Parsifal, Wagner's strange, enigmatic yet beguiling final work which he titled a Bühnenweihfestspiel, or a festival play to consecrate a stage, has had a chequered history at Covent Garden. With its at times incongruous mix of cod-Christianity, Buddhism and sins of the flesh it's a notoriously difficult work to bring off.
Much was riding on this new staging by Stephen Langridge, the company's salute to Wagner's bi-centenary, and by and large expectations were met. He takes Amfortas' fall from grace and his bleeding wound as the starting point for his staging. The first thing we see on entering the auditorium is a blood red drop curtain, which rises during the prelude to reveal a symmetric clearing in a wood dominated by a cube in which Amfortas writhes in agony on a modern hospital bed. Everyone is dressed in modern, grey suits. During Gurnemanz's long narration key points of his story are illuminated in the cube – Kundry's seduction of Amfortas, Klingsor's emasculation etc. After the transformation scene we find ourselves in a bewildering contemporary cult, where the Grail is portrayed as a young boy. No wonder Parsifal appears traumatised after having witnessed this community's queasy celebration of blood-letting in the name of perpetual regeneration.
In Act Two a glitzy posse of Flowermaidens brings the only splash of colour to proceedings and at the act's conclusion Parsifal is blinded (this was confusing), and he staggers off, Oedipal-like, with the spear.
There's a sense of desolation in the Third Act, and it's only through his anointing and the power of the Good Friday music that Parsifal's sight is restored. It would be fair to say that Langridge's staging raises more questions than it answers, but in Alison Chitty's designs it's handsome to look at, and at least he attempts to, and often succeeds in getting under the skin of the work.
Musically, the evening was an undisputed triumph. Many assume that Parsifal is a religious work and should be performed in a reverential way, but it's not. It's a living, breathing drama about religious people, humanity and how individuals need to assume responsibility for how they treat each other, and Pappano managed to mine the essence of this. Tempi are perfectly judged as is the overall musical arc of each act. Act One had grandeur and clarity, whilst he brought out the exotically perfumed orchestration of the second act to perfection. Act Three was incandescent from start to finish – I don't think he's done anything finer during his tenure at Covent Garden. Despite a few glitches to being with, the orchestra played with a luminosity and warmth throughout.
Vocal honours of the evening go to René Pape's glorious assumption of the role of Gurnemanz. To hear the role really sung by an artist at the peak of his powers was a real privilege. He made every word tell, his long narration in Act One flew by, and in the third act was nothing sort of sensational. In his role debut as Amfortas Gerald Finley caught the character's anguish to perfection – and sang like a man possessed, whilst Angela Denoke managed to bring out all the conflict in Kundry's multi-faceted persona and was on blistering vocal form. Simon O'Neil has been the go-to Wagner tenor in recent seasons, and although he sounds too one-dimensional and nasal for my liking, the title role suits him better than his previous excursions in the House. Willard White was a suitably malevolent presence as Klingsor, and the augmented chorus sang superbly.
All in all this was an evening of intelligent, questioning theatre, superb music-making and a fitting tribute to Wagner's 200th birthday.
There are further performances of Parsifal at The Royal Opera House on 2, 5, 11, 15 and 18 December. The performance on 18 December will be relayed live to cinemas.