Wagner - Parsifal

ONP Bastille, Sunday May 20 2018.

Conductor: Philippe Jordan. Production: Richard Jones. Sets and costumes: ULTZ. Lighting: Mimi Jordan Sherin. Amfortas: Peter Mattei. Titurel: Reinhard Hagen. Gurnemanz: Günther Groissböck. Klingsor: Evgeny Nikitin. Kundry: Anja Kampe. Parsifal: Andreas Schager. Zwei Gralsritter: Gianluca Zampieri, Luke Stoker. Vier Knappen: Alisa Jordheim, Megan Marino, Michael Smallwood, Franz Gürtelschmied. Klingsors Zaubermädchen: Anna Siminska, Katharina Melnikova, Samantha Gossard, Tamara Banjesevic, Marie‑Luise Dressen, Anna Palimina. Eine Altstimme aus der Höhe: Daniela Entcheva. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris. Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine, Children’s Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

A practising Catholic once told me I was a "païen né" - a born pagan. I'm sorry to say that no amount of gruesome, guilt-infested, sado-masochistic mumbo-jumbo is likely to ensure my salvation. I find it mostly tedious and sometimes frankly nauseating. It's a pity when you have such an extraordinary cast as this for Parsifal: I wish I could get more out of it than I do, but I sat there stonily unmoved, hoping for a moment's respite from blood and wounds, suffering, sin, shame, guilt, penitence, atonement and redemption, fully conscious that at least some people around me were finding it sublime, and wishing I could too.

A standing ovation is rare in Paris (and always a bit ambiguous: you're never quite sure whether people have just stood up to make a quick getaway but found their plan confounded by more leisurely neighbours and the narrow gangways) but Parsifal got one, with cheers for everyone. (Nikitin got his at the end of the second act: he must have preferred to leave for an early dinner.) Especially outstanding were Peter Mattei's characteristically committed, subtle, expressive personification of Amfortas*, contrasting nicely with the straightforward vocal health of Günther Groissböck, and Andreas Schager for sheer tenor oomph: his act two "Amfortas!" outburst was hair-raising. I'd love to hear him in Der Zwerg.

The least you could say of Anja Kampe is that she nailed all the notes in this scary part. Though perhaps a little short on outright sensuousness, she got extra marks for commitment. And as you might expect, Evgeny Nikitin was able, in this production, in which Klingsor as a kind of mad scientist figure, to transform his vocal idiosyncrasies into effective characterisation.

The orchestra was on form. Philippe Jordan's conducting was carefully crafted and detailed but to me  remained detached and unengaged, achieving more a surface beauty than depth. At no point was it incandescent, and though I know Parsifal isn't Orpheus in the Underworld, the tempi were at times achingly slow: I could have done with a bit more forward thrust when, as usual in Wagner, instead of getting on with it, people spend half an hour or more telling us all what happened in the past.

Ten years ago, the Paris Opera staged a production of Parsifal by Krzysztof Warlikowski. One of his best. The only traces of this that I'm aware of are blurred and shaky pirate snippets on YouTube. I would have welcomed a chance to see such an interesting, intelligent, thought-provoking production again: it was only used for one season. Even so, Stéphane Lissner, current director of the Paris Opera, decided to bring in a new one by Richard Jones. How such decisions are made is a mystery to me. I thought opera houses everywhere were supposed to be short of cash for new stagings. I suppose you might say four productions in forty years isn't overdoing it, but the Paris Opera sometimes seems surprisingly wasteful, and the ditching after one outing of a version you'd like to see at least once more is frustrating.

Jones set his Parsifal in a sect that looked very much like an American college fraternity. When the curtain went up for the Vorspiel, we saw, on the left, a colossal gold bust on a marble plinth with bronze wreaths, set in a small, square pool: the sacred fountain. I guess the bust was of Titurel or Amfortas. Seated primly around the pool were a dozen or so clean-cut young men in grey tracksuits, white socks and sandals, each reading a thick, light blue tome entitled Wort. On the right, behind a grey cut-stone wall, was a large indoor space: part of it with library shelves bearing the same thick books in various languages curving behind refectory tables and stools and a portrait of Titurel (I suppose), his hand on a globe; the rest, an institutional kitchen, gleaming with stainless steel, with steaming pots, ranks of bread ovens and an industrial scale dough-mixer against the right-hand wall. Impressively, thanks to the Bastille's fancy machinery, all of this vast, built set could slide sideways to reveal successively, beyond the kitchen door:
  • Amfortas's bedroom-cum-dressing room, small but perfectly formed, with a single, wood-framed bed and shelves of pillows, slippers and clean linen, which would come in handy for mopping up his stomach-churning massive haemorrhages;
  • Above this, under a shallow arch, tiny, old, frail Titurel, watched over in his bed by a tall athlete, also in a grey tracksuit and also, as he kept watch, with his nose in the Wort. This young man would, as required for the ceremonies, carry Titurel about in his arms like a doll.
  • Next, a large hall with a large mural, a kind of 50s or 60s mash-up of The Last Supper and Christ among the Doctors with Titurel teaching alert young followers, and, in the centre of the room, a tall, green case with a gold lock, used to house the chalice and spear;
  • From there, three metal stairways of different heights led into the final space of this gigantic, mobile ensemble: a ceremonial hall backed by tiers, like choir stalls, with an altar like woodne table on which spotlights were trained.
In other words, a whole processional or ritual path from sacred fountain to sanctuary could pan before us. I don't think I need to explain when and for what as it's fairly obvious.

Gurnemanz emerged to rouse the young readers in a royal blue tracksuit, looking much like their sports coach - something Groissböck could carry off easily - with a medal on a ribbon round his neck. Parsifal was bundled in wearing boy-scout khaki shorts and a burgundy jumper, his socks round his ankles, a youthfully dishevelled look that Andreas Schager, who, however floppy-haired, is no teenager and has a bit of a tummy, carried off less well. Older members of the sect or fraternity wore royal blue blazers and striped ties, much like Olympic team officials, and for ceremonial moments, everyone donned, over whatever they were wearing, green velvet tabards with gold fringes and MCMLVIII embroidered in gold - an enigma that gave us something to talk about during the first 45-minute interval. For all of this, the designers got the bland, dateless and rather facelessly modern aesthetic of conservative institutions down to a tee, possibly inspired, I suspect, by Mormon interior design. But there were hints of incipient decline: the puppet-like Titurel was borne in to raise a hand to Amfortas in exhortation, as called for by the plot, but each time from behind a pillar - and with his voice (i.e. Reinhard Hagen's) coming from the wings, as if already an element of keeping-up-appearances had crept in.

Mormon Modern
Act one worked well enough. And act two started out fine: here, on an otherwise dark, empty stage, we met Klingsor-Frankenstein with an apricot velvet tabard over his pale pink tracksuit, lovingly tending a long greenhouse bench of exotic and possibly poisonous-looking plants - the future flower maidens - under hot industrial lights, linked somehow to an unsettling, foetus-like thing in a glass tank. Kundry, formerly in brown rags, was now in a silk dress and stockings, with orange stilettos and gloves. It was when Parsifal found the magic garden (he didn't enter it: it came to him, this time gliding from the rear of the stage to the front, rather than sideways) that everything went completely wild: ranks of flower maidens, human-scale versions of the venomous-looking plants Klingsor had been tending, some facing us with giant white breasts and cob-corn bodies, giggling, gesticulating crazily and, of course, singing; others - dancers - with equally exaggerated nether organs, wriggling their legs at us out of the greenery. This was fun, but maybe a bit much: I heard it didn't go down well on opening night. Once the girls had receded, still writhing, Parsifal, Kundry and, eventually, Klingsor chewed the fat on an empty stage. The drama of the spear was as undramatic as could be: Klingsor handed it to Parsifal. Once the spell was broken, the ranks of flower maidens slid forth again - only now they were not flowers with oversized naughty bits but charred, smoking skeletons.

In act three, we returned to the institutional sets of act one. But now the youths around the fountain were bent, bedraggled and long-haired. They fought viciously over an apple. Everyone had aged and shuffled around, they had all lost their white socks, nearly all the books had gone from the library, there were no more steaming pots in the kitchen and the shelves in Amfortas's dressing room were bare. Titurel was, of course, dead. The action followed its course until the (copiously bloody) wound was healed, whereupon the disciples, one by one, piled their books and tabards on a table and filed off to the right in pursuit of Parsifal, a kind of Pied Piper of Montsalvat.

I say the action followed its course as, in fact, this production was fairly straightforward once the setting was set. The first act was most convincing; the second act was a bit weird and gave us a ho-hum moment when we should have been wowed by the magic spear; the third, back to square one only with everyone older and bearded, was a bit of a cop-out and the parading off the the right at the end was almost comical. I think, as did at least one press reviewer, we'd have been better off with a second stab at the subtler, more sophisticated Warlikowski. But perhaps I'm just mistakenly biased in his favour...

*France's Catholic daily La Croix said of Mattei: "Il est de ceux dont on dit volontiers que, grâce à eux, la lecture du bottin téléphonique deviendrait un grand moment de théâtre !" i.e. he could sing the phone book and still make it great theatre. I agree.


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