Wagner’s idea of humanity, as expounded in his last opera, was deeply flawed. On one side you have a group of men who constantly strive to purify themselves and, weakened by carnality, constantly fail (Wagner knew plenty about that). On the other side you have a group of women whose sole purpose seems to be to seduce and ensnare. How to reconcile the two? Wagner’s solution was to introduce a saintly hero who resists temptation and leads humankind to a better world – one where, strangely, only one woman features, uttering the words “service, service”.
It’s this misogynist view of life, draped in the pseudo-religious iconography of the Holy Grail, that German director Christof Loy sets out to examine in his new production of Wagner’s “sacred stage festival play” at the Royal Swedish Opera. Like Parsifal itself, his interpretation is often opaque, with symbols that can be confusing, but at the end you cannot help feeling a sense of wonder. In a Wagner bicentenary that has produced surprisingly few standout productions, Loy’s Parsifal is worth savouring. All the more reason to ask why, after a string of similarly thought-provoking shows for London’s Royal Opera a few years ago, Loy’s career in the English-speaking world has dried up.
Loy subjects Parsifal to the critical eye of history, as if studying late 19th-century piety and promiscuity through an early 21st-century lens. The grail scenes resemble a sentimental Bavarian-Catholic altarpiece, with the suffering Christ (Amfortas) draped in a cloak of ermine and crown of thorns, surrounded by monk-like disciples and a frieze of romanticised angels. We could be watching an old-fashioned Passion play at Oberammergau. In Klingsor’s temple, carnation-like dancers are controlled by a top-hatted sugar-daddy (Klingsor) who is too old and impotent to be a sexual threat. The likeness to a Manet theatre painting is unmistakable. Throughout all this, an old book is being written and referenced, but its purpose only becomes clear in the finale. The closing tableau depicts a public library, in which men and women of our time look back at history on equal terms, with a mixture of curiosity and bemusement.
The question Loy wants us to ask is whether such a sexual utopia really exists today. Even if you dispute his logic, dislike his distancing devices or reject his interpretation – one in which a yokel-like Parsifal never really fits – you cannot deny the theatrical quality of his stagecraft, the resourcefulness of the set and costume designs (Dirk Becker) or the skill with which Patrik Ringborg conducts Wagner’s long spans, never letting the music sound ponderous.
A first-rate cast is led by Christof Fischesser’s sturdy Gurnemanz, Ola Eliasson’s sensitive Amfortas and Martin Winkler’s clarion-toned Klingsor. Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry, in powerful voice, is more mature dominatrix than sex symbol, while Michael Weinius’s Parsifal makes up in vocal heft what he lacks in romantic allure. The drama they unfold may be perplexing and occasionally amusing, but like the best performances of Parsifal, this one keeps you thinking.