For an opera conceived as a paean to reconciliation, Wagner’s “Parsifal” has sown much discord. Some people have read anti-Semitism into Klingsor, its evil genius whose self-hatred leads him to castrate himself; many regard the work as a Christian tract, though it’s as much a celebration of pre-Christian paganism. But its deep import is Freudian.
The Holy Grail with Christ’s blood and the Spear which pierced his side are the relics on which the action turns, but the drama concerns Amfortas’s need for redemption, symbolised by the unhealable wound in his side.
To atone for his seduction by the ‘wild woman’ Kundry he must be saved by young Parsifal, a holy fool. Wagner wrestled for thirty years with the idea for this opera, which eventually proved to be all about sex and the importance of renouncing it. This may be an old man’s take on the pleasures of life, but no music ever dripped more sensuality than the accompaniment to the Flower Maidens’ attempts to seduce Parsifal in Klingsor’s domain.
Stephen Langridge’s production lays its cards on the table with the rise of its blood-red curtain: as emphasised by Alison Chitty’s designs, this will be a very medical interpretation. A gauze cube sits centre-stage containing an ailing Amfortas (Gerald Finley) lying in a hospital bed on a drip with orderlies dozing round him. Rene Pape then makes his appearance as the soothsayer Guernemanz, to explain how Amfortas got into this fix: with Antonio Pappano generating powerful momentum in the pit, it only needs a few lines from this great German bass to speed the drama effortlessly on its course.
The baronial halls, mountains, and forests which Wagner stipulated are here replaced by an unchanging grey space surrounded by denuded tree-trunks and peopled by grey-suited ‘knights’ who look like members of a Seventies TM cult. And onto this symbolism-laden story Langridge has grafted symbolism of his own devising. The ever-present cube, which often unhelpfully obscures the action, assumes a Tardis-like function, giving lurid flashbacks to Amfortas’s original sin and Klingsor’s bloody self-castration. And when the Eucharist is celebrated, the cube disgorges a Christ-boy whom Amfortas wounds, after which his knights (who have suddenly become a terrorist cell) stab themselves with syringes in an absurdly choreographed group gesture. The Grail’s ultimate revelation is that the boy has become the adult Christ… enough already.
Wagner’s mighty visions - and his vast circles of terraced sound - go for nothing under this director, whose literalism sabotages key moments including the climactic aria from Finley’s finely-sung Amfortas, and the scene with the Flower-Maidens, who attack Simon O’Neill’s Parsifal like an unruly bunch of hookers. And O’Neill himself is problematic: he may have a sweetly focused tone, but nature, to be honest, never intended him as a heroic-romantic lead.
That this is still a triumphant evening is thanks to Angela Denoke’s brilliantly-acted and gorgeously-sung Kundry, to the burnished beauty of Pape’s singing, to the superb chorus, and to Pappano’s players who do full justice to the magnificence of the score.