Wagner, Parsifal, English National Opera, 2/27/2011. Production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth with Stuart Skelton (Parsifal), John Tomlinson (Gurnemanz), Jane Dutton (Kundry), Iain Patterson (Amfortas), Tom Fox (Klingsor). English translation by Richard Stokes.As well as in London, this production has been seen in Baden-Baden, San Francisco, Barcelona, and Chicago, supposedly making it the most-seen Parsifal production ever. This is supposedly its last appearance in London. It is also on DVD (from Baden-Baden). This was my first time seeing it and I can understand its popularity. While it looks a little dated today, it mixes a clear basic idea with a collection of more elusive (and allusive) images that illuminate this challenging work without oversimplifying it. It’s good, and I can handle some ambiguity in Parsifal, but yeah, it beats me as to what Lehnhoff is saying some of the time.
Act 2 is basically the same set, which is a problem. Klingsor, looking like a Japanese warrior, hovers in the sensitive area of a giant pelvic x-ray (castration, we get it, OK). Kundry gets a succession of ruffly and colorful costumes whose shedding may suggest a butterfly, but whose first shell was obviously a giant vagina (perhaps this interpretation is a sign of Anna Nicole’s lingering influence on my mind). The staging of the seduction is a little on the routine side, and the buttoned-up flower maidens are more like nuns behaving badly than seductresses (albeit with, um, balls on their heads).
Act 3 is the most enigmatic. The knights have disintegrated into a disorderly mess, all now dressed in rags, and the curved train tracks and mass grave suggest a famous image of Auschwitz. But I’m not sure exactly what Lehnhoff is getting at here. The lack of a scenic transformation with the Karfreitagszauber and Parsifal’s departure from the group at the very end of the opera don’t quite add up. Amfortas dies, Kundry leaves with Parsifal and a few of the knights, and the rest seem to hail Gurnemanz as their leader and start worshipping the spear instead. This group doesn’t seem to be saved at all, but Parsifal's retreat confuses me.
This is an addition to my growing collection of Christian God-free Wagner productions (see also this one and this one), but a non-Christian Parsifal is rather a larger challenge than a Tannhäuser or Lohengrin. As someone with limited interest in religion in general I thought it worked surprisingly well. However, this does add complexity to the reading of the libretto, and I’m afraid that this was already dealt a severe blow by the English singing text. The dense network of allusions and rhythms of Parsifal are impossible to translate. Beyond this, this translation simply suffers from many problems of tone, sounding too often like low doggerel (and I believe it contains many more rhymes than the German). For example, and I may be paraphrasing in word order:
Du siehst, mein Sohn,
zum Raum wird hier die Zeit.
You see here, my son
Time and space are one
I’m sorry that the translation interfered with my enjoyment of the music so much, and hope this isn't true for everyone else. Because the musical performance was really good! The orchestra sounded thoroughly excellent and well-rehearsed if a smidgen less than world-class in sound. Mark Wigglesworth proved an able conductor with beautiful balance and coloring, though I sometimes missed the larger sweep of the score. It didn’t do anything so crass as drag or rush but it didn’t quite hover in timelessness either.
More than worth seeing. Especially if you have a greater tolerance for Wagner auf Englisch than I.
Photos copyright Richard Hubert Smith.