The first night audience for this revival of Parsifal gave Bernard Haitink a warm welcome back to the Royal Opera House, five years after he relinquished the post of Music Director. It was an apt opera for him to choose for his return and he gave a magnificent reading in a beautifully-paced performance, that was as fresh at the end of the evening as at the beginning. It was good to have the master back in the house.
The singing was uniformly excellent. Gurnemanz is a more comfortable role for John Tomlinson than his recent Wotan and there was less evidence of the strain he showed at times during the three cycles of The Ring. Falk Struckmann is an impressive Amfortas and, in the title role, an ardent and ringing Christopher Ventris a British Parsifal to be proud of.
Willard White‘s Klingsor is as compelling a performance as I’ve seen from this fine singer. His scene has an Expressionistic quality with Kundry painfully summoned forth, like an awkward birth. Looking for all the world like Elsa Lanchester as Frankenstein’s bride, she cackles and hangs off the main tabs like a melodrama villain. Petra Lang is terrific throughout, her seduction of Parsifal brilliantly sung, although doing this out front with him upstage, as far away from her as possible, it lacks any real sense of carnality.
The Flowermaidens are a comely lot, though. Wandering mystified through an ocean of them, Parsifal shows not one jot of temptation. A lesser man would have had difficulty resisting the charms of this shapely and melodious harem.
If the musical performance is top notch, Klaus Michael Grüber‘s staging (revived by Ellen Hammer) is more haphazard. It ranges from the visually inventive to the downright amateurish. It starts well enough with a forest of pylon-like structures, casting both back to a world of nature and forward to an industrial future. The Grail Hall has overtones of Leonardo da Vinci, with a table filling the entire width of the proscenium. It may not be apparent to anyone not in the front few rows that Titurel (Gwynne Howell), rather than being a disembodied voice, sings from the suit of armour behind Amfortas’ right shoulder.
There are oddities in this first act. Amfortas’ offending arm has been replaced with a strange wooden structure with a hexagonal wheel on the end, which seems to hinder the singer more than the character, while the Grail itself is a lump of rock, bandied around effortfully and uninvested with any sense of the significance of the holy relic.
Act 2 has the most striking visuals of the evening, Klingsor’s domain a mix of Miróesque shapes and a Disneyland ride feature, with a nod to Damien Hirst in the stuffed shark which hangs from the circular ceiling. As the scene transforms into a garden, shapes that are more rounded and hideously dayglo fly in and the effect is less magical, more arbitrary. We are dangerously reminded of the undersea world of ENO’s recent Coronation of Poppea.
The last act has a poorly-executed kiddies’ play tent, decorated with dollops of white fur, looking like a kindergarten collage, against a background vista that resembles a cheap record label’s album cover for Finlandia. The final tableau of inanimate knights in armour left me feeling as disengaged as an inert Parsifal, facing front, a gauze separating him from the rest of the cast during the closing bars.
For all its considerable musical accomplishment (reason enough to get a ticket any way you can), this is an evening that most of the time resembles a concert performance and ultimately fails as a piece of living theatre.