Thursday, 19 December 2013

Found the Grail! Parsifal Royal Opera House HD

What a difference HD makes! My initial misgivings about the new Wagner Pasifal at the Royal Opera House were transformed by the HD broadcast When its initial teething difficulties settle in, this production could be a keeper. The Royal Opera House needs a flagship new Wagner and this could be it. It's different, but it isn't nearly as wrong as some think.

Where's the Grail?  The answer, I think, lies in understanding the overall trajectory of Wagner's thought and music. In Das Ring des Niebelungen, those who pursue material treasures are destroyed.  Only when Valhalla goes up in flames and the foolish Rhinemaidens return the gold to Nature is the balance of the cosmos restored.  The Knights of Monsalvat turn the Grail into a fetish, imbuing it and the religious symbols around it with magical powers which have more to do with superstition than spirituality.  They haven't merely lost sight of the Grail, but of the whole purpose of religion. "He stood guard by God" they cry, when Titurel lies dead. But God doesn't need guards. He's God.Titurel  wants to defy nature and live forever. Ironically, once he's dead he'll be with his Redeemer, face to face. The Knights have ossified into a cult that denies women, sex and nature itself.

Would Jesus and his follwers, fleeing from the Romans, have used an ostentatios golden goblet at the Last Supper? In any case it's a hollow pot. So when a young boy emerges from the giant glass tube, haloed in white light, what's the problem?  "en heilig' Traumgesicht nun deutlich zu ihm spricht durch hell erschauter Wortezeichen Male; Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor; harre sein', den ich erkor." Only when the knights learn compassion, through the example of a Pure Fool, will they find their way again. The real Grail isn't an empty vessel but the promise of a Redeemer.

The Knights crowd round the boy and touch his wound. For 2,000 years we've become so inured to the blood ritual aspects of Christianity that we forget how shocking it is to have a religion based on lurid aspects of bloodletting and the weekly consumption of body parts.  The central image of Christianity is a man hanging from a Cross, blood pouring from his side. In some Catholic countries there are cults around realistic wax images of the dead Jesus. There are complex theological arguments justifying these things, but they're not really compatible with non-violence and compassion. So if audiences at Parsifal gasp at the sight of men fetishiziing blood, so well they should. All the more reason, not to obsess with a physical Grail but to focius on the metaphysics.Parsifal and Kundry atre a lot closer to what Jesus taught than the Knights ever were.

Although I sat in the most expensive seats for the live performance, I got a lot more out of the HD broadcast because the camera picked up close up detail. In any case, the first time you see a production, you can't take in everything.  This time round I was also struck by the delicacy of the colours. Only grey people see blank grey. Here we had tones of silver, dove grey, steel and marble, all truer to the ascetic macho culture of the Knights, who don't like women or dirty things til they are forced to "learn from the animals". Even the ritualistic hand gestures made sense. 

The singing this time was still uneven, and at times a strain to listen to, as if some singers were aiming at targets rather than singing lines.  René Pape's voice, as before, stood out, and closeups cut out background detail. Again I was surprised how well Gerald Finley sang Amfortas, more as a frail human being than as a King. I even warmed towards Simon O'Neill. I'd still prefer listening to Botha or Kaufmann, but O'Neill can act and convey the anti-hero aspects of the role. He'd make an interesting bad boy Tannhäuser. Much more could be made of Kundry, too. Sexuality plays an important role in this opera (the Knight's chastity, Klingsor's castration and the attempted seduction of Parsifal) so I don't at all have an issue with the idea of Kundry asnd Amfortas doing what they did in the background. That's how Amfortas got his wound and what Parisfal managed to resist). Susan Chitty's designs are excellent from a stagecraft perspective, but the direction needs tightening up, and more thought given to the relationships between characters, their body language and questions of visibility on stage. There are quibbles like these in all productions, which is why they often premiere in out of the way places with second-string casts. Langridge's Parsifal will stand the test of time and improve as time passes and the shock value wears off.  It's infinitely better than the last ROH Parsifal which was "traditional" but comatose, and visually much more sophisticated than the Met Parsifal.

As for Antonio Pappano's conducting? I liked it even more second time round. Purists will howl, but there is something validly Italianate in the music in the Second Act, so alien as it is to uptight Teutonic values. Pappano also gets the sense of processional - when Amfortas comes on centre stage in the Third Act, the music wells up like a grand Verdian entrance, but we see Gerald Finley's Amfortas hobbling on a frame. Unlike Titurel, who dies because he can't see the Grail, Amfortas has figured out that fetishes are sham. So Amfortas is frail and needs help to walk, but he's a hero in his own way.

There are those who will object to this Parsifal on the grounds that it's not "tradition". But look what slavish attention to tradition did to the Knights of Monsalvat. Wagner's heroes alwaya "macht neu", sweeping away form for the sake of form to create new art and new ideas.

Please see my other posts on different Parsifals,  my review of the live performance at the Royal Opera House, and my article Religion versus Religiosity in Parsifal... .
 photos copyright Clive Barda, courtesy Royal Opera House

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