IT MAY come to be known as the Protestant Parsifal; a grey day for the Grail. But Nikolaus Lehnhoff's provocative, intelligent, and finally very moving production of Wagner's perplexing masterpiece dares to ask questions for which there are no easy answers. In a sense, it is the agnostic Parsifal. It wants to believe, but it needs to know.
This, says Lehnhoff, is an opera about loss of faith, loss of direction, loss of humanity. Loss. The world into which it plunges us is a world in decline, a world so preoccupied with the trappings of Christianity - the symbols, the rituals, the piety that means everything and nothing - that it has forgotten the true meaning of the word. Man's inhumanity to man has come full circle. Our evolution has hit the buffers. It's the end of the line.
Indeed it is. In the final act of the opera, Lehnhoff's set designer, Raimund Bauer, presents the metaphor literally: a length of railtrack going nowhere or somewhere, depending upon which way you look at it. Salvation railroad. It's the lifeline, if you like, to new beginnings. The way in, and the way out. It's the track along which Parsifal enters a warrior - a black samurai (a marvellous evocation from costume designer Andrea Schmidt-Futterer) - and exits a redeemer, leading the way for all those who would follow.
So there is hope in Lehnhoff's wilderness. In the beginning, and in the end, time and place are indeterminate. Different cultures, east and west, different periods, are suggested in the costume designs. The knights in act one hail from medieval times, in act three they are ghosts of the Great War, gas masks pushed back over their heads in terrible grimaces. But the sanctuary of the Grail is a constant, the steep incline of its grey walls suggesting a civilisation thrown off its axis. A huge rock - the rock of ages - has ruptured its fortification from the outside world, and through that rupture (which we might also see as a metaphor for Amfortas's wound, the wound of all humanity) the wild and wilful figure of Parsifal first bursts like a force of nature.
For once he is, in every sense, the primitive. The surprise of his first entrance is but one of several tiny revelations that Lehnhoff brings to his reading of the text. Another is the clear parallel he makes between the knights and their female counterparts, the flower maidens, in act two. Sex and violence as powerful motivators in the cycle of human folly. Lehnhoff and his designer have us view the opening of this second act through a gauze bearing the pelvic region of a female skeleton, and, more than any production I have seen of it, makes the physicality really tell. Slender arms become a myriad stigmas. Kundry sheds costumes like petals.
Lehnhoff is an accomplished practitioner. His stage compositions, his eye for movement, his respect for stillness and space is really expressive. Not all the big moments here quite measured up to the magnificence of the musical realisation: the walk "through time and space" to the Grail sanctuary, the unveiling of the Grail itself were rather too Protestant. But the luminosity and splendour of the sound Mark Elder achieved with the English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus in these moments (extra brass summoning from the rear of the theatre, angelic voices from on high) truly opened up the imagination. Like all great readings of this music, this one created its own time and space.
A fine cast inhabited it. Gwynne Howell's Gurnemanz may now lack that last degree of vocal authority, but he weighs his words and wears his compassion with great dignity. Jonathan Summers' Amfortas wears his anguish wearily, perhaps too wearily, but the pain is heartfelt. To Kim Begley (Parsifal) I owe an apology for once suggesting that he was not the stuff of which Heldentenors are made. The greatly improved middle-voice is now the source and support for some really beautiful singing. And Kathryn Harries is a simply electrifying Kundry. From fallen angel (her crash- landing makes for a spectacular entrance) to fragrant seductress, she affects amazing transformations in her voice. Almost as amazing as Wagner's in the orchestra.
But above all, you come away from this Parsifal with an indelible sense of its "wisdom through compassion". Lehnhoff's painterly images of Gurnemanz, and later Parsifal, cradling Amfortas, are not easily forgotten. They are the most eloquent of endgames.