Musical Mastery: Wagner's Parsifal at the Royal Opera House

Besides, of course, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Parsifal likely stands as Wagner's most monumental work. Having seen the full Ring and Tannhäuser in Vienna, I was excited to keep checking things off the very top of the list of Wagnerian operas. The conceptualization of this production was mixed. I have often debated at length how productions that set an opera in a different time period or are abstract (like this one) must not only not distract from the opera, but must do more than just provide an acceptable veneer for an alternate setting. They must truly add something beyond what the production offers in its traditional setting. The concept of this production definitely attempted to do so but lacked the artistic unity to fully succeed. The performances, however, were simply rock-solid and perfectly in the vein demanded by Wagnerian roles. 

General information & synopsis:

Parsifal | Richard Wagner

Director | Stephen Langridge
Set & Costume Designer | Alison Chitty
Lighting Designer | Paul Pyant
Choreographer | Dan O'Neill
Video Designers | Thomas Bergmann & Willem Bramsche

Parsifal | Simon O'Neill
Kundry/Voice From Above | Angela Denoke
Gurnemanz | René Pape
Amfortas | Gerald Finley
Klingsor | Willard W. White
Titurel | Robert Lloyd
First Knight of the Grail | David Butt Philip
Second Knight of the Grail | Charbel Mattar
First Esquire | Dušica Bijelić
Second Esquire | Rachel Kelly
Third Esquire | Sipho Fubesi
Fourth Esquire | Luis Gomes
First Flowermaiden | Celine Byrne
Second Flowermaiden | Kiandra Howarth
Third Flowermaiden | Anna Patalong
Fourth Flowermaiden | Anna Devin
Fifth Flowermaiden | Ana James
Sixth Flowermaiden | Justina Gringyte

Conductor | Sir Antonio Pappano
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Royal Opera Chorus
The design concept for this production  focuses on a platform, containing a box large box that changes between transparent and opaque, creating concentric areas of sterility. The box is the most sterile area, followed by the platform of the order, and finally woods that look unnaturally orderly. In subsequent acts the box changes in style for the ritual and other settings, such as Klingsor's domain. Seeing the three different ways the box is used is pleasantly metaphorical, leaving open for interpretation, for instance, the significance of the second tiny box in Klingsor's domain containing a plant. On a basic level the idea for the production is fascinating. With Amfortas' weakened health (as well as Titurel's), the religious focus of the grail knights and their ritual, as well as the sanctity of the grail, it makes perfect sense to have Amfortas and alternately the living grail contained within the rings of sterility. The changes between opacity and transparency in the box are dramatic and effective and the use of the bed in various ways depending on who was in it and whether it was a literal or representative use are great as a center point for the piece. Finally, at the end of the production, with the sterility broken and trees and detritus across the platform, the symbolism is quite poignant, really bringing home the importance of Parsifal's journey and his relevance to the grail community.
If the production stuck closely to this core vision it could really be quite stunning, but some incidental elements are distracting or insufficiently explained. For instance, frequently throughout the first half of the production projections of mouths are shown, mostly on the box itself, with no clear connection to the themes of the production other than perhaps an unclearly haunting reference to Kundry. The costuming generally falls into this category, as well. Some the costuming on the leads and a handful of others, with its crisp blend of modern, clean lines, robes, and neutral colors, really adds to the sterility concept, but many costumes on lesser grail community members, flowermaidens overly bedecked in flowers or alternately sporting ultramodern sequined tube dresses, and grail knights looking like sailors detract from the production's focus. Most troubling, however, is the interpretation of the grail ritual. The use of a child as the grail is not, in itself, a problem; in this post-Dan Brown era the idea of a living grail is not surprising. The difficulty is the use of the child's blood to revive the dying grail members and the lack of clarity in the intent. Certainly the child does represent Jesus both as a child and later as a grown man at the opera's climax. A lack of clarity of who is doing exactly what in the grail ritual and the purpose of the child leaves the production with a lack of drive. Sometimes ambiguity can be effective, but the dichotomy of using a child to manipulatively prolong the life of the order's leaders vs. more traditionally protecting the grail simply introduced too much uncertainty and makes it hard to see the production as either a thought-provoking reimagining or a more traditionally valued production. Hence, visually the production is stunning and really interesting, the core idea is immensely promising, and opportunities for a message exist, but the execution introduces irreconcilable ambiguity.
Simon O'Neill's Parsifal is rock solid. At first it seems as though his interpretation of the hero might lack direction. It becomes clear, however, that this is merely the blithe innocence of a man wandering through the world until he finds his fate through the grail community. O'Neill's Parsifal never loses this bright-eyed sense of wonder even as the character's increasing strength and righteousness, denigrated only slightly by his physique, grow throughout the show. It takes the full five hours for the true genius to be apparent, but it is there. Though O'Neill moves from note to note in a less sustained fashion than some taste might appreciate, his voice is but not much sustained and acting seems fine. The voice is large enough that he never seems to compete with the orchestra, rising above it easily. Importantly, the high notes are clearly there. Every once and a while a trifle of strain enters in but it's never unpleasant and it's clear that O'Neill is a man in control of a rich, big voice with access to the top of the Wagnerian range. He just seems to "get" Parsifal.

As Kundry, Angela Denoke gave a robust performance in a tough role. Her acting is effective, if sometimes a bit over the top in Kundry's more frenetic, manic moments. Her use of straight tone in these moments is also interesting and reminiscent of Schönbergian sprechgesang. Like O'Neill as Parsifal, Denoke's brilliance becomes increasingly apparent as the production continues and opportunities for nuance accrue. Her singing ranges from soft and seductively Bel Cantoesque at moments with Amfortas and Parsifal to all out and wild at rare times, something emphasized by her costuming (particularly the hair). The voice is extremely solid but unusual in timbre. Though she struggles a bit toward the end, especially in the upper ranges, the performance is evocative and remarkable, especially in such a cripplingly difficult role. Indeed, it is amazing Denoke achieves so much interpretive variety and piercing theatrical insight on top of the demands of merely getting through Kundry's music.

René Pape's Gurnemanz was the unanticipated highlight of the evening. Pape's acting is certainly appreciable, capturing the noble stewardship of Gurnemanz's role in the grail knight community. This acting, however, is borne out by his singing more than anything else. Pape, as Gurnemanz, simply sounds... great. The voice is richly round, somehow inherently embodying nobility. It is also easily, almost casually big enough for the role, and simply feels Wagnerian without departing from a fluid, easy production perhaps more typical of Italianate singing. Every moment Pape sang was a gorgeous one that added something to the production, creating a character (and a performer) completely solid, consistent, and believable, due more to anything else to musical interpretation.

By contrast, in the role of Amfortas, Finley's voice is clearly smaller but injected with a mix of metal and warmth reminiscent of some of the great baritones of former eras (not that there aren't great baritones today, but this sort of tone seems less common or valued). Finley's diction is also incredible, really adding a sense of character to his superbly consistent singing. As an actor, his ability to play the moribundly sick Amfortas is uncannily believable. Though at the end this interpretation goes perhaps a bit far as age and blindness enter into the mix, it definitely provided a clear sense of change in the third act. It is surprising that the Royal Opera House chose to highlight their production with Finley as the superstar. Though O'Neill, Pape, and Denoke are all also titans, probably none of them carry quite the recognition that Finley does. While Finley certainly deserves his fame, he is effective as Amfortas because his moments in the spotlight are powerful but he is often the silent seen or unseen force that drives the rest of the characters, represented through his acting throughout the production.

Willard W. White plays a menacing Klingsor. Both his stalking gait across the stage and his voice, not only deeply richer, but also pleasantly "rougher" than the other characters, create the perfect confidence of a weathered villain. There is the inevitable question of whether his casting, the only black man in the production, is meant to provoke a racial question, whether generally, about Wagner's own perspectives, or somehow else. Personally, I prefer not to worry about it, but it is an unavoidable question, unfortunately. Finally, Robert Lloyd's Titurel both vocally and theatrically serves as an effective counterpoint to Finley's Amfortas, older but less sickly and tougher in personality.
Director Stephen Langridge deserves a great deal of praise and a few words of encouragement for this production. As mentioned, the core concept for the show is really quite superb. Also, the acting for the main characters is outstanding. It really seems that Langridge needs to more effectively rein both his own impulses and those of the singers to make a more streamlined production. The way this might happen for the production is explicated above, and for the actors this would mean simply paring down the most over-the-top, expressive moments. Overall, however, Langridge deserves credit for overseeing such a vibrant production that cuts so rock-solidly to the core of the Parsifal story and supports a superb cast. Indeed, Antonio Pappano leads a great ensemble and does it with great effectiveness. The flowermaidens sing beautifully, the grail knights, including the comprimario singers, carry easily over a well balanced orchestra, and Pappano undergirds the leads with an orchestra soft at some points and ebulliently swelling at others. If there is one flaw in Pappano's leadership it is only that the moments without singing, and the Act I Prelude in particular, capture the heart and soul almost more powerfully than those with singing. Hardly a criticism, at all.


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