Opera Vlaanderen, 2017
Cornelius Meister, Tatjana Gürbaca, Christoph Pohl, Markus Suihkonen, Stefan Kocan, Erin Caves, Kay Stiefermann, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
OperaVision - April 2018
At first sight, and probably for much of the long first Act, the stripped back, minimal production and reduced orchestration of Opera Vlaanderen's Parsifal doesn't look like it has what it takes to really do justice to the epic vision of Wagner's final masterpiece. It has almost nothing of the religious imagery of the work's Good Friday death and rebirth celebrations and it hardly seems to engage with the deeper, sacred mystery and transcendental themes of its wider philosophical influences and references (Buddhism, Schopenhauer). The treatment however remains connected to the work and more tightly focussed on the nature of Kundry, and it's through this focus that the Vlaanderen production does successfully elevate at least one of the themes and meanings of this complex work.
The opening of the opera on a bare stage with a curved wall to the background and a spot of light at the centre of the stage, does give the impression that director Tatjana Gürbaca is settling for representing Parsifal in the abstract, and indeed the opera certainly exists more in the theoretical plane than a physical or geographical one. The colours of the stage and the costumes when the Knights of the Grail take to the stage in modern dress, remain neutral, beige, grey and pale green. Standing out against them, but only slightly, Gurnemanz wears brown corduroy and sits in a wheelchair, while the young boys dressed only in white undergarments, tended by acolytes, turn out to be 'swans'.
Gürbaca's more direct engagement with the work and Kundry's place at the centre of it has however already been laid-out in the Vorspiel in a scene that shows Kundry in a passionate clinch with Amfortas, the incident that leads to his downfall and suffering. The question of suffering and the Christian implications of it are then taken up in thin lines of blood that trickle down the walls at the back, their progress watched more with fascination than reverence by the knights. Parsifal, when he arrives soon breaks this mood carrying a bucket of the blood that he has gathered from this stream and 'shoots' one of the 'swans' by throwing its contents at one of the boys being tended by the knights.
That still remains all very vague and abstract, far from the sombre, reverential tone that we expect from Parsifal, and there is none of the usual ceremonial aspect in the subsequent 'time becomes space' mystery, nor in the transubstantiation scene of the unveiling of the Grail. During this scene, Gurnemanz leads Parsifal around the circle of the stage, their positions frozen in time and echoed in mirrored arrangements by the knights, creating a visual echo of their progress. Other figures wander randomly within the circle of light and look upwards, hands clasped in prayer, as more trickles of blood rain down the back wall and a pregnant Kundry hands out blessings.
By removing the epic grandeur of the traditional imagery and mystique of this scene, what stands out as more significant here is Parsifal's reaction. He might be a holy fool, but rather than be overawed by it all he is instead shocked by the attitude and behaviour of the others. The suffering of Amfortas is largely ignored by everyone else and it's only Parsifal who shows compassion and sympathy. This simple idea is a good interpretation that goes to the heart of what the work is about - one interpretation of many valid possibilities that this work inspires. Looking upward, caught up in their own sense of being special and chosen, they are prepared to offer "thoughts and prayers" to the suffering of Amfortas, but are actually horrified by his punishment and don't really want to acknowledge it.
The interpretation of the work then becomes one where Parsifal's journey is to put us all back in touch with true feelings of compassion, of learning to achieve true enlightenment though the suffering we experience and witness in the world. In order to do that however, Parsifal has to reconnect the division that exists between men and women, between knowledge and compassion. The indications are there in how Kundry is treated by the knights, and the pregnant vision of Kundry in Act I implies that there is a necessity for a rebirth. It's in Parsifal's subsequent encounter with Kundry in Act II that he has to face up to the conflict between what he has been learned from Gurnemanz and what he feels with Kundry. It's a struggle that is much greater than the actual fight that takes place with Klingsor, which is by comparison rather rapidly dispatched at the conclusion of the second Act.
If you're going to put so much importance on the role of Kundry as the path to salvation, then Act II is going to be much more important than the transubstantiation scene of Act I, which is more traditionally the turning point of the opera. Act II however gives considerable room for interpretation and director Tatjana Gürbaca takes full advantage of its possibilities - again not so much for the traditional spectacle as much as for how it can add to her interpretation of Parsifal. Here the Flower Maidens are not as threatening as they might be in other productions, but bewitching creatures that Parsifal finds fascinating, discovering in them something new about beauty and otherness that women represent.
That is only one aspect however and it's not all that Parsifal needs. Complete knowledge - or the true beginning of a path towards completeness - can only be gained though his encounter with Kundry and the kiss of enlightenment. Gürbaca's direction of Tanja Ariane Baumgartner's Kundry doesn't neglect to set the scene for this, realising how important it is for Parsifal to reach this awareness through knowledge of love in the relationship between his father and mother. Parsifal's recollection of Amfortas then at the moment of the kiss is a recognition then of how he came by his wound in the arms of Kundry, not seduced as the Knights' tradition has led him to believe. The mission of healing the wound then becomes one of healing the wound between men and women. Parsifal still resists, but without Kundry, without love, he is warned that he cannot find a way back to Amfortas.
Act III follows through on these ideas, but beautifully manages to retain some of the mystery and ambiguity of the work. Living only with pain, suffering and death, the Knights have become even more detached from their true humanity, from compassion. Their view of the world has consequently become corrupted over time, a never healing wound that needs someone to lead the way towards renewal, rebirth and redemption. "Only the spear that caused the wound can heal it" and Kundry is the spear who necessarily must make the self-sacrifice, who rejects the baptism of Parsifal and cuts deeply into her forearms, smearing the wall with her blood. While the knights gather around in worship of Parsifal, who becomes the Grail for them, it's left to Gurnemanz to recognise the truth, and he lies down between the dead forms of Amfortas and Kundry, reuniting them in death. It's a supremely beautiful ending that works with the complex sentiments of the conclusion, ecstatic and yet melancholic. The way has been opened but not everyone will find or take the path.
It's in these moments that the performance of the orchestra under the direction of Cornelius Meister rises to the occasion. Elsewhere, in the moments of dramatic expression, the performance feels underpowered and inadequate, but then there is a deliberate effort on the stage to also underplay these moments, particularly in Act I. In the moments where the production needs the support of the music to support its interpretation - in the Flower Maidens scene and the Parsifal/Kundry scene of Act II, in the final shimmering, unsettling notes of the opera - it comes through with remarkable feeling for the sentiments and beauty of the work. The singing is also strong in those areas where it counts, particularly in Tanja Ariane Baumgartner's performance of Kundry throughout. Erin Caves delivers a lyrical and dramatically attuned Parsifal. Symbolically confined to a wheelchair for most of the work, Štefan Kocán has a challenge interpreting the role of Gurnemanz, but his singing is strong, resonant and heartfelt. Christoph Pohl isn't the strongest Amfortas and is occasionally overwhelmed by the music, but his role is vital and he brings it fully to life.
Links: Opera Vlaanderen, OperaVision