It is some time since any of the masterpieces of Wagner’s high maturity has been staged in London, so ENO’s revival of Parsifal was most welcome, despite memories of the irritations and worse of the production in 1999.
It is some time since any of the masterpieces of Wagner’s high maturity has been staged in London, so ENO’s revival of Parsifal was most welcome, despite memories of the irritations and worse of the production in 1999. Since then it has toured the world, and achieved contemporary immortality on DVD, a performance recorded in Baden-Baden. The ENO revival is directed by Daniel Dooner, and is quite extensively revised, though not nearly extensively enough for my taste.
But before I deal with it, I want to hymn the praises of the musical side, which is in most respects quite wonderful. This is Mark Wigglesworth’s first Parsifal, though listening to it that is very hard to believe. Not only is his musical conception flawless, but the ENO orchestra also plays with incredible, untiring beauty and power. Usually you can judge how good a performance of Parsifal will be from the Prelude, and on the first night it was played in a way that invited the most noble comparisons. Pacing, balancing, the achievement of that kind of transparency which everyone rightly goes on about in relation to this score, all were perfect.
When the curtain rose on the uniquely grim set, John Tomlinson immediately established authority as Gurnemanz, and continued with almost undiminished resources for the whole evening. This is a role that lies very well for his voice in its present state, but previously he has tended to be gravelly, where, given the dimensions of the part, he needs to at least sound, sometimes, mellifluous. Not quite managing that, Tomlinson’s stage presence is still so powerful that it matters less than you might think. Only in the ecstatic climax of Act III was he unable to persuade. But he inhabits the part in a way that I thought no one any longer could.
He is matched by Stuart Skelton’s Parsifal, a role that for some reason escapes almost everyone who attempts it. Skelton is a rudimentary actor, but his voice is strong, youthful and beautiful, and he uses it so intelligently that Parsifal’s redemptive achievement is credible, or would be in a better production. The trickiest role is that of Amfortas, whose sufferings are so intense that an adequate expression of them is likely to lead an audience to distance itself by thinking of him as self-pitying. Iain Patterson manages to avoid that, partly through the remorse he shows towards his dying (in Act I) and dead (in Act III) father Titurel. The salient weaknesses of the cast are the Kundry of Jane Dutton, who makes the lyrical parts of her role dull and lustreless, though she is adequate when she begins to show temperament, and the far too mellow-voiced Klingsor of Tom Fox, though he is not helped by the bizarre setting of an X-rayed pelvis in which he is located.
You can only enjoy this Parsifal if you disregard the sets by Raimund Bauer. Wagner’s carefully specified Nature is abolished: the only colour is grey, and that goes for the characters as well as for their environment. At the back, in Act I, there is a large shapeless hole which does strange things during the Transformation Music in Act I — transcendently performed, by the way. Act III is much the same with the addition of an Auschwitz-suggesting railway line. Wagner, we gather from the dramaturg Wolfgang Willaschek, got it (i.e., his own drama) wrong.
The most blatant mismatch of many comes in the Good Friday Music. Parsifal wonderingly says, as the music achieves its greatest warmth and loveliness, ‘How beautiful the meadow seems today! I have never seen such soft and tender blossoms and flowers,’ and Gurnemanz ends his reply, ‘All that blooms and soon must die, Nature cleansed has gained today its day of innocence.’ Not a hint of that on the stage. And therefore no sense that the return of the Spear to the land of the Grail will effect any kind of healing; in this production a slender hope of that kind is initiated by Kundry at the end, whom Wagner mistakenly permits to die — a fate she has long been wanting — but who here leads the knights of the Grail off to some unspecified place up the railway line. So are the characters in a state of delusion? Or are we supposed to ignore the text, and the action? Or is there supposed to be some fruitful dislocation between the text and the setting?
Many modern productions, especially those originating in Germany, have so inured audiences to the unintelligibility of this kind of thing that it is regarded as comically naïve and literal-minded to object, or even raise the question. And even if what Wagner created in Parsifal is regarded, as it is by one school of critics, as ideologically pernicious, and therefore in need of corrective attention — a position I think is ludicrous — shouldn’t that happen in reviews and discussions rather than in doctored productions of the works, unless it is thought that they are likely to incite spectators to acts of terrorism, or anyway to the adoption of dangerous attitudes?
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 5, 2011