Mankind is sick. The conventional remedies, religious and medicinal, have proved useless. Where lies the cure for our destructiveness and moral ineptitude? Western civilisation didn’t need Wagner to pose this question, but when it comes to turning human failure and aspiration into art, no one does so more powerfully or provocatively than the master of Bayreuth. Parsifal is his catechism: it dramatises our quest for spiritual healing by portraying mankind’s sickness as physical, a point highlighted in the Royal Opera’s Wagner bicentenary production.
The problem with his “stage-consecration-festival-play” is that it is so cleverly shrouded in Christian symbols – “the sacred chalice”, “holy blood”, “the Redeemer’s wound” – that it has taken on religious associations as mystifying as they are misleading. The triumph of this new interpretation, directed by Stephen Langridge and designed by Alison Chitty, is that it de-sanctifies Parsifal: all trace of pseudo-sacred mumbo-jumbo is removed. What we get instead is a visual shorthand, contemporary but timeless, that illuminates the opera’s philosophical complexity while keeping the narrative both straightforward and continually mesmerising. Across a five-hour span, that is no mean feat.
The stage is dominated by a cube – a simple, deliberately sterile motif – in which mankind’s illness is incubated. It serves as Amfortas’s sick bay in Act One, Kundry’s seduction parlour in Act Two and the transparent barrier through which Parsifal disappears at the end, dispelling “the agonies of unbridled lust” on an open path to enlightenment. Around it are arranged twin representatives of moral sickness – the knights of the Grail and the flower-maidens.
For knights, read grey-suited blood brothers who prepare for terrorist missions by “cleansing” themselves in a ritual that smells of child abuse. The ceremonial scarring of a loin-clothed boy may upset the squeamish but, like so much in this performance, the imagery is fresh without seeming gratuitous. The flower-maidens are more conventional but no less striking.
Some of Langridge’s ideas go off at half-cock. The cube houses a sequence of friezes that pictorialise salient points in the narrative – a Wagner-for-beginners type of spoon-feeding. As for Parsifal’s temporary blinding and the interpolation of “Scream”-type gestures, well, these pose questions that will exercise subscribers to the Wagner Society journal for many months.
The bottom line is that Langridge has divined a Parsifal of intellectual fibre and visual eloquence, matched to a musical performance of exceptional sensitivity under Antonio Pappano. His is not a slow Parsifal, but a spacious, urgent reading with oodles of sensuousness in Act Two and disarming tenderness in the Good Friday music. Orchestra and chorus are on a high.
The agony of Parsifal is personified by Gerald Finley’s Amfortas, a realisation of exceptional musico-dramatic size. Angela Denoke’s Kundry may not look or sound voluptuous but she acts brilliantly. René Pape brings crisp, conversational tone to Gurnemanz’s monologues, while veterans Willard White (Klingsor) and Robert Lloyd (Titurel) dominate their scenes. Even Simon O’Neill’s tight-voiced Parsifal seems inspired.