No work in opera’s 400-year history is as puzzling as Parsifal. Wagner’s “sacred stage festival consecration play” bears the outward trappings of Christian symbolism while encoding elements of eastern philosophy. It speaks constantly of sex, sin and salvation, but shrouds them in philosophical mist. It burdens its characters with guilt, then offers them a release that is neither understandable nor conclusive.
Far from illuminating these confusions, the main essay in English National Opera’s programme only compounds them. The title character, it says, is a reflection of human dividedness – victor and victim in one. Kundry is both temptress and penitent. The Grail, one of Parsifal’s clearest symbols, is a “desperate attempt to reassemble the fragments of the mysteries of existence”.
Wagner’s genius lay in clothing this mumbo-jumbo – the source of endless argument among scholars and fanatics – in music that unifies the contradictions and leaves the audience dumbfounded by its numinous glow.
That is the only aspect we were left in no doubt about at the end of Wednesday’s performance. ENO’s revival – inexplicably, the first time Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s staging has been seen in London since it was new in 1999 – is musically as seasoned and sensitive as the most demanding Wagnerite could wish. But its distinction lies just as much in its refusal to simplify the work’s depths and ambiguities. Lehnhoff questions every aspect of Parsifal tradition and comes up with a novel ending. At the final curtain, instead of inaugurating a new kingdom of the Grail, Parsifal and Kundry trudge off into a void. The message seems to be that man’s quest for meaning, fulfilment, redemption – call it what you will – is bound to fail. The journey is the destination.
To point us in this direction, Lehnhoff and his designers, Raimund Bauer and Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, come up with a series of striking images: a pockmarked concrete bunker in Act One; an Act Two flower garden teeming with insect-like maidens from which Kundry emerges like a queen bee, shedding her coat while preparing for the kill; the remains of a terracotta army in Act Three, alongside a railway track pointing to eternity.
This thought-provoking show, expertly rehearsed by Dan Dooner, is a leftover from a previous ENO regime: unlike most of the current management’s productions, it is the work of a director with long experience of his material, who knows exactly what he is doing.
John Tomlinson sings an epic Gurnemanz, as crisp and clarion as he has ever achieved, and a powerful anchor for the entire performance. Jane Dutton’s Kundry combines gleaming vocalism and histrionic magnetism. Stuart Skelton’s Parsifal – lusty, virile, heroic – towers above everyone, including Iain Paterson’s Amfortas, Andrew Greenan’s Titurel and Tom Fox’s Klingsor. Mark Wigglesworth conducts superbly, generating momentum and purpose while creating moments of softness, stillness and sexiness – above all in the flowermaidens’ chorus. The orchestra responds with exceptional refinement, and a long evening flies past.