The idea of a music drama based on the legend of Parsifal and the Knights of the Holy Grail occurred to Wagner as early as 1846 when he was working on Lohengrin. The Swan Knight (Lohengrin) is in fact the son of Parsifal, and during his farewell aria to his bride Elsa he describes the temple of the Grail in Monsalvat, the romantic Utopia in Spain. Wagner finally completed Parsifal, his final work, in 1882.
This is a sacred music drama rather than an opera and as a result, it is difficult to stage convincingly – especially in the secular age in which we now live. There is little action on stage throughout its five-hour duration. Therefore, if the setting is not convincing, one has plenty of time to be irritated by it. A joint production with the Lyric Opera House in Madrid, directed by Klaus Michael Grüber, this rendering of Parsifal proved inadequate in balancing what we see on the stage with the magnificent, enveloping and at times overwhelming scale of Wagner’s music.
The Royal Opera House orchestra under Simon Rattle played gloriously throughout, the strings achieving a standard rarely heard in this house. They and all their colleagues were undoubtedly the heroes of the evening, playing for Rattle with obvious devotion: I have seldom heard them play so rapturously. Rattle in turn extracted the most exquisite detail from the enormous score. He took the music at a slow and measured pace but the performance never dragged.
The singing, likewise, was uniformly excellent with a towering performance by John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz, the chief Knight of the Grail, and Thomas Hampson haunting as Amfortas, ruler of the Kingdom of the Grail. It is he who has fallen from grace when seduced by the wild woman Kundry, in Klingsor’s enchanted castle. He is mortally wounded by the evil Klingsor, who steals the sacred spear. The wound can only be healed by a guileless fool, Parsifal, who must recapture the spear.
Kundry appears in all three acts, virtually mute in the first and developing into a seductress in the second when she tries to add Parsifal to her list of conquests. In the third act she regains her dignity through penitence, and dies. She was in this production played by Violeta Urmana, a Lithuanian mezzo with a wonderfully expressive voice and great presence.
Danish tenor Stig Andersen played Parsifal, the guileless fool. A rather prosaic actor with a pleasing but unheroic voice, his green tunic dress did nothing to convey a person capable of tackling the evil sorcerer Klingsor, menacingly played by Willard White sporting a wonderful red velvet robe fashioned like a bath-wrap. His shapely flower maidens were in this production mermaids, since his castle was supposed to be under the sea. A large Damian Hurst-like shark dangled above the stage, grinning out at the audience to make the point.
The set for the third act, the setting for which was a forest clearing, came punctuated by snowy areas of a suspiciously lamb’s wool-like texture, the overall set resembling bunkers on a golf course. When Parsifal tried to find a place to stab his recaptured sacred spear, the effect suggested a placing of the pin on the 18th green.
This keenly-awaited sell-out rendering evoked spirituality and grandeur through the music, but what a pity such traits were not to be found in the production. Perhaps a non-staged concert performance would have allowed us to conjure up our own setting of this masterpiece, yet it was in the final analysis nonetheless a wonderful musical experience.