Wagner without ideas? Whatever Parsifal may or may not mean, ideas are its lifeblood, the flowing source of inspiration and thus of life. Christian Mielitz's staging of Parsifal at the Vienna State Opera is so bereft of ideas that it might as well have dispensed with the return of Parsifal in the Third Act. Maybe some minds like ideas-free opera. but why desecrate Wagner's most challenging opera?
There is a section of the opera world that resents the very word "regie" because they can't see past the English language connotations of the word. But all "Regie" means is that other people have tried to engage with what an opera might mean. There is no such thing as non-interpretation. No thinking person can read a score without considering how music, text and ideas connect. Basically, the anti-interpretation crowd don't want any ideas except their own. In other words, a kind of nihilism, though that's perhaps too big a word for that crowd. They should love this Parsifal, though, because it's an ideas-free vacuum, so sterile and diffident that no-one should be forced to think.
To be fair, though, there are stabs at ideas that don't go far enough to penetrate. Act One takes place in a fencing school, which is a fertile premise, since fencers use foils which vaguely resemble knightly swords, and wear protective padding like knights wear armour. They become anonymous behind their visors. But that's as far as the concept goes. Fencers stand around posing a lot, then suddenly thrust and cut. It's an art which depends on quick wits.. My father was crippled, but a champion fencer.. Unfortunately, this production doesn't get past the idea of costumes, flitting away from ideas without any concept of strategy. Act Two is bathed in red light, the set decorated with overstuffed sofas, there for display, not for use, which says a lot more about the production than about Klingsor's infernal realm. Act Three is pretty much black and white, in a drama where everything is as unblack and unwhite as possible. From time to time there are smatterings of promise, such as Gurnemanz depicted with one arm exposed and wounded, like Wotan with his eye patch, but the ideas dry up, desiccated by their own inertia.
This production has been around for ever, though it was probably dead in the water from the start. Maybe it;s regularly revived because it's a money-spinner, designed for audiences who like non-challenge and non-intellect. But why Wagner? Sorry RW, we don't want you and your conceptual thinking. The 2016 revival doesn't have a whole lot going for it. Instead of Thielemann, we got Adam Fischer, who is OK, but won't stir waves. The principals are good - Michael Volle, Falk Struckmann, Stephen Gould and Violetta Urmana - but more reliable than overwhelming, which is perfectly acceptable. I did enjoy Urmana's voluptuous Kundry, this time portrayed as a lady who enjoys the physical side of life without worrying too much about the metaphysical. I also liked the choruses, with an unusual proportion of very high voices. Maybe there's a very subtle message embedded here, which connects to the role of women in a misogynist environment, but I don't think Vienna runs that deep. At the beginning of the 2014-2015 season Franz Welser-Möst quit suddenly as Music Director after holding the post longer than most. A few days later, Bertrand de Billy quit, too. Read more here. No-one was saying why but who knows ? Maybe they care about art with ideas.