“Parsifal”, Bühnenweihfestspiel by Richard Wagner (music and libretto). Premiered at the Festspielhaus Bayreuth on 26 July 1882. Premiere of De Nationale Opera production in the Muziektheater Amsterdam on 6 December 2016.
“Wagner is terribly cloying” – Julien Gracq, 1910-2007
“Unbelievable! Unbelievable!”, sighed the man behind me, shaking his head. This was the premiere of Parsifal on 6 December in the Muziektheater Amsterdam, and enthusiastic, or at least polite applause, had finally broken out after the seemingly endless first act. The man, who had an imposing beard, was wearing a chequered jacket just like that of the Dutch comic book character Oliver B. Bommel, and a bow tie. He looked just as approachable as a German teacher – that is to say, not very approachable at all.
I suspected him to be a member of an occult Wagner-sect (often called “society”) who had come, somewhat begrudgingly, to watch the premiere amongst the common people. However, I ventured to ask him to explain his indignation — was the first act really so bad? (On the contrary!) My neighbour beneficently referred me to the premiere of Parsifal in 1882, where Richard Strauss, Bruckner, Liszt and the dreaded critic Hanslick were present. Wagner came onto the stage after the first act and asked the audience not to applaud between acts, so as not to interrupt the dramatic continuity. But the public was overzealous and, much to Wagner’s displeasure, failed to applaud right at the very end as well. Since then, for full-blooded Wagnerians, and for them only, it is simply not done to applaud after the first act of Parsifal. Just so you know.
The Amsterdam premiere of Parsifal was scheduled for Saint Nicholas Day. The public certainly did not miss the opportunity to applaud, so long as blood flowed in their hands and arms. After all, Parsifal is a long, long time to be sitting down.
Four-and-a-half hours of Wagner made for an inhumanely heavy session, which I am sure would be subject to an immediate objection from any occupational health and safety regulator. The only consolation was the two intervals, which we treated like gifts from God. It is painful to admit, but let’s be honest, almost all operas are too long. As far as I’m concerned, the fourth act of Carmen is a never-ending, tedious exercise and we can surely cut out at least an hour from Rosenkavalier. But strangely, at least in this respect, the marathon operas of Wagner always turn out better. Parsifal puts you into a trance, a metaphysical atmosphere where Father Time, who so often sadistically whispers in your ear “Wouldn’t you just like a beer?”, for once shuts his big mouth.
Wagner time, quality time! It is how conductor James Levine once described it: a question of ‘lights out, senses on’. Because, who wouldn’t be swept up by the story of the Holy Grail or the story of the spear that pierced Jesus on the cross? The story of Klingsor, seriously wounded by Amfortas with that same spear. Only a ‘pure fool’, ‘by his pity knowing’ can save Amfortas. At first blush, Parsifal does not appear to be a convincing candidate to play the saviour. The knave had shot a swan (Gurnemanz advised him to restrict himself to geese), which meant that he was not readily appreciated by the Grail Knights. However, after the exhibition of the Grail, it was proven that he was the right man for the job. He travels to Klingsor’s castle where he, among other things, defies the temptations of the flower girls in order to get a hold of the spear. Years later, Parsifal returns, and, with that same spear, he heals the wound that Amfortas gave him. Parsifal was honoured as the new King of the Grail. That is the story in a nutshell. The opera is full of Christian symbols; Nietzsche accused Wagner of ‘crawling on his stomach for the cross “.
This production is a reprise from 2012, and the direction is back in the hands of Pierre Audi, with set designer/sculptor Anish Kapoor by his side. They did not shy away from large-scale effects. In the first act, we see three giant boulders. Boulders and Audi – that indestructible marriage has lasted for 25 years. In the second act a huge mirror appears, with all the associated symbolic connotations. And… fire! The mirror had a comical acoustic side effect: when the soloists stood in a particular place, the mirror acted as a megaphone. It seemed as if the soloist in question was sitting on the seat next to you. In the second act, the flower girls appear. It’s a moment where there is much to see: a number of lovely, seductive ladies in a gloomy, male dominated society. Unfortunately, these were not lightly dressed, fresh ladies, but a number of ladies who wore ill-defined outfits seemingly inspired by Snoopy’s Red Baron and Liberace’s favourite party shirt. In the book that Roland de Beer wrote about Audi the director considers the flower girls as “a manifestation of the Eumenides, from Aeschylus’ Oresteia. The main character is pursued with the furies hot on his heels, only for the furies to later turn into nice girls”. Write me a short e-mail if you know what that means. In the third act, we see a huge wall with a circular opening. At the end, the mirror from act II descends over the opening (the Grail!). Parsifal does his last little trick with the spear, and that’s that. All in all, the direction is reasonably conventional, easy to follow and spatially, very sophisticated. The scenic images are beautiful and the direction of the actors was excellent. It was proof that modern direction can be very beautiful whilst not descending into absurdity, unlike Andrea Bader’s Amsterdam production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut which was served with generous doses of the absurd.
It is rare that the voices of the National Opera be substandard. Once again, the cast in this production of Parsifal was strong. There was little to complain about and much to enjoy. The excellent Günther Grossböck as Gurnemanz, an exceptionally heavy role, made an unforgettable impression. It was amazing how he controlled his powerful and beautiful voice in a nuanced and colourful way. Christopher Ventris is a passionate Parsifal, and along with Nikolai Schukoff, probably the best there currently is. With his range of colours he approaches perfection. Petra Lang, who at times struggled with intonation, guaranteed a poignant, highly dramatic Kundry who apparently lived out her life horizontally. Her voice had a pure, alto-like colouring, and yet she had no problems with extremely high notes. Her “Ich sah’ das Kind” was an unforgettable moment. As was the great duet between Parsifal and Kundry, wherein Wagner, in his inimitable way, portrays the psychological fight against temptation. The Helden / power-bartitone Bastiaan Everink deserves special mention. To see a Dutchman in a major role in Amsterdam is a rare occurrence. In the deft jargon of the management, this is due to the ‘international character’ of the opera company. Read: “Wat je ver haalt, is lekker”, a Dutch proverb which translates here to “Talent only exists overseas”. Also read: “When there’s a will, there’s a way”. The opera Parsifal was instrumental in Everink’s decision to become an opera singer. He portrays a beautiful, dark, evil and even demonic Klingsor. Klingsor’s character is ‘a mixture of anger and regret; murderous urges and hidden nostalgia for the good,’ Everink writes in his book ‘Strijdtoneel’ (Battle Scene). Everink’s Klingsor is a perfect embodiment of this description. I was not especially impressed by the American baritone Ryan McKinny, who played Amfortas. Although Amfortas is meant to be sick and weak, McKinny’s somewhat twisted and unstable sound was so weak that the orchestra’s volume often got in the way of his singing. The typecasting was also off: you cannot really have the role of Amfortas, a character full of misery and painfully close to death, be played by an ex high-school jock with an impressive six pack, especially one that was so ostentatiously displayed. It should be mentioned that all soloists treated the text with the utmost care. There was no doubt special attention paid to the interpretation of the texts. Although the voice coach forgot to explain that “Brot” (bread) in German is not pronounced like “Brood” in Dutch, the trustworthy Opera Chorus again was of a high quality.
The orchestra. Did I miss Fischer and the Concertgebouw Orchestra from the 2012 production? Three times no. Sublime Wagnerian sounds arose from the pit where Marc Albrecht and his Dutch Philharmonic Orchestra (an extra bravo for the brass section) had taken their seats. Immediately, right from the psychedelic overture, Albrecht achieved a superior level of intensity. His interpretation was characterized by exceptional tonal balance, musical exuberance (beginning of the third Act) and attention paid to the singers. Is Albrecht on the way to becoming one of the best Wagner conductors in the world, or is he that already? The applause was, as usual in Amsterdam, relatively brief but enthusiastic. A special place was reserved for Petra Lang during the final applause. There was not even a chuckle. She stood there, terse and acidic. As an audience member, you would have paid the exorbitant sum of 176 Euro only to have Lang look at you like you’re a piece of dirt. Then you start to applaud and shout “Brava”, just to be rewarded with a look of chagrin unparalleled on the stage. Scandalous.
In any case, that’s how the marathon Parsifal session ended. ”Die Zeit is da”. Time for a “Bayreuther Kellerbier”.
Next performances on 12, 15, 18, 21, 25 and 29 December 2016.
Olivier Keegel (Published 7/12/2016)