13 Jul 2010

Parsifal on Blu-Ray

In 1881 Wagner and his wife were discussing the myth of Eros and Anteros, and Wagner remarked, “Anteros is Parsifal.” Wagner considered Parsifal a figure opposed to sexual love, Eros’s opposite.

But maybe he didn’t imagine a staging of his opera quite as anti-erotic as the Badener Lehrst├╝ck version found on this DVD.

This is an impressive performance. Nikolaus Lehnhoff places the opera at the burnt-out end of the road: a railroad track breaks off in the middle of nothing; the floor of the Grail castle curves up steeply at the back, until the chairs shoot out directly from the wall—it’s a castle in a different dimension, unavailable to human beings. The Grail knights look cadaverous in Act 1, and in Act 3 are dusty remnants of cadavers. Amfortas is a single big wound, wrapped in mummy bandages; Titurel is a figure from nightmare, a skeleton in chain mail, his hands mere phalanx-bones tipped with long claws. The inspiration for the whole production seems to be T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, a poem in which elements from the story of the Fisher King and the Grail Knight are perched uncomfortably on a ruined industrial landscape, where the river sweats oil and tar, and the taxi throbs and waits.

If Klingsor’s magic garden is magical, it is a sour sort of magic. The Kabuki Klingsor inhabits a sphere, as if he were in a subspace of his own, yet another orthogonal from the plane of reality; his castle is a magnified female pelvis-bone, a sort of Bowel of Bliss. The flower-maidens wear unadorned shifts, flowery only in that the sleeves crescendo out into great bell; Kundry herself is almost immobile, encased in a carnation-ball of petals; slowly she divests herself of her costume, unburdens herself of the director’s system of metaphor, becomes an urgent, furiously sexy presence. When the castle collapses, some bits of rubble fall on the stage, but since the stage has been basically rubble from the opera’s beginning, the presence of yet more dreck is not strongly felt.

This is Nietzsche’s dream production of Parsifal, stripped of most of the Christian elements that he loathed. When Parsifal enters in Act 3, he stalks in all in black, wearing a harness of arrows arranged in a fan, and a helmet of raven feathers, as if he were both St. Sebastian and hell’s own Papageno (that pure fool of another age). Wagner asks him to transfigure and be transfigured; but Lehnhoff offers him little of either, though he allows Parsifal to assist the death-eager in the process of dying.

The singing is good, especially Waltraud Meier’s alert, beautifully felt Kundry, and Christopher Ventris’ smartly foolish Parsifal. Thomas Hampson’s voice is a little soft-grained for Amfortas, but he is, as usual, good to hear; Matti Salminen is authoritatively irritable as Gurnemanz; Bjarni Thor Kristinsson—strong, not at all aged, with a kind of beyond-the-grave heartiness—makes more of Titurel than I would have thought possible. The Blu-Ray image is sharp—seeing the production with such clarity seems to intensify the intelligence of Lehnhoff’s extremely intelligent design.

Daniel Albright