Wagner - Parsifal

ONP Bastille, Thursday March 20 2008

Conductor: Hartmut Haenchen. Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski. Sets and costumes: Malgorzata Szczesniak. Lighting: Felice Ross. Amfortas: Alexander Marco-Buhrmester. Titurel: Victor von Halem. Gurnemanz: Franz Josef Selig. Klingsor: Evgeny Nikitin. Kundry: Waltraud Meier. Parsifal: Stig Andersen. Zwei Gralsritter: Gunnar Gudbjörnsson, Scott Wilde. Vier Knappen: Hye-Youn Lee, Louise Callinan, Jason Bridges, Bartlomiej Misiuda. Klingsors Zaubermädchen: Adriana Kucerova, Valérie Condoluci, Cornelia Oncioiu, Yun-Jung Choi, Marie-Adeline Henry, Louise Callinan. Eine Altstimme aus der Höhe: Cornelia Oncioiu.

As I've mentioned before, probably several times, it's much harder to do justice to a great opera production than to slate a stinker. Krzysztof Warlikowski's Parsifal is a magnificent achievement, better still than his (already fascinating) Makropoulos Affair last season, intellectually challenging and visually stunning, enigmatic and genuinely thought-provoking. A critic friend and I agreed: you may not understand everything in such a multi-stranded staging, yet even so it is somehow (intuitively?) totally satisfying. And in any case, it's the very fact that things aren't so very clear-cut that gets you chewing the work and the questions it raises over for days afterwards; surely that's what a really good production should do - rather than being something merely decorative you have perhaps enjoyed, but forgotten by the time you reach the dinner table afterwards.

Warlikowski doesn't mind at all mixing metaphors, as it were: juxtaposing references. Nor does he mind at all leaving you guessing. Nor does he require the staging to be somehow literally consistent. And he uses a variety of techniques, projecting film, drawings, words and using reflected as well as direct lighting. All of this I like.

The multiple references are often to films (which makes things harder for someone like myself who has never taken much interest in the cinema). In some cases these are explicit, with the projection of extracts. Parsifal opens with a scene from the end of Kubrick's 2001, with the ageing hero in his eerie bedroom, brightly lit through the floor; the same hero, in velvet coat and polo neck, discreetly guides Parsifal through parts of the action. That the director should choose such an enigmatic film for one of his themes itself, of course, just adds to the overall tissue of intrigue and ambiguity. Act 3 opens in silence with a sequence from Rossellini's Germany, Year Zero, in which the child Edmund looks out over Berlin in ruins and jumps to his death (this was what had the booers booing; goodness knows why). From it we finally understand that Acts 1 and 2 took place before the war, Act 3 after: fanaticism of the kind shown by the knights leads to destruction. Other film references come in the staging itself: The Damned and even, perhaps Cabaret in Act 2.

And the boy? The child actor on stage in every act, whose drawings are projected to illustrate the tale told by Gurnemanz; who puts his hands over his ears to block out the heavenly choir, who tends the garden on the stage apron in Act 3... Is he Rossellini's Edmund, Tadzio, Warlikowski himself? Probably a bit of all three.

The stagecraft is stunning. The main piece of kit is an amphitheatre with wooden benches and writing desks. The ends facing us are of frosted glass with washbasins. It can move back and forth and turn silently and majestically, when the rounded rear, lit blue from within, becomes transparent and reveals the innner structure. At the start of the opera, it is an operating theatre, with doctors and nurses in red; Gurnemanz and followers sit anxiously outside on perspex chairs. Later it seats the knights for mass. The washbasins are used for both medical and ritual purposes, and in Act 3 to fill the boy's watering can.

In Act 2 (in which Klingsor is a devilish figure in a red-lined black cape over a smart red suit), very cleverly it becomes a grand art-deco backdrop, trimmed with neon behind a gauze, for the great coup de théâtre: the arrival of the flower maidens, 40 bored and impatient Hollywood starlets (or whores) in glamorous 30s dresses, fur stoles and extravagant wigs, sitting at 40 square bistro tables - 10 geometrically-aligned rows of 4 - each with a red-shaded lamp, on a giant platform that glides in from the left in a cloud of dry-ice smoke.

In Act 3, among the ruins, it stands alone: the side walls present in the first two acts have gone, and the chromium floor of the stage apron (used spectacularly to reflect patterns of light on the house ceiling whenever heavenly choirs sang from the upper floors; the lighting in general was superb) is replaced by the garden, a narrow plot with rows of cabbages and leeks. At the very end it slides away into the distance with Parsifal and the David Bowman figure, perhaps like a giant spacecraft, while Kundry, Gurnemanz and the child (now Lohengrin?) settle down to a quiet dinner on the right.

The acting throughout was excellent: committed and convincing, thoroughly gripping. Never before have I sat through Parsifal without feeling time drag (the themes of purity and impurity, guilt, pardon, redemption and all the rest, taken at face value, are so much sado-masochistic religious claptrap to me; they constantly remind me of the Taleban and, were it not for the wine, it might be interesting to do a production with the knights in islamic dress). And for once the musical standard was (fairly) consistently high. There's nothing much to say about Waltraud Meier's Kundry after 25 years' practice: we easily forgive the difficulties at the very top. Stig Andersen, standing in for Christopher Ventris, acted as though he'd been at all the rehearsals, gamely stripped down to his underwear for the flower maidens to tie him to his chair, fell with a soft thud... and actually managed to sing the part.

In fact, this was a Lieder-like performance all round, with more emphasis on musicality and phrasing than on loudness (Alexander Marco-Buhrmester, for example, staggering painfully on his crutches, was a relatively quiet Amfortas; Franz Josef Selig's cavernous Gurnemanz was more resounding). The orchestra was on good form. Hartmut Haenchen's tempi were measured and the playing was (deliberately) "chamber"-like, more Paris than Berlin, more reverent mystic intensity than deliberate pushing for drama.

I don't think I can say much more. I only hope we will get this magnificent production on DVD, and that Warlikowski will be invited back often for other works.

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