Tuesday 3 December 2013

Parsifal, Royal Opera, 2 December 2013

Royal Opera House

Gurnemanz – René Pape
First Grail Knight – David Butt Philip
Second Grail Knight – Charbel Mattar
First Esquire – Dušica Bijelič
Second Esquire – Rachel Kelly
Third Esquire – Sipho Fubesi
Fourth Esquire – Luis Gomes
Kundry/Voice from Above – Angela Denoke
Amfortas – Gerald Finley
Parsifal – Simon O’Neill
Titurel – Robert Lloyd
Klingsor – Sir Willard White
Flowermaidens – Celine Byrne, Kiandra Howarth, Anna Patalong, Anna Devin, Ana James, Justina Gringyte

Stephen Langridge (director)
Alison Chitty (designs)
Paul Pyant (lighting)
Dan O’Neill (movement)
Thomas Bergmann, Willem Brasche (video designs)
Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Yet again, I am afraid, the Royal Opera House seems to have come up with a Wagner production for those who are not very interested in Wagner. Thunderous applause issued forth for Sir Antonio Pappano, when the best that one could say about his conducting was that it was a bit better than the appalling mess he had latterly made of, say, Götterdämmerung and Die Meistersinger. I am told, though I have yet to look at them, that newspaper critics have praised him to the skies; I wish I could say that that surprised me. There will be some writers who have a genuine alternative view on this matter, though I admit that in this case I find it difficult to understand how, but many of our opera critics seem not to know their Knappertsbusch from their Kempe, still less their Karajan from their Boulez. Members of the audience are perfectly entitled, of course, to attend a performance with as little or as much knowledge as they please, but the whole business of criticism is on very dodgy ground indeed when one doubts whether some opera writers can even read a score – let alone bother to do so.

I can only assume that in some sense, unless the first night performance were entirely different from the second, audience members and critics had confused some fine orchestral playing with the conductor’s sense of line, or rather lack thereof. There were even early signs, I admit, when it seemed as though Pappano might at last have learned to conduct Wagner. (Surely such an apprenticeship should have been served long before deigning to try one’s hand at Covent Garden, but anyway…) The First Act Prelude sounded both beautiful, sometimes luminously so, and possessed of a decent sense of direction, even if it were far from unclear that Wagner’s transcendental meaning(s) had been grasped. Yet soon we were back in the bad old arena of stopping and starting, underlining a motif and failing to grasp how it might be part of the composer’s fabled ‘art of transition’, let alone fit into a complex, dynamic, quasi-symphonic web. Has Pappano ever so much as read, let alone understood, Wagner’s words in Über die Anwendung der Musik auf das Drama?

To be an artwork as music, the new form of dramatic music must possess the unity of the symphonic movement; this it attains by spreading itself over the whole drama, in the most intimate cohesion therewith … This unity centres upon a web of basic themes, which contrast, complete, re-shape, divorce, and intertwine with one another as in a symphonic movement; yet here, the requirements of the dramatic action dictate the laws of separation and combination.

Somehow I doubt it – and that is even before one considers the complex role played by Wagner’s poem in all of this. As I said, there were passages in which, on a basic level, continuity was maintained, and there was some very fine orchestral playing too considered in isolation, but nothing in Wagner should be considered in isolation. That is the problem – and of course the ultimate opportunity. This was Wagner conducting devoid of any understanding of what makes Wagner Wagner – and we can be pluralist in that, of course. Yet such pluralism does not, or certainly should not, extend to having Wagner reduced to a slightly Teutonic Verdi. One can only weep when thinking that the last time Parsifal was staged at Covent Garden, it was conducted with unassuming greatness by Bernard Haitink. Sadly it seems that Haitink is destined never to return; in which case, might we not have someone else, if only occasionally, to do Wagner’s works a modicum of justice? Barenboim? Thielemann? Gatti? What might pass muster in a provincial house ought not to have any place on a world stage, a house once presided over by Haitink, by Sir Colin Davis.

Let us move on, without enthusiasm, to the production. ‘Stephen Langridge’s production emphasises the timeless and universal nature of the Parsifal story,’ claimed the cast list’s ‘quick guide to Parsifal’. I am not at all sure what that is supposed to mean, the drama of Parsifal lying in an epic theological struggle between time and eternity. But even if we could somehow accept that claim – very odd or unspeakably trite; most likely, both – it was not at all clear how Langridge’s production does anything of the sort. It certainly seems  to retreat from the mythological, from the questioning, to a weird unspecific specificity, which gave incoherent answers where answers were the last thing that was required. We appear to be in a world, not unlike that of Simon McBurney’s dreadful ENO Magic Flute, over which a quasi-Scientologist cult rules; yet that potential menace is undermined by a weird obsession with hospital care. I had thought a friend who attended the first night was being facetious when he asked whether the production had been intending a comment on British sanctification of the NHS; now I am not so sure. Much of the action takes place in something resembling the strange ‘Sex Box’ of Channel 4’s recent risible television programme. (I wonder indeed whether it were the worst television programme I have ever seen: four ‘couples’ have sex in a box in front of a studio audience, though unseen by that audience, after which they briskly emerge – they are not allotted much time – to answer, or rather not really to answer, questions put to them by Mariella Frostrup and some alleged experts. Parody seemed to be absent but who knows?) The box has a bed, on which scenes from Gurnemanz’s narration – Kundry’s decidedly unerotic ‘seduction’ of Amfortas, Klingsor’s self-castration – are depicted, since we are clearly unable to listen to Gurnemanz for ourselves and imagine, still less to play with past and present, with different modes of perception and understanding, as Wagner would have us try. Amfortas’s hospital ‘care’ also takes place there.

For some reason, the Grail is replaced by a little boy, whose side is pierced, echoing Amfortas’s own wounding, and presumably as some sort of Christ-like reference. Indeed, when we reencounter this ‘Grail’ in the third act, the boy has grown into a nubile young man, still in his underpants, still ready to be pierced, though that does not happen and instead he simply retreats inside his box. The way Titurel and some of the knights touch the boy’s wound suggests paedophilia, but that does not seem to be carried through, so maybe it is just another unfortunate misjudgement. Parsifal has arrived dressed like a vagrant, with more than a touch of the Jimmy Savile about him, so again: who knows? Frankly, who cares? There is, moreover, no castle to be destroyed, no sign of the Cross, etc. Instead, presumably as an Œdipal allusion, Parsifal is blinded, though just when an interesting idea might have manifested itself, its effect is blunted by the banal restitution of Parsifal’s sight at the end. Needless to say, the NHS works its wonders, Amfortas and Kundry walking off  together

Alas, Parsifal, as sung by Simon O’Neill, sometimes even sounded a little like Jimmy Savile too. There were better moments, especially during the third act, but too much was crude, undifferentiated, and most of all vocally unpleasant, redolent, as is this singer’s wont, of a misapplied pneumatic drill. His acting was little better, though seemingly by default, since there was little difference form the first two acts, he did a passable imitation of a blind man in the third. Why can the Royal Opera not at last engage Jonas Kaufmann in German repertoire, rather than waste him on largely trivial Italianate works? Or what about Christopher Ventris, or Stuart Skelton? The rest of the cast – and here were the only real candidates for redemption – were much better. Top of the class was René Pape’s Gurnemanz: authoritative, suave,  and so securely founded in Wagner’s alchemic combination of words and music that one could forgive a great deal – just so long as he was on stage. Likewise Gerald Finley’s wonderful Amfortas, for whom dramatic commitment was of course a greater task. This was the first time I had heard Finley in Wagner; I certainly hope that it will not be the last. Angela Denoke's Kundry was again a committed assumption; many of the notes she reached, but a good few she did not. Why she appeared in the third act as she had in the second, rather than as the creature seen in the first, I cannot imagine. Unfortunately, Willard White as Klingsor and Robert Lloyd as Titurel both suggested that they would be well advised to retire from vocal performance. The male chorus improved significantly in the third act, having lacked focus in the first. Whether it were a matter of the female chorus’s placing offstage or something else, its words were entirely inaudible. I hope that having Kundry sing the part of the Voice from Above was a matter of cost-cutting rather than a ‘dramatic’ decision; in the latter respect, it made no sense at all.

Only last year, I saw Stefan Herheim’s Bayreuth Parsifal for the last time. It did not receive its finest musical performance, Daniele Gatti having been replaced by Philippe Jordan, who was little better – if at all – than Pappano. Moreover, the cast had been better in previous years too. Yet the dramatic integrity, the intellectual commitment, above all the sheer musicality of Herheim’s staging once again won out. Here I struggled and failed to find a single case of the director engaging with Wagner’s score. Haitink managed, more or less single-handedly, to salvage something from the meaningless triviality of the previous, at least equally dreadful production. But it needs someone of that stature; we seem fated endlessly to be denied such redemption.