Given Claus Guth’s track record of intellectually probing and challenging stagings that have divided opinion between their admirers and detractors in almost equal measure, it’ll come as no surprise that his well-travelled staging of Wagner’s final work dispenses with much, if not all accumulated Parsifal performance tradition.
Seen previously in Zurich and Barcelona, it takes at its starting point the catastrophic outcome of the First World War, and the effect it had on the German people. Set in the dying days of the Weimar Republic, it asks serious questions about the nature of heroism and whether a nation’s optimism for the future, and redemption from the past, can be placed on the shoulders of one person, and if they are, what particular path that might take.
Guth also touches on the idea that Parsifal himself is somehow re-enacting the story in order to regain his lost memory, and that the characters are played by those running the sanatorium in which this production is set, makes it very much like the premise of the film Shutter Island. It’s a fascinating idea, but as with much of this staging, Guth poses more questions than he answers.
Christian Schmidt’s set design, staged on a revolve, allows Guth to separate out scenes to telling effect, no more so in the grail scene. Peopled with shell-shocked soldiers to begin with, as they slide out of view we see Amfortas and his father Titurel alone in a room, their pivotal scene staged as an unsettling and unbearably intense encounter between an implacable father and his tortured son. The entire staging was filled with similar deft touches and insights, making it one of the most engrossing we’ve seen in recent years.
The cast assembled in Madrid ranged from the disappointing to the outstanding, and it was a definite bonus that four of the six principals were German, as their articulation of the text was exemplary, as indeed was Russian Evgeny Nikitin’s as Klingsor and Ante Jerkunica’s as Titurel. In the title role Christian Elsner failed to make much of an impression. He’s not a natural stage animal, and whilst his singing was never forced or ugly, his tone lacked the required heft for his encounter with Kundry in the second act, and there was little in the way of radiant redemption at the opera’s close. This was particularly frustrating as he was partnered with Anja Kampe, today’s reigning Kundry. She made a huge impression in the Berlin Staatsoper’s production in 2015 and was in sovereign voice once again. Thrillingly sung at either end of this role’s fiendishly challenging range, she combined innate musicianship with an electrifying stage persona, and in doing so became the lynchpin of the staging and the star of the show.
Franz Josef Selig was a tower of strength both dramatically and vocally as Gurnemanz – his long monologues alive with nuance and meaning – whilst Nikitin was bitingly malevolent as Klingsor. Detlef Roth certainly embodied Amfortas’ pain and anguish dramatically, but his dry baritone sounded forced most of the time, most notably in the higher-lying passages of the role. He was outsung by Jerkunica as his father, whose sepulchral bass voice dominated proceedings.
In the pit Semyon Bychkov drew some electrifying playing from the orchestra of the Teatro Real, which bordered on the transcendental in the final act. Faultlessly paced throughout its five-plus hours, all members of the orchestra played like lions for him, and it was evident that they relished his presence on the podium. With full-blooded singing from the Real’s Chorus and a mellifluous bevy of Flowermaidens, this was a memorable performance, unfortunately marred only by an uneven line-up of soloists.
Klaus Florian Vogt sings the title role on April 18, 21, 24 and Paul Weigold conducts on April 15.