Parsifal - Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie Brussels, 30 January 2010
ENO are you reading? This is how you bring new blood into opera. Romeo Castellucci's operatic experience may be zero, but he's a seasoned theatrical hand with visual flair, wide-ranging technical skills, a probing intellect, a loyal, talented supporting team and a willingness to push the boundaries. And of course a desire to do the job in the first place without being cajoled. How many of ENO's recent first-timers have demonstrated even one of those qualities? In the face of his numerous practical qualifications, his unique artistic vision seems almost like a bonus.
The Parsifal he has created for La Monnaie is beautiful, haunting and arresting. I say 'created' because while it's not an 'interpretation' in the conventional sense, he doesn't discard or wilfully ignore Wagner's work either. It's more like a complementary visual layer in which he explores Wagner's central theme of transformation, using metaphors as simple as darkness and light, and as oblique as bondage, disguise, and duplication. The possibility of enlightenment and redemption through love exists. Controversially shorn of Christian symbolism and Germanic historicism, it is a humanistic and unexpectedly uplifting vision.
Despite a few visual echoes of his Inferno trilogy (which came to the Barbican a couple of years ago), Castellucci hasn't simply applied a recognisable style in the Robert Wilson/Katie Mitchell sense. The dramatic pace is as contemplative as the music, yet the spectacle evolves continuously and seamlessly. Movement is deliberate, gesture minimal and meaningful. Where it falls short is in the unfinished feel of the third act, a consequence to some degree of last minute changes made for musical reasons (according to the blog of Andrew Richards, who sang the title role).
As the prelude begins in total blackout, even in the pit, the only thing visible is Hartmut Haenchen's iluuminated baton tip, darting around like a firefly. The darkness lifts to reveal this huge photo of Parsifal fan Nietzsche. A live albino snake hangs wriggling by the philosopher's ear.
A dark, dense forest appears, magically conjured with brilliant 3D projection. An Alsatian stands guard. Time is suspended as huge trees fall slowly and silently to the ground behind. The community sport leafy camouflage, the effect more pagan than militaristic. Where does the environment end and its occupants begin? Parsifal stumbles in looking like an accountant on casual Friday. It is immediately clear, in a way that a purist horns'n'helmet production could never manage, that he neither understands nor fits in to the world in which he finds himself.
As the scene draws to a close for the grail ceremony to begin, brutal strip lighting descends. It drowns the set in a harsh white light, revealing its artifice. That breathtaking simulacrum was nothing more than a few fake trees and some netting. The contrasts Castellucci has drawn in just the first few minutes - nature/culture, community/individual, artifice/authenticity - inform the entire work. A narrative emerges, or not, as you choose. The wound of Amfortas is revealed gradually, as he peels back layers of costume to reveal first flayed muscle, then bone, and finally, shockingly, nothing (a black t-shirt and clever lighting, if you're wondering). He is hollow inside; his wound is emptiness.
The second act is a total visual contrast, a white box, set mistily behind a white scrim. The loftiest of culture takes nature's place as Klingsor the mad, Mahlerian orchestral conductor sprouts a doppelgänger. Together they truss half-naked women and suspend them like carcases from the ceiling where they slowly spin, ugly-beautiful and dehumanised, like flies parcelled up for a spider's lunch. Perhaps they are projections of Kundry, whose white snake twined around her neck echoes the binding ropes. Or is she Kundry? She writes her name in big black letters on the back wall - Anna.
170 local extras were brought in for the final act. The forest of trees has become a forest of people, with a cityscape behind them. They trudge relentlessly forward on a wide treadmill - but of course they never get anywhere. Parsifal is at their head, the singers in their midst, half-hidden as they were by the trees earlier, their individual identity subsumed by the mass. It's less complex and ingenious than what came before, and less fully developed. But as the lights go up and Andrew Richards steps forward (and out of character?) for Nur eine Waffe taugt, the message is clear - we're all in this together.
Musically, there are no shortcomings. Hartmut Haenchen conducted with assurance and always perfectly-judged pace, keeping the music alive however solemn the tempo. His is not the sort of conducting that draws attention to itself by pulling the music around. He knows where he's going, and how everything fits together. Tension was built carefully and detail lovingly revealed. He handled the offstage chorus expertly and managed the tricky combination of making singers heard while covering the noise of the stage machinery. If he did indeed force changes to the staging, I can only imagine it was done with the most honest and musical of intentions. He received the warmest applause at the end, and he deserved it.
The cast were equally terrific. I was initially surprised by the casting of Kundry. Anna Larsson, a terrific Erda, is as close as you get to a contralto. But her cello-like timbre has a majestic timeless quality that resonates with the production. Andrew Richards' Parsifal reminded me of Tom Cruise's character in The Last Samurai - the blundering but basically decent American adrift in a foreign world. Only the half-voice he used in some passages didn't quite convince me. Thomas Johannes Mayer brought a lieder-like attention to text to his beautifully-sung Amfortas, and Jan-Hendrik Rootering retained the stamina to make an effective Gurnemanz. Tómas Tómasson's malevolent Klingsor and the veteran Victor von Halem's Titurel rounded off a solid ensemble.
Gurnemanz and canine friend:
The wound is revealed:
The end - Parsifal is alone:
Production photos © Bernd Uhlig
Curtain call photos: intermezzo.typepad.com
More pictures, video, interviews etc on the La Monnaie website.