Cher Public

Grail mix

Contemporary stagings of Parsifal tend to be spare, abstract affairs scrubbed of religious associations, knights in armor and, sometimes, a grail. Modern dress, stylized gestures and suggestive symbols are supposed to help audiences navigate Wagner’s mystifying tale of redemption.  Stephen Langridge’s 2013 take for Royal Opera, now available on Opus Arte, is an especially grim, heavy handed specimen that doesn’t show a great deal of confidence in the music or the audience.   There’s misery at nearly every turn, with the music functioning for long stretches as accompaniment to an almost cinematic treatment of suffering and fear. While some of the imagery may be riveting, there is little sense of the hero’s spiritual development, or what makes the Grail brotherhood tick.

In his director’s note, Langridge notes the need to overcome the opera’s narrative traps: Parsifal needs to find the beginning of his story to make sense of the present while Kundry searches for a coda to give her life story meaning. He’s also taken by the way the Grail knights interact with Amfortas like relatives pre-grieving a loved one on the brink of death, incapable of letting him go. The community is secretive, vaguely militaristic and desperate.

Langridge and designer Alison Chitty, who collaborated on ROH’s 2008 staging of Harrison Birtwistle’s Minotaur, set much of the action in and around a large cube, by turns transparent and opaque, that functions as Amfortas’ hospital room and a setting for pantomimes illustrating the opera’s backstories. The scenes of Klingsor taking a knife to himself, Parsifal scaling the walls of the magician’s castle and Kundry seducing Amfortas come off as gratuitous and divert attention from the opera’s surging energy. Even more questionable is the decision to send Kundry and Amfortas off hand-in-hand at the end of Act 3—a particularly awkward attempt to tie a bow on the characters’ struggles with their pasts.

With such tangled stage business, it’s left to René Pape, Gerald Finley and Angela Denoke to carry the day vocally. Denoke is a highly expressive Kundry, more repentant than seductive, who carefully marshals her big lyric soprano through the long evening and only sounds overtaxed at the end of Act Two, when the tone spreads uncomfortably. Her almost gleeful laughter as Parsifal defeats Klingsor’s guards and the reckless way she tackles the nearly two-octave dive on the word “lachte,” describing how she scorned Christ on the cross, add a welcome unhinged quality to highly charged scenes.

Finley continues to display impressive Wagner chops following his 2011 Hans Sachs at Glyndeboune, turning in a passionate, remarkably tender portrayal of Amfortas. Beyond spending a lot of time on a drip in the hospital bed, he is front and center in the production’s most disturbing scene, the Act One celebration of the Eucharist, which he turns into a very literal ritual by piercing the side of a young boy in a loincloth whose blood is then passed about.

Pape is spared such directorial excesses and spends a lot of time standing around in a business suit confirming his status as today’s preeminent Gurnemanz. His bel canto sensibilities and coloring of vowels are especially vivid in the final act. Willard White is a formidable Klingsor, while Robert Lloyd deploys a still-effective bass singing Titurel onstage from a wheelchair in Act 1.

In the title role, Simon O’Neill’s tenor sounds pinched and a bit caustic in the outer acts but rings out convincingly during the pivotal Act 2 scene with Kundry, when he suddenly experiences the suffering of Amfortas, bellows “Die Wunde!” and rolls out of bed. Bearded and thick of build, O’Neill looks more like building security than an innocent youth and doesn’t lend much dramatic presence, even after he’s blinded by the spear-wielding Klingsor.

Antonio Pappano leads an uneven performance in the pit, extracting some lovely detailed orchestral effects during the middle act but failing to quite capture the grandeur of the transformation scenes or maintain enough narrative continuity during the 1:50 first act. The orchestra plays authoritatively, and the chorus is equal to the task, if a bit distant on the DVD. Extra features include interviews with Pappano and O’Neill and Finley singing excerpts to a piano accompaniment.

Though the production represents ROH’s contribution to the Wagner bicentennial, it pales next to recent releases such as François Girard’s deeper, Buddhism-tinged production from the same year for the Met. Directors may be wise to avoid traditional Christian readings of this opera, but the evidence shows it’s easy to stray too far in an effort to reconceive the action.

  • PCally

    Everyone seems to love Denoke as Kundry but I’ve never really gotten her in that role. When I saw her she seemed very underpowered and tentative. I like her a lot, just not in this part.

    • Buster

      Her Kundry looks remarkably like Anjelica Huston. Never heard her in the role, but in general I prefer a soprano in it (Flagstad, Lawrence, and now Herlitzius and Kampe):

      http://tinyurl.com/k6ry9gv

      • PCally

        It’s more that I think Denokes voice is just not big enough for a lot of the roles she sings. As far as Kundry is concerned, there’s simply no one who can even be mentioned in the same sentence as Waltraud Meier (I’ve never seen Kampe in the part)

      • phoenix

        Ah, but did you not notice the beguiling charm with which she poured the tea (purportedly whiskey) in the 1st scene of Act Two:

        -- I also prefer soprano Kundrys (1st Kundry was Amalie Materna, also sang the 1st Siegfried Brünnhilde) but only those with a reliable top.

        • Erdgeist

          Why are they playing Wagner’s music in this production of Lulu? (Ist das noch der Diwan, auf dem sich dein Vater verblutet hat?)

          • phoenix

            grill mix, moderne

        • PCally

          Has this been filmed complete. I would love to see the whole production.

  • Ilka Saro

    I saw this in HD here in New York City. I thought there were moments of the staging that worked and others that didn’t.

    Example of what worked extremely well: the sacrament of the Grail as a wounded child. Not just for the deliberate wounding of the child, but also because once they were done passing him around, the knights abandoned the child and left him shivering in a corner. Only Parsifal seemed to notice.

    Frankly, wounding the child, displaying him as a sacrament and then abandoning him sums up what I think of a good deal of Christianity these days — particularly in the political sphere — but it also plays a part in Parsifal’s durch-mittleid-wissend experience. So that part worked.

    I also loved the hands pressing against the screens during the grail scene. The hidden spirits straining for contact.

    What didn’t work for me were those projections. Big mouths and tongues. What was that about? How did that tie in with anything? I couldn’t tell.

    Finley’s Amfortas was superb.

    • phoenix

      Assume you sat through the whole thing, Ilka. Do you have any specific, unequivocal (and critically unambiguous) statements to make about the rest of cast? I heard the live broadcast of this run and I have already had my say about it, but I’m always interested in someone else’s turn.

      • Ilka Saro

        The rest of the cast? Your question was well put. No, I didn’t stay. I was actually enjoying the show a lot, but I had bought the ticket on a whim and the show was during a very grueling work week. I was dozing throughout Gurnemanz’ narrative.

        I will say this: videos are a tough test of singers’ acting. Parsifal is a hard opera for singers as actors, because the amount of stage business is quite limited and slow moving. I didn’t care much for O’Neill’s voice or his appearance, but I was impressed with his unaffected acting during a series of punishing close-ups. Finley also held up well, no surprise there. Pape was awkward on screen, but sang quite nobly. I don’t remember Denoke at this point, and I missed Act II.

        • phoenix

          Thanks Ilka. Good answer.
          -- First time I saw Pape was somewhere close to 25 years ago at Staatsoper unter den Linden as König Heinrich, I believe it was, which is not a big role and one that I usually remember anything about either -- but that night I did. He remains my favorite Wagnerian bass.

          • Ilka Saro

            It was a famous night at the Met back in 1998 when they opened a new production of Tristan, and Pape blew us all away as King Mark. Since then the only other Wagner I have heard him in at the Met is Gurnemanz, in the production that opened here in 2013. Absolutely terrific.

            That being said, comparing his acting in the Met production to the ROH production becomes hard to sort out. He seemed awkward in the ROH video, but that may be just the idiosyncracy of the camera.

            I also remember hearing Kurt Moll sing Gurnemanz back in 84 or 85. He had a sound of indescribable richness, so round, so dark, so full. But the production was so dimly lit that he could have been done up and drag and singing on stilts for all I knew. At least I could SEE Pape in the ROH video, even if I thought he was awkward.

  • Satisfied

    Bravo. Great review and your assessment of Girard’s production is totally astute.

  • Patrick Mack

    Grail Mix. Classic.