Wednesday, 18 December 2013


Live cinema screening from Royal Opera House
Greenwich Picturehouse, London
18 December 2013

Pappano conducting the Prelude. Ends abruptly!  From here.

A intriguing, detailed approach to this masterpiece that may work better in a revival.

Child abuse can be avoided if both parents stop hurting each other and start over. I've no idea if that's true, but it has nothing to do with Parsifal, and director Stephen Langridge can't have intended that to be the main message of the evening. But his final scene was only the most disastrous example of bathos in this new production, though the good news is that he had many extremely interesting and good ideas, some of which I'll come to.

Parsifal's music is so beautiful that it's possible to enjoy the whole thing as a sort of enormous symphony with voices, and to neglect what is happening on stage, apart maybe from expecting some lovingly recreated medievalist and Christian images.

Comments overheard from my fellow audience members suggests that what they were doing, and the perfunctory introductory and interval discussions from Covent Garden didn't improve the situation.

But the meaning of this overwhelming work does matter. Clearly it is an exploration of the growth and nature of compassion, through the lens of a Christian myth. But a number of problems arise. I think the only serious problem is whether the piece is Christian at a deep level, or at any rate espouses an eccentric form of Christianity. Nietzsche thought so, and was disgusted.

He also claimed Wagner's characters were one step away from the hospital, and Langridge agrees in a literal sense. The set is that of a hospital in a forest, with Amfortas a suffering patient. Kundry is presented as if she ought to be a patient, suffering from hysteria. Indeed, this production plausibly makes Kundry the centre of the work.

That addresses another, less serious problem. The grail knights, usually presented favourably, are also criticised for mortifying their flesh. Kundry, presented superficially unfavourably, is shown to be at a different extreme, a sex addict. But is this really the other extreme from mortification? Is it so very bad? And is the work basically misogynist?

If anything, the production goes too far in rebutting all that. The grail knights are shocking. The grail is presented as a boy whom they bleed for their fuel. Meanwhile Kundry's problem is accurately shown to be one of uncontrollable mocking laughter, rather than hedonism. In the second act she is much less glamorous than the Flower Maidens, and seduces through her pitiable state.

All of this simplifies Wagner, but it's in the right direction. Unfortunately there are also a number of risible moments. It's fine to show the rejuvenated community as being open to women, but having Kundry and Amfortas leave the stage together implies they are about to start a new life together, an inane idea. I didn't understand the brief reappearance of the grail as a young man: this too seemed a wildly inappropriate joke.

A cinema screening requires many close ups of the acting singers. When the acting is as good as Angela Denoke's Kundry, this is wonderful. When it's as bad as Simon O'Neill's Parsifal, it's annoying or worse, comical. Some acting may work better in the theatre, such as Gerald Finley's Amfortas.

The acting overwhelmed the singing, for good or bad. I thought Denoke was underpowered, O'Neill indifferent and Finley probably excellent, but it was hard to tell. The other cast members were fine but in less important roles.

Antonio Pappano conducted so as to minimise any drama or tension in the score. If that wasn't as mutilating as it should have been, it is a testament to the production.

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