Is Parsifal "the most misogynistic opera"? This was the opinion ventured by one of my male colleagues during the first interval of Silviu Purcarete's new (to Welsh National Opera)/old (to Scottish Opera) production of Wagner's last opera. Now, I recognise that the evidence for my colleague's charge is extensive - Poor Kundry! What guilt she carries! What pain she suffers! What terror lies between her dirty, dirty legs! - but misogyny in opera? Where do you start? In factWagner's magnificent Magdalen has one quality that rather distinguishes her from music's more run-of-the-mill misogynistic creations: character. Not, I should add, that this had occurred to me before last weekend's trip to Cardiff.
Despite having seen a variety of sultry mezzos gurgle and shriek and smoulder their way through this role, poor Kundry's nature had, hitherto, remained a mystery to me. To be sure, the casual cruelty, objectification and manipulation she endures are, if anything, more acutely to be felt here than in other recent productions. But Purcarete's is the first Parsifal I've seen that, despite some major faults of balance, an irritating amount of set-moving, and some rather ugly visual gestures, contextualises Wagner's anti-heroine in the culture of her creation; a syphillis-ridden age where femmes fatales were exactly that. No wonder men - Wagner among them - were so confused about women. No wonder Freud - who also looms large in this production - presented a paper on male hysteria only four years after Parsifal. Indeed, so thoroughly referenced are Purcarete's late 19th-century themes that his Wagner is less misogynistic than misandrous.
To reveal the fault-lines in this most fervently cherished work in such a subversive fashion is a daring move. On the one hand we have the traditional poetic statement of redemption, purity, sacrifice and goodness; well defined visually but rather less so musically. On the other a discourse on lust, fear, culpability and male superstition; the superstition of the Knights of the Grail, of castrated Klingsor (Donald Maxwell), and the superstition of Wagner himself. That Parsifal (Stephen O'Mara) himself is foolish is par for the course. That Amfortas (Robert Hayward) comes across as a dolt who proved incapable of keeping his zipper zipped and is now an intolerable burden on his society as the result of his own stupid actions is not. Indeed of the knights who guard the grail only Gurnemanz (Alfred Reiter) seems at all responsible, reasonable or sensitive; the only one who can reveal a "feminine side" through instinct and intuition and the only character who can translate his faith beyond childish dogma. And Reiter it is whose calm, authoritative presence and smooth, unegotistical, often delicate singing is essential to balance Purcarete's argument. For though conductor Vladimir Jurowski's first Wagner was billed as the chief point of interest, Sara Fulgoni's Kundry was the undoubted star of the show and Act II's syphillitic fun fair - complete with magic mirrors and cartoon skeletons - the undoubted focus of Purcarete's vision.
Fulgoni's is an interpretation that, should her voice and stage presence continue to develop in the sure and steady way they have recently, we will be queuing round the block to hear in coming years. Crazy, drudge, seductress, witness and mother, she embraces, enmeshes and inhabits Kundry's contradictions and complexities; showing genuine tenderness and regret in moments usually thick with artificial, vampish, drag-queen sensuality while towering like Jocasta over Purcarete's infantilised Parsifal. (Yes, sex makes fools of us all.) It follows that when Fulgoni is on stage, thrilling to her role's immense vocal and emotional demands, Jurowski's conducting has a vitality and confidence that is sorely lacking in the bulk of Acts I and III.
What is it about Parsifal that makes conductors choose it for their Wagner debut? Where Sir Simon Rattle's maiden voyage was, if anything, cautious in scale, texture and flavour, Jurowski's account is almost neurotically sensitive to changes in atmosphere. His attempt to imbue a perilously slow, almost extemporised Prelude with numinous radiance was thwarted by persistent intonation problems and a unison that was anything but unanimous. But set against this his galvanised response to Klingsor's music, the rapt, quickish, rocking tempo of the Flower Maidens' serenade, the simplicity of the redemption motif and the close intimacy of his accompaniment of Kundry's narrative. As it stands, Jurowski's Parsifal has much promise. In a few years' time, like young Iain Paterson's commanding Titurel, it may well be unmissable.
Which, lest I failed to make it clear last week, Covent Garden's revival of the late Andrei Tarkovsky's 1983 production of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov most certainly is. This is an eye-rolling, breast-clutching, clenched-fist staging - long on imprecatory crowd-scenes, obvious insanity, lugubrious lighting and hopeless suffering - which, were it conducted by a Gergiev, say, might be unbearably self-indulgent, heavy and maudlin. Conducted by Semyon Bychkov, that least "Russian" of Russian conductors, it is sensational; stripped to the core, incisive, propulsive, dramatically driven and rivetingly clear from orchestra and chorus. Led by John Tomlinson in the title role, this is a cast of extraordinary ability; among whom Toby Spence (Simpleton), Hubert Delamboye (Shuisky), Ekaterina Gubanova (Hostess), Sergei Leiferkus (Rangoni), and Olga Borodina (Marina) offer highlights within a general standard of quite unprecedented vocal excellence.
'Parsifal': New Theatre, Cardiff (0292 087 8889), to 11 October, then touring. 'Boris Godunov' Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) to 9 OctoberReuse content