"Erlösung dem Erlöser”, or “the redeemer, redeemed” are the final words of Wagner’s valedictory opera, or to lend it the composer’s title - ein Bühnenweihfestspiel (a Festival play to consecrate a stage) – and in this revival of Peter Konwitschny’s 1995 staging for the Bavarian State Opera those words are papered across designer Johannes Leiacker’s drop curtain, in a variety of languages. They provide the first indication of where the director and designer have derived their concept for their staging - and as the curtain rises, the horizontal trunk of a tree and its branches, which are seemingly made from paper, dominates the forestage. Konwitschny and Leiacker appear to be using Wagner’s tale of Christianity and the Holy Grail to tell an allegorical tale about nature, its destruction and the importance of ‘the tree of life’ and its bi-product, paper.
Symbolism is rife. A red square of paper hovers ominously above the stage, only later to be turned into a heart by Parsifal which he then proceeds to give Kundry. In Act 2, as he repels her after she tries to kiss him, he rips the heart in two. When he reappears in the third act, having recovered the spear from Klingsor, Kundry places the torn pieces of the heart on the end of the spear. It sounds trite, but somehow in the theatre it works, as do most aspects of the staging.
During the transformation music in the first act, the tree is raised to a perpendicular position and part of the stage rises to reveal the Knights eking out their existence in a dingy underground lair. When Amfortas uncovers the grail he ascends a ladder and opens a panel in the tree to reveal a Virgin Mary character replete with white dove, accompanied by a boy and girl who then descend to the Knight’s domain and offer them the Eucharist.
In Act Two the tree is once again horizontal, but now its branches are severed from the trunk, and charred. By Act three all that’s left of the tree is a blackened strip of paper. For the most part Konwitschny’s staging is serious and at times unbearably moving, which makes the weird touches all the more frustrating. Kundry arrives on a wooden horse, whilst Parsifal makes his first appearance by swinging across the stage on a vine, Tarzan-like. Not surprisingly these directorial glosses were greeted by audible mirth from the audience, as they add nothing and undermine the overall seriousness of the staging.
Despite these gripes, there were none when it came to the musical performance which was outstanding on every level. The thunderous, foot-stamping ovation that greeted conductor Kent Nagano at the final curtain was entirely deserved as he was the undisputed hero of the hour. His reading was at the opposite end of the spectrum to those conductors (Goodall, Gatti) who treat this opera as some sort of mystical, reverential act of religious worship. Nagano favoured swift tempi, and it doing so the opera became a vital, living drama and he was rewarded with superb playing from all sections of the orchestra. The strings had a luminance and sheen throughout, whilst the playing of the brass and woodwind was without fault.
The cast was excellent, although Michael Weinius in the title role, who is from the O’Neil/Botha build of Wagnerian tenors, was handicapped by his awkward stage presence and unflattering costume. He nevertheless sang with fervour and was particularly impressive in his second act confrontation with Petra Lang’s superb Kundry. She has recently added the role of Brunnhilde to her repertoire, so her husky lower register is now aligned to a thrilling top, making her interpretation even more compelling than it was six years ago at Covent Garden. Michael Volle was an anguished Amfortas whilst John Wegner as Klingsor was suitably malevolent. There was a boisterous bevy of Flower maidens led by the delightful Eri Nakamura – indeed the only vocal blight on the evening was the casting of boy sopranos as two of the Esquires, which simply didn’t work. The choral singing was glorious.
John Tomlinson was scheduled to sing Gurnemanz, but had lost his voice, so Attila Jun was flown in from Stuttgart and sang the role from the side of the stage, whilst Tomlinson acted and mimed the role. In many ways this delivered the best of both worlds in that we still had the great British singer’s magnetic stage presence, yet this was allied to the youthful Jun, who was in sovereign voice and delivered a world-class performance. All in all, this was an unforgettable evening, which will live long in the memory.