Richard Wagner - Parsifal
Hungarian State Opera, 2022
Balázs Kocsár, András Almási-Tóth, István Kovácsházi, Andrea Szántó, András Palerdi, Michele Kalmandy, István Rácz, Károly Szemerédy, Eszter Zavaros, Anna Csenge Fürjes, Tivadar Kiss, Barna Bartos, Lilla Horti, Ildikó Megyimórecz, Lusine Sahakyan, Beatrix Fodor, Boglárka Brindás, Melinda Heiter, Bea Egyed, Laura Fehér, Virág Rovó, Judit Németh, József Mukk, András Káldi Kiss, Benjámin Taba, Milos Katonka
OperaVision - 15th April 2022
Parsifal is not like any other opera, and not just because Wagner called it a Bühnenweihfestspiel "A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage" for Good Friday. It operates on a deep level beyond the surface narrative, exploring issues of faith and brotherhood, the common condition of being human in infinite space and time as a physical being and a spiritual one, the condition of living through pain, the desire to seek release and redemption. So all-encompassing is its view of humanity that even that is a poor and inadequate description of a work that I have barely scratched the surface of in many reviews, so evidently it's going to be even more difficult for a director bringing it to the stage and seeking to illuminate a part of the work or even more ambitiously, the whole.
What should be more evident if you can't follow the narrative or probe its underlying meaning, is that the music expresses what Parsifal is about and touches the listener much more directly than any idea a stage director might have. It's always interesting to see what a director chooses, how ambitious he is, how successful he is, and I personally never fail to find something new in this music drama each time someone else works with it. I'm not sure how successful or ambitious the 2022 Good Friday production directed by András Almási-Tóth for Budapest will be seen to be, but it has some ideas that get across the intent of the work, which regardless impresses by the sheer majesty and unparalleled brilliance and beauty of the work itself.
In fact the first idea that this production seems to employ is one similar to the recent Vienna State Opera production. A little confusingly it tells us during the opening scene that the events have already taken place, that the fellowship of the Knights of the Holy Grail has fallen, Amfortas no longer able to sustain them through the painful ritual of revealing the Grail. Using a double actor for the young Parsifal, the older man looks back on the events that took place when he first arrived at Montsalvat with some measure of regret at his foolishness and naivety.
It's an idea that works well enough and a little better than the Vienna production since it doesn't try to extend this division throughout the whole work. It also succeeds in choosing to have the events of the opera take place in a fairly neutral setting. Act I looks like it is set in a car showroom with large windows, not some mythical land or castle of Montsalvat. The knights wear modern dress but retain some of the ceremonial trappings of the knights, some wearing puffer jackets others armoured breastplates.
As far as the key scenes of Act I go within this setting, the director retains some of the formality of the rituals and traditions, the communion the brotherhood of the Knights with the Grail. The Verwandlungsmusik scene takes on a Stanley Kubrick 2001: A Space Odyssey-like aspect, going down a wormhole of kaleidoscopic lights. Act I ends with the young Parsifal wandering about the stage lost, moved but unsure what he has witnessed. His eyes have been opened but there is a long journey ahead to understand and fulfil his own role in bringing a message of redemption for mankind.
In Act II the Flowermaidens are dressed in white robes and garlands in a scene of pagan worshipping around trees in the courtyard of Klingsor's castle. Some semi-naked nymphs are draped over branches like forbidden fruit. Adam and Eve figures, looking lost, briefly appear in the moments up to Parsifal's kiss of revelation with Kundry, when he is struck with a deeper understanding of love and compassion. It's at this moment that the young silent actor playing Parsifal disappears and István Kovácsházi's mature singing Parsifal takes his place in the scenic drama.
Act III returns to the Montsalvat that we saw initially, showing the change that has happened in the years of Parsifal's wandering. It's a bare room with a bed on one side and swan in a glass case on the other. Kundry raises the screen to reveal the returned enlightened Parsifal as a knight in black armour holding the spear. The idea of a return to innocence, kindness and redemption is shown in a doubled scene where a second Kundry washes the feet of a child, a motherly gesture that is key to Parsifal's understanding of love and compassion, as well suggesting the Christian ritual washing away of sin through baptism and anointment; an attainment of purity and rebirth. The barren world is also reborn, surrounding the room with projections of green forest that dissolve into bold key leitmotif words and phrases from the opera; 'die Wunde', 'der reine Tor', 'der Speer', 'der Graal'.
Whether any of this adds anything new to the work is debatable, but certain elements come to the fore and, such is the nature of this work, there are a variety of personal interpretations that will depend on the receptiveness of each individual viewer and listener. Kundry, as is often the case, can be the key to the work and stood out for me here. She - moreso than Amfortas - represents humanity's progress, her endurance of suffering, shame and failure throughout the ages, longing for peace and sleep, for release, to be relieved of the weight of knowledge. She is the past that humanity wants to reject or deny, and is scorned by the Knights who aspire to more noble aims. Aspects of her pain and foolishness and attainment of purity are replicated and given other dimensions by the Knights of the Grail, the suffering of Amfortas, the conflict and innocence of Parsifal.
Similarly, no matter how you continually attempt to reduce the work down to narrative, themes and descriptive words, it always fails to adequately convey what Parsifal is about. It's a work that gains in weight and meaning with each passing year, with each new performance and production, accumulating history, connecting humanity with the modern world and what is currently going on. If you want to see the current conflict in Ukraine in it, it's there, so all-encompassing is the work, and it doesn't even need a director to make that explicit. It's there inside the individual to bring their understanding and experience of the world to it. Wagner's Parsifal is a supreme work of art in that respect, living and open to continual re-evaluation, never to be pinned down to one thing or another.
It is nonetheless performance art and interpretation is relevant. Here conducted by Balázs Kocsár at the recently renovated and reopened Ybl Palace in Budapest it came across as powerfully as it should. The strongest performances here I felt were from Michele Kalmandy as Amfortas and Andrea Szántó as Kundry. There was nothing special about the interpretation, but both sung it well. The same could also be said of András Palerdi as Gurnemanz and István Kovácsházi as Parsifal, although both were just a little under-powered, lacking the emotional depth for the expression of compassion. István Rácz was a fine Titurel.