Wagner’s flaws as a messenger of universal love are only too obvious. Cruel actions have their roots in angry thoughts and words. The mind poison of anti-semitism manifested as active reality with the unspeakable torment of the Shoah, the Holocaust. Yet the themes of Parsifal, Wagner’s final composition, are compassion and redemption. He even preferred to call it a ‘stage consecration festival play’.
I arrived at the Opera House in a deluge of rain for my first live experience of Parsifal, familiar until this moment only from recordings. When Antonio Pappano lifted his arms and the music began I was amazed to see an image projected onto the curtain that resembled a tooth whitening advert. Then the curtain rose and I discovered that the director, Stephen Langridge, had transformed the Grail knights and their temple from romantic warriors into a corporate group. This impression was emphasised by the set design which reminded me of the endless money generating buildings found in the City of London, all squares, rectangles and neon lighting. After a day at the office the last thing I wanted to see was a stage filled with men in suits. However Wagner’s music, combined with the beauty of René Pape’s singing transported me away from everyday life to the Grail world, a place I imagine exists in the hidden regions of the universe. For me the music contains its own inner force, unaffected by visual effects onstage or the actual libretto or anything else.
Angela Denoke made a wild and non-corporate Kundry, balancing on the stage as if it was constructed from sharp edged swords, leaping from one torment to another, every step causing pain. The beautiful anguish of her voice ensured that she was an intense and riveting presence throughout. Simon O’Neill, as Parsifal, started very quietly but appeared struck by lightning when paired with Denoke in Act 2, producing ringing tones and true passion that carried him through to the redemption scene at the end.
Gerald Finley’s voice echoed with the ongoing torment of Amfortas, wounded during unauthorised love making. The Grail knights are described as pure because they don’t have sex. So many Christian groups appear to focus entirely on controlling the who, why, when and where of sexuality, prioritising this over loving your neighbour. Once again the music distracted me from the intellectual contradictions in all this. Angela Denoke also sang the ‘voice from above’ in the scene in the Grail Temple. Her voice combined with the chorus to create singing of unearthly beauty, truly celestial.
The Grail sanctuary was represented by a white box, in which we also saw the wounded Amfortas lying in a hospital bed, receiving treatment. The Grail ritual, as imagined by Stephen Langridge, involved taking blood from a young boy who appeared from the box/sanctuary. The child was then carried around the temple for the knights to touch. Very weird, but also an accurate reflection of the Catholic dogma of my childhood, which was all about martyrdom, stigmata and the blood of the Lamb.
In Act 3 a Jesus figure appeared in the doorway of the Grail sanctuary then slipped back inside. When Parsifal healed Amfortas and brought redemption the box/sanctuary was found to be empty. The risen Christ, the empty tomb. I only understood this retrospectively, after reading a post on the Opera House website. At the time I was mystified, which seems somewhat stupid, but I’d been ignoring the Christian ethos of the opera, putting my own interpretation on the music.
René Pape as Gurnemanz, sang with great sensitivity, much appreciated by me. A devoted servant of the Grail, commanding through modest example, he had my attention whenever he was onstage. In Act 3, the Grail knights have aged as Amfortas has refused to perform the Grail Ritual. René Pape shuffled around the stage, his shoulders bowed, his whole appearance that of a fragile elderly man, a transformation achieved entirely through movement and posture. His devotion when he discovered Parsifal to be the Redeemer produced a moment of magic. When he blessed Parsifal his hands flowed with the music, a kind of merging effect, a visual representation of sound waves.
By the end I was overcome with the beauty and magnificence of it all. The last five minutes were wonderful, the chorus and the final chords creating an awesome experience in the fullest sense, music of the spheres.
It worries me that Hitler also loved this music but I would be lying if I said that I didn’t find it inspiring and uplifting. How Wagner could produce such devotional music while holding hateful views about fellow human beings remains a mystery.