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Sunday 1 December 2013

Parsifal at ROH (New Langridge Production)

photo copyright ROH/Telegraph

Parsifal is a tricky work. No one I know claims to fully understand it, and of Wagner's mature opus it's the one that gives me most trouble. The work is obviously exceptionally far-reaching intellectually, musically, emotionally, spiritually, but at times it also veers extremely close to utter absurdity. Seen in one light it is a clear summation of Wagner's lifelong intellectual/spiritual/musical concerns, but seen in another it repudiates the message of most of his previous work. All of Wagner's oeuvre is sex obsessed, but before Parsifal erotic love, however anguished, has been a source of salvation and redemption. The character of Parsifal shares many of the same characteristics as Siegmund and Siegfried, but finds himself most fully by rejecting sex, whereas for the previous heroes the opposite was true. That sex causes problems is nothing new in Wagner, but in Parsifal, without exception, sex leads only to anguish and bad consequences, and more than this, is the only source of evil that we witness. Before Parsifal, women have held an exalted position in Wagner's work, but in Parsifal they are figures of fear, temptation and evil. The opera is a comedy in the Christian sense (as in Grimald's Christus Redivivus, a "comoedia tragica", or slightly more tangentially Dante's The Divine Comedy) in that there is a happy ending after all the suffering - but it's the only Wagner opera where this happy ending is a return to society's status quo, a resounding affirmation of the going social order. By the end of the story (the opera starts in the middle of the story of the complete story in its fullest sense), fundamentally nothing has changed: it is implied that we have returned to the state of the good old days of Titurel's reign.

Wagner's musical material is the most fully integrated and closeknit in construction of any of his operas, every leitmotif simply derived from the unaccompanied melody that opens the work, and so by extension related to every other leitmotif. But in performance the themes are so entirely distinct in colour and shape, so characteristic of themselves, that we are aware every time we hear the Kundry motif say, or the Parsifal motif, or the Dresden Amen, to name but three - the result is anything but seamless and calls to mind Debussy's complaint of leitmotifs as "calling cards", though of course their working out is much more far reaching than this glib comparison suggests. Compare the similar usage of leitmotifs in Tristan (i.e. that every one derives from the opening phrase) and notice the very different aural effect that the earlier work has as each leitmotif blends and blurs into the indistinction of the compositional melos.*

This rambling prelude is another way of saying that I'm still trying to make sense of where all of these concerns fit in, and whether they are in fact worthy of consideration at all! And by extension I suppose, that though I enjoyed this ROH production, I'm still waiting for the the production of this opera that opens the gate to the work for me.** I like Parsifal, but I don't yet love it like I do Wagner's other mature operas. I understand some of what the piece is trying to say, but I certainly haven't reached that level of understanding that we reach with works that we really love where finally we discover ourselves within them, and the truth of the work becomes a truth in our own lives. 

Stephen Langridge's production is basically quite plain, though has enough novel touches to raise eyebrows of pleasant surprise or grumpy disapproval. It's updated certainly, but remains ahistorical and allegorical in feel. In Act I the Knights' sacred realm is represented by a clean square of consecrated ground on which a large cube rests, containing Amfortas's sick bed. This cube is lit so that sometimes we can see in, and sometimes not. This is used to reveal some shocking scenes: the moment of Amfortas's lovemaking with Kundry, occuring already in the sick bed he is later to occupy; later, at the mention of Klingor, we see the poor young man hunched on his infirmary bed, looking at his mutilated genitals with horror and loathing. During the prelude, flower maidens are seen watching Amfortas sleep, though they are soon chased away by suited guards.

The grail when it is revealed is not a chalice, but a young boy. I wondered whether this linked in with the modern idea of the grail as the genetic lineage of Christ, rather than the cup used at the last supper. During the grail ritual the child gets an incision in his side where Christ and Amfortas have previously been gored. I'm not sure what this substitution meant or added to the story - it was a strong image, but the symbolism of Parsifal needs clarification if anything, not further obfuscation! Maybe others got more out of this, but I felt like Gurnamenz's admonition of Parsifal when the latter fails to comprehend what he has seen was a bit unfair. I did like that Parsifal runs over to the boy after ritual, and clearly just feels sorry for the child, rather than seeing him as this mystic symbol - but he almost learns compassion too early for the plot, so the child is promptly whisked away. The ritual culminates in Gurnamenz's four young acolytes being armed for a religious war - they are given revolvers and dark clothing and seem to be part of a guerilla group.

Klingsor's realm in Act II is very similar to the Knights' realm - it also comprises a cube structure surrounded by very large trees. This time Klingor himself remembers his self castration as we once more witness the image I mentioned above. The lighting changes to a lurid magenta for the garden scene, the gaggle of flower maidens in tacky cocktail dresses. For me there wasn't enough contrast in the design between the glowing purity and sterile grandeur of the outer acts and voluptuary seductiveness of the garden, but the change is obvious at least, and we get the gist. There's a tiny moment of levity when the captivated Parsifal asks whether the girls are flowers, which here becomes another touchingly innocent moment for the character in the context of the modern dress. During Parsifal's moment of realisation after Kundry's kiss, we see Amfortas in his hospital bed, suddenly illuminated at a distance. Kundry's curse on Parsifal blinds him. When Parsifal reclaims the spear, Klingsor dies as his power is vanquished, but disappointingly his realm remains fully intact. Parsifal shuffles slowly offstage, unable to see his way back to the grail.

Parsifal's blindness is cured in Act III only after he is crowned by Gurnamenz and Kundry has washed his feet. Where the swan was buried in Act I, new shoots are growing. The Christ-child-grail has grown up, though is not here literally reunited with the spear. The temple has fallen into disrepair and the Grail Knights now dress slobbishly where they were previously in suits. After Amfortas is healed by Parsifal, the flowermaidens make a return, now dressed as respectable, dowdy frumps - maybe they'll start their own order, because the abstinent Knights show absolutely no interest. Finally a surprising moment: the healed and absolved Amfortas and Kundry leave hand in hand for pastures new. No death and no dove.

When this cast was announced I was worried because it sounded half excellent and half bad, but everyone proved much better than expected.

First and foremost Gerald Finley as Amfortas. This was simply one of the finest assumptions of any role I've ever seen. I can't imagine this beautiful, tortured music being more expressively sung, Finley's diction crystal clear, his legato flawless, the range of vocal colours enormous and subtle. He is a very fine actor too, and after his superlative Sachs at Glyndebourne, this great Mozartian seems to have joined the select group of great Wagnerians almost in one stride. A triumph and a privilege to hear.

René Pape makes an exceptionally fine voiced Gurnamenz - like Finley, he is capable of enormous dynamic and colouristic range, though this time the voice is a category or two larger. He must be the the most vocally accomplished Wagnerian bass working today. If I was quibbling I would say that he doesn't have the charisma or acting ability of a John Tomlinson, but perhaps his heart was not in this production - there have been rumours of tensions with Pappano during rehearsals. I also find his diction muzzy. 

Now onto the two singers that had been cause for concern based on their recent performance history. Simon O'Neill's voice has been pinched and nasal (though always rock solid) in every performance I've seen him in from the last two years, but this represents a real return to form for him. The sound is heroic again, it has more colour, and he's as secure as ever. Still not the most luscious tenor, but this was very decent indeed. Even better was Angela Denoke as Kundry, whose well acted 2012 ROH Salome had been vocally close to disastrous; here she sounds like she has a new set of vocal chords, and does a very fine job overall in this exceptionally difficult role. In the first act, she brought a gruff, mezzo like darkness to her racked vocal lines, the voice never pushing or wobbly, and the chest voice satisfyingly present. In Act II, she manages to sound very seductive, the sound burnished, large and liquid - the transformation from Act I is remarkable and again the wobble of old excised. Only in the final stretches of the act, some of the most extreme vocal writing in all of Wagner, did she come to occasional grief on the high notes. It's unfortunate that this is the last significant stretch of music that the character sings (In Act III she has just two words) because it's also what one inevitably remembers, and though this passage was basically fine here, before it she had been quite excellent. A delightful surprise to find both in such good form.

It seems that bad guy roles in Wagner attract two sorts of interpretations - bellowing, and whining. Willard White tends strongly towards the former as Klingsor, but his voice is holding up very well for a singer of his age, and though the fundamental sound of his voice is now hard and loud, he actually does far more with the role than bellow. He makes an effort with the diction, but it never sounds truly idiomatic, and like Papé he remains difficult to understand. Robert Lloyd is impressive and orotund as Titurel, a pleasure to hear him sounding so good. The smaller roles are all well taken. The ROH chorus are uncharacteristically wobbly in places, but generally make an impressive sound.

Antonio Pappano is perfectly fine in the pit, holds everything together, and the orchestra make a lovely sound throughout. The singers are always extremely audible and well supported. But that's it. The moments of true wonder just never seem to arrive. Considering the level of the artists on stage, and that the ROH is meant to be one of the greatest houses in the world, this doesn't feel like enough. Pappano was better in the earthier realm of the Ring last season, but Wagner is not his natural territory.

Recommended for an excellent cast and a decent, if not opinion changing production. Amazingly, it's the only Wagner at the major British houses this season so get your fill.

*It should also be noted that the leitmotifs in Tristan mostly refer to abstract nouns rather than characters.
**I've yet to see Herheim's...


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  2. Two comments on your perceptive review. (1) despite what some commentators have written, the end of the opera is not a "restitutio in integrum", i.e. restoring all things as they were. One of the ideas that inspired the 'Ring' was found by Wagner in his reading of Hegel's 'The Philosophy of History'. Although Wagner understood, by his own admission, very little of this book, he grasped the idea that history is cyclic and that each new cycle is brought about by a hero. This is also relevant to 'Parsifal'; in which a spiritual hero brings about a new cycle. However, he does not simply return the community to where it started under Titurel; Parsifal makes a radically new start, signified by the admission of Kundry as the first woman to enter the temple (in my reading of the final scene).

  3. (2) Although as you rightly say the music of 'Parsifal' is the most integrated and closeknit of all Wagner's operas, the often heard assertion that all of it derives from the opening bars (what I have called the 'Grundthema') is not strictly true (although it is not completely wide of the mark). Most of what I have called "the motivic web" of 'Parsifal' does indeed derive from the Grundthema; obviously the music associated with the domain of the Grail, less obviously the music of Klingsor's domain which in large part consists of chromatic distortions of the former. Parsifal's own theme, which develops through the opera as the character develops himself, is based on the first notes of head of the Grundthema, which defines Parsifal's chord. However, there are some musical ideas that appear later in the score independently of the Grundthema and become integrated with it, rather than developing from. At least, that's what I would argue :-)

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I have actually not read that much about other people's reactions to the work, and it is something which I plan to do soon - I have no idea whether my "problems" are those that others have experienced also.

    Kundry being admitted into the order - I have never heard of this interpretation, or else I have just missed it. She is allowed into the temple, but is she actually considered a Knight? After her death, do we know that other women will be let in?

    Not literally every bar in the score comes from the first bars, it's true, but as far as I remember, every major motif can be constructed from it. I'll have to review my score!

    1. For a long time I was puzzled by the fact that Kundry does not die in the Good Friday meadow, when Parsifal has washed away her burden of sin (or bad karma if you prefer), so that she escapes from her curse and with it her "endless life of constantly alternating rebirths". I found the explanation, I believe, by comparing Kundry with the Chandala maiden variously called Prakriti or (later) Savitri, in Wagner's scenario for a Buddhist opera, "The Victors". In the final scene of this unwritten opera the Buddha, Shakyamuni, was to admit Prakriti into his community as its first woman; that is, as the first Buddhist nun. So one way of reading the final scene of 'Parsifal' is that the spiritual hero brings the first woman into the temple as a sign that the closed and exclusively male community will open itself to the feminine in mankind; once opened it will never again be closed.

  5. I'm surprised that Pape was difficult to understand, usually (for me) he has superb diction, in German roles at least. I'm interested in Denoke, Kundry sounds like an optimal role for her but still, in this role, I have a really hard time picturing anyone who isn't Waltraud Meier as Kundry.

    1. I've never had the pleasure of seeing Meier in any role live. Good, because I don't constantly have the comparison in my mind, bad because, I've never had the pleasure of seeing Meier in any role live! Sad that she hasn't performed once at the ROH in the last 4 years.

      I kept wondering if I was not concentrating with Papé but considering the size of the voice, he was consistently hard to understand. I find his sense of line often wayward - I didn't say this in the review, but the huge range of dynamics can actually be a hindrance, where the voice can suddenly dip to nothing for a couple of notes, then back to full volume for the end of the phrase. Finley's transitions are always smooth and maintain the legato, and his diction is just as clear in mezza voce and sotto voce as in full voice. John Tomlinson and Gerald Finley are the two singers who I have encountered live that I have found the easiest to understand, where every word doesn't just reach you, but seems to resonate in your ear.

  6. The 'Grundthema' that appears in the first 6 bars of the opera contains overlapping fragments that Wagner developed each into a complete motive. For example, the first 4 notes define Parsifal's chord; the first phrase generates several musical ideas used in the Grail scenes; the falling semitone at the end of this phrase, seemingly insignificant, becomes important when developed in the second act; the middle section with the falling fifth becomes the motive of the Wound (Schmerzensfigur); and the rising phrase from A flat to D flat becomes, with the first 3 notes accented, the motive of the Spear. Those 3 notes inverted develop into a motive associated with Amfortas. But you do not have to listen long before new and contrasting musical ideas are heard, which I do not hear as derivatives from the Grundthema; most obviously, the Grail motive (Dresden amen) and the motive of Faith (Glaubensmotiv). These are usually regarded as major motives although the are, at birth, independent of the Grundthema. Several musical ideas heard later in the opera derive not from the Grundthema but from the motive of Faith: one for the angels (Engelthema) and the related motive of Titurel; also the music that is heard in the 3rd act as Parsifal kisses Kundry (not done in this production). The music associated with Klingsor and his Magic (Zaubermotiv) is not obviously related to the Grundthema in any way. But then, before the opera has finished, Wagner has tied all of these musical ideas together, so in the end they become not only interrelated but also interwoven.

  7. God, there are even more motifs than I remembered! Klingsor's motif is related to Kundry's - both derive from the minor, chromatic version of the "Grundthema" as you name it (as does Amfortas's motif). The Dresden Amen is a pre existing musical tag that Wagner uses, but it is clearly present within the major version of the Grundthema - (see the 2nd and 4th bars of the Grundthema.)