Thursday, 20 March 2008

The new Parsifal at the Paris Bastille Opera: Challenging, but very rewarding production

Parsifal, Paris Bastille Opera, March 17th 2008. Warlikowski (d), Haenchen (c). Cast: Stig Andersen (Parsifal), Waltraud Meier (Kundry), Franz-Josef Selig (Gurnemanz), Evgeny Nikitin (Klingsor), Alexander-Marco Buhrmester (Amfortas).

Polish director Krysztof Warlikowski´s new Parsifal staging was already deemed ”controversial” at the opening a couple of weeks ago, mainly due to the use of a clip from Rosselini´s film ”Germany year zero”. Why this is considered so controversial by the otherwise quite open-minded-as-long-as-the-production-is-aesthetic Paris audience is somewhat puzzling. I happened to be surrounded by three people whistling quite loudly (directly into my ear, it seemed) as well as booing, during the approximately 2 minute long sequence, which ended with a French gentleman (sitting 2 seats from me) shouting: Silénce! (no translation needed) so it resounded throughout the auditorium. The boos and whistling immediately were followed by applause, which I´d definitely say won out though.

The staging in brief:

Act 1: Kundry with Gurnemanz and a knight

Act 1: The prelude is played to a white screen on which a finger emerges painting words like fou and esperance. Furthermore a short clip from Kubricks movie 2001 is shown (a man eats while another old man is lying in a bed). Most of the first act is played out on transparent chairs in front of that white screen, which is lifted a couple of times to expose a surgical auditorium reminiscent of Wagner´s time, with doctors/students occupying the seats while a team of surgeons work on Amfortas. Apparently the surgery goes well and Amfortas later manages to walk into the auditorium on crutches to perform the ”Grail ritual” pouring drinks from bottles placed next to a large table (the last supper?) in front of the auditorium. Kundry arrives sitting on a gymnastic horse, dressed in green and with long curly red hair. In all scenes a small boy is present in the periphery.

Act 2 "flowermaidens"

Act 2: We immediately see that Klingsor´s power over Kundry is a purely physical one as he forces her down on the bed. The beautiful 1920ish clad women then undress Parsifal to his underpants and tie him down to a chair, from which Kundry eventually releases him. The whole Act is played out in front of this surgical auditorium, and when Klingsor appears, the spear is substituted for a cross-formed red laser ray.

Act 3: Parsifal with Kundry

Act 3: Opens with the major controversial point of the production (judged by press and audience reactions): A 2 minute clip from Rosselini´s film ”Germany year zero” showing a young boy committing suicide by throwing himself from a building. A small garden with green grass and plants are present in front of the auditorium. Everyone, especially Kundry, looks a lot older. Parsifal arrives with an old lump of wood (presumably the spear analogue), Kundry washes his feet and he baptises her. In the end, Parsifal relieves Amfortas, and the opera ends by the table of the last supper, presumably with a family dinner: The mother Kundry, the father Parsifal, their child (the omnipresent mute child of the production) and the uncle/grandfather? (or is he maybe the father?) Amfortas (whom Kundry hugs for a long time). The faith of family bonds. Quite an original review of Wagner´s ending and a fresh take on the work.

Does it work? Over-all I think it does. Warlikowski seems to want to demythologize Parsifal - making it a tale of family relations. Kundry is at the center of the production. It´s a staging, which leaves the spectator with many things to reflect on and even two days after the performance I have a distinct feeling that there may be several other layers to the production than those apparent on the surface.

Danish tenor Stig Fogh Andersen, a last-minute substitute for Christopher Ventris, was an excellent Parsifal. As a regular operagoer in Copenhagen, I have followed Andersen´s career for about 25 years, and it has been fascinating to see how he has developed from the Tamino´s of the 1980´s to the Siegfried, Tristan and Parsifals of today. And mightily impressive, how he´s learned the staging (which is quite complicated) in such a short time.
Waltraud Meier was at her magnificent, radiant best, vocally not strained at all and throwing the top-notes out into the auditorium with seemingly ease. And in addition, she looked devastatingly beautiful in Act 2. She was both the intended and actual center of this production. Deservedly the biggest applause of the evening went to her. Evgeny Nikitin´s Klingsor also stood out for his secure voice and convincing character portrayal. Franz-Josef Selig does by all standards make a solid Gurnemanz, but I feel he lacks the smooth vocal lines necessary to optimally get through his long solo passages.

Conductor Hartmut Haenchen is really fast with the score. With timings of 1:40, 1:05 and 1:05, the over-all performance being 3:50. Initially, he didn´t seem fast, since he took the prelude at a conventional pace, but then he slowly sped up.. In comparison I´d say Barenboim normally is about 20 minutes slower in the first Act alone. Haenchen was hugely applauded by the audience and it was by no means a badly conducted performance. He clearly understands the score, and presents a well-thought reading of it, but I lacked some depth and tension. And I prefer a much slower paced conducting, though slow tempi by no means automatically guarantees a successfully conducted Parsifal. Interestingly, some of the trombones in Act 1 was placed off-stage with excellent effect (though they almost deafened a co-reviewer..)

Even apart from the whistling and booing, the audience around me was generally quite badly behaved. Probably due to the fact, that by some smaller miracle I actually had a 1st row seat (which I hadn´t noticed until I actually sat there) and the people on these rows seem among the more conservative in the audience (for obvious monetary reasons, perhaps) – or at least that has been my experience in quite a few cases. This Monday evening I sat next to a group of 5 Spanish tourists, who obviously thought this opera was a bit long, judged on their incessant scuffling of paper and noisily eating lollipops. Two of the ladies even used the border between the auditorium and the pit to hang their coats on in Act 3!

The white screen of Act 1 as it looked from my 1st row seat!:

Waltraud Meier and Stig Andersen applauded after the Second Act:

And Act 3 curtain calls:

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