Parsifal - Staatsoper Stuttgart, 1 April 2010
I booked a ticket in advance. The Stuttgart set-up is that you submit a request, then exactly one month before the performance date, they email you to say you've been allocated a ticket (though not the exact seat number). You then collect your ticket at the theatre. You can't choose your seat, or have your ticket posted - that's just the way it works.
So, clutching my email printout, I arrived at the theatre half an hour before curtain up. After queuing in a long line at the main ticket desk, who couldn't find my booking, I was sent to another line at another desk, who said the same, and pointed out quite unnecessarily that the show was sold out. I asked them to check again. They then claimed they'd found the booking but there was a problem with my payment. (This is untrue - I'd checked it had gone through on my credit card statement before leaving.) When I politely pointed out that I'd travelled from London and really wanted to see the show, they muttered amongst themselves and grudgingly offered me a seat near the back, considerably worse - and cheaper - than the one I'd paid for, as if they were doing me a favour.
With all the queuing and fannying around it was now five minutes to curtain up. And having spent 9 hours and god knows how much money getting there, I wasn't about to give up.
I was left with no choice.
Shouting loudly at Germans in English is not something I've ever resorted to before. But I can report that it's effective. Twenty seconds into my rant, as if by magic, they 'found' the ticket I'd bought (and, yes, the show really was sold out). I dashed in with just moments to spare.
I should point out that this is the first time that I or anyone I know has had any problem with Stuttgart. Even so, the way in which it was handled leaves me suspicious about what might be going on there, and disinclined to visit again.
I wish I could say that the performance compensated for the ticket headache.
It wasn't boring, I'll give it that much. But that in a way was the problem. Parsifal is a static, contemplative sort of a work. Physically, not much happens. But Calixto Bieito is so scared of yawns, he jazzes up his post-apocalyptic production with a busy chorus of Armageddon survivors, unfortunately reminiscent of the zombie hordes in Michael Jackson's Thriller vid. They fight and rape and mutilate each other, pausing only to receive the grail, a selection of religious artefacts. You could stick your fingers in your ears and still be entertained, there's so much going on. But that's not Wagner's Parsifal, it's Bieito's.
What's more, Bieito wilfully inverts several key episodes. The grail ceremony, far from rejuvenating the people, leaves them angry and dissatisfied, waving protest banners. In place of Parsifal's killing of the swan, Gurnemanz strips and beats to death an angel-winged choirboy. Parsifal, drugged, puts on the wings. The imagery is arresting, but has Parsifal learned compassion? Quite the opposite.
Amfortas has no wound, not even a spiritual one as far as I can tell. There's no change of scenery for the second act - Klingsor's realm is shared with the Grail knights. And instead of refusing Kundry's advances at the critical kiss, Parsifal manages to impregnate her - that's after he's stabbed and slashed one of the clingfilm-encased flower maidens. For Wagner, renunciation of physical love is the key, but for Bieito it's the sexual relationship with Kundry which redeems Parsifal and allows his to become free. Kundry ends the opera heavy with child, a counterpoint of elusive significance to the staged prelude which shows her caring for a naked pregnant woman.
However perverse Bieito's reading may be, there is at least a certain consistency to his alt.Parsifal: religion consumes and destroys, all-you-need-is-love. But his ideas display limited connection to the specific text or music they accompany, let alone Wagner's wider import. Perhaps he just doesn't like what Wagner has to say.
He did get at least get committed and detailed performances from the whole cast. Andrew Richards is a totally solid Parsifal in the style of Chris Ventris. Every note emerges clearly and easily and hits the back row. While his acting is not exactly nuanced (it's his role debut) he does throw himself into the part wholeheartedly. Christiane Iven, an excellent Marschallin in Stuttgart's recent Rosenkavalier, made an equally good impression as Kundry, never struggling with pitch or projection as so many do. From Johann Tilli's manipulative Gurnemanz and Claudio Otelli's barking mad Klingsor the singing was less refined, but just as powerful. Amfortas is backseated in Bieito's production, but Gregg Baker's arresting presence and strong singing ensured he wasn't overlooked.
Manfred Honeck's singer-friendly conducting was scrupulous and unshowy, a model of sober efficiency. If Honeck, a devout Catholic, had any reservations about the more lurid aspects of Bieito's production, he didn't allow them to intrude on his very fine account of the score.