for a wider and more sympathetic reading without entirely undoing the Wagnerian viewpoint. Act I would appear to challenge Wagner's philosophy (or the overly strict philosophy of the Knights) by giving science a biological or physiological imperative over their faith, but Act II does seem to admit that the mind is subject to an immaterial or spiritual dimension. The brain-grail in Act I is matched by another larger brain that is pierced with the Holy Spear in Act II, which is another symbol open to interpretation. In denying the lure of the Flowermaidens and Kundry, Parsifal is however able to remove the spear, the negation of the will permitting the human mind the ability to overcome the limitations of the physical.
It's perhaps this knowledge of the dualism of the mind and the body (and the suffering that comes with it) that the scientists of the Grail need to accept, and it's the symbolism of the spear being removed from the brain by Parsifal that points to the need for acceptance of their duality. The defeating of Klingsor in Act II, a mad scientist who uses reanimating electro-shock treatment on Kundry, also points towards another way of looking at the resolution of the questions raised by Parsifal. Parsifal's act of kindness and compassion towards the tormented woman in Act III indicates that a little kindness goes a long way, and maybe that's all we need to learn from Wagner's masterpiece. Well, maybe not all, but if all the philosophical viewpoints and symbolism don't entirely hold together in Alvis Hermanis's production, it nonetheless engages with the same contradictions, contrasts and conundrums that are there in Wagner's opera.
In terms of finding a sympathetic performance to match a thoughtful production, you could hardly ask for more than the one conducted by Semyon Bychkov. There might not have been anything too ambitious attempted in interpretation - a compressed live internet streaming audio mix is hardly the place to judge that in any case - and a few notes going awry here and there scarcely mattered; this was a warm and sensitive account of the score. The singing too was simply outstanding, all A-list Wagnerian performers with experience in these roles. The bass and baritone roles impressed me most, Kwangchul Youn's Gurnemanz and Gerald Finley's Amfortas both impeccable in delivery with beautiful clear enunciation. Christopher Ventris remained a bright and lyrical Parsifal throughout despite the challenges of the role, and Nina Stemme gave an understated but touching account of Kundry.
The overall impression might be that Alvis Hermanis presents Vienna with a rather cool and analytical Parsifal that perhaps doesn't offer any new insights, but with a striking set design, a meaningful conceptual approach and first-rate performances, it's nonetheless an impressive production that engages with many of the complex themes of Wagner's final masterpiece.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live