Wagner made very sure people would pay attention to the meaning of the opera he called his 'farewell to the world', by decreeing that it should only be performed, like a sacred ritual, in his theatre in Bayreuth. And though it was conceived as – and undoubtedly is – a paean to peace and reconciliation, it has sowed remarkable discord among the cognoscenti.
Some take it as read - on the basis of absolutely no textual evidence - that its evil genius, the self-castrating Klingsor, is a Jew, thus making it a piece of overt racism; many deduce from its celebration of what its soothsayer Gurnemanz calls ‘the magic of Good Friday’ that it’s simply a Christian tract. But in its melding of Christian symbolism with the symbolisms of paganism and medieval courtly love, it eludes all facile interpretation. The Holy Grail with Christ’s blood, and the Spear which pierced his side, are the relics on which the action turns; sexual lust and its chaste renunciation are the polarities between which wounded king Amfortas, suicidal femme-fatale Kundry, and the naive young redeemer Parsifal, are each trapped in a tormented struggle. It’s a theatrical myth stuffed with pre-Freudian ideas. But it’s also, as Pierre Boulez has argued, an inspired amalgam of Bach’s Passions and Mozart’s Die Zauberflote, which is why its spell can work just as well in the concert hall as it does on stage.
The Ring which Valery Gergiev brought to Covent Garden two years ago was pathetically misconceived, but from the moment he sent the long-breathed phrases of Parsifal’s Prelude slowly spinning out into the ether, it was clear he had now found his personal hotline to Wagner. His fluttering hands drew out all the music’s luxuriant physicality, conjuring gorgeous textures to support his soloists. No praise too high for Yury Vorobiev’s warm and vibrant Gurnemanz, or for Nikolay Putilin’s burnished Klingsor. Larisa Gogolevskaya may not do beauty of tone, but her Kundry was electrifyingly dramatic; if Evgeny Nikitin’s Amfortas was short on the requisite vulnerability, Avgust Amonov radiated the right sort of guilelessness in the title role. Unstaged this may have been, but with Tiffin Boys Choir positioned in the gods, and soloists strategically placed throughout the auditorium, the intricately-layered score became the occasion for a richly theatrical event.