Parsifal derived from Parzival, a romance by the medieval German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach and other Nordic sources, was shaped and forged over decades by Wagner. His final music drama which he called “ein Bühnenweihfestspiel” (“A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage”) premiered at Bayreuth in 1882, just months before his death. It was in many ways a summation of his life’s work but also a development beyond his previous achievements.
Stephen Langridge’s production for the Royal Opera is presented largely in modern dress and staged in a semi- abstract but very human landscape, designed by Alison Chitty in surprisingly beautiful grey with sparingly used red for blood. The stage is surrounded by a forest of trees. Centre stage is occupied by a heavily framed cube, transparent or opaqueas desired, housing a hospital type bed holding Amfortas, the wounded/compromised King and leader of the Knights of the Grail, on intravenous therapy. Various characters and figures appear in the cube such as a Christ-like child and a self-castrating Klingsor. The medical emphasis is marked. The Flowermaidens in Klingsor’s service in Act 2 are contemporary glitzy girls in miniskirt evening dresses – their seduction of Parsifal is hardly convincing. The wounded Amfortas in a later scene utilises a Zimmer frame.
For Wagner, Parsifal, the youth who shot down the swan, enacts the concept of “through compassion (comes) understanding” of the pure (innocent/naïve) fool. We witness his/our journey of discovery, self-renouncing purification, restoration and transformation. In Wagner’s Religion as Art view, good triumphs – the exclusivity of the Grail Knights’ Circle yields to universality, community or brotherhood of all (possibly idealised Democracy?) A Wagner favourite was Beethoven’s 9th symphony culminating in the Ode to Joy ie brotherhood of mankind. In the drama Christian symbolism predominates. However, for Langridge, religion and other systems become corrupted and do not provide a satisfactory answer. The tabernacle (cube) is left empty at the end. What persists in Wagner’s vision is compassion and humanity. Some of the production’s symbolism works against the text eg Kundry rendering Parsifal physically blind. Yet, because of the music, there remains a deeply moving and positive theatrical and spiritual experience.
This performance is a true feast of music to the ear. Once again the ROH Orchestra plays like a band of angels so lustrous is their sound, marvellously shaped and led by Antonio Pappano. The harmonies and discords are vividly captured. The Good Friday music is ravishing. The choruses thrill and delight. Angela Denoke’s soprano Kundry has weight and also a brightness beyond the ordinary, Simon O’Neill sings fearlessly as Parsifal perhaps a bit nasal on occasion but ever reliable. No praise can be too high for Gerald Finley as Amfortas – stunning sound! Rene Pape lives up to the highest expectations as the supreme Gurnemanz of today, his voice making velvet seem an inadequate comparison. Willard White is an efective Klingsor.
Dr Richard Regan