How much metalanguage there is Philipp Stölzl’s 2012 production of Wagner’s Parsifal is a matter for discussion. The staging turns around the idea of the power of symbolism in two levels: first in what related to objects of worship as in the case of relics; second in the idea of recreation of religious episodes in the shape of mystery plays, more specifically tableaux vivants. The staging of passion of Christ is a very much alive tradition in many countries, and they tend to develop a mystique around themselves – who is going to play Christ this year, for instance? A famous TV actor? Back to our Parsifal, Stölzl’s makes clear that what you see is a representation – the rocky landscape where you see the crucifixion as witnessed by Kundry is clearly set in a large hall lit by cold lamps. At first, I was shocked by how kitsch everything looked – but then it is hard to tell if the concept is kitsch or if the “play within the play” was kitsch (i.e., made to look kitsch on purpose). In any case, the very concept of kitsch involves objects whose practical purpose and aesthetic concept are ill-matched.
As it is, the first act shows us a rocky landscape that confines the stage action downstage, making many scenes unnecessarily crowded or awkward. There is a castle in very poor perspective in the background. Costumes are in Life-of-Brian-style but for Parsifal, who wears a suit. Here time and space are indeed the same thing, for the Verwandlungsmusik accompanies no Verwandlung. Parsifal and Gurnemanz exit, a bunch of self-flogging guys show up and Parsifal, Gurnemanz, Amfortas and a very perky Titurel make their entrance to a ceremony involving Amfortas’s stigmata dripping blood over the crowd. During the many narrative passages, we are offered small tautological flash-black tableaux in top of either of the rocky formations.
Act II looks as if the director visited the Fundusverkauf in Behrenstraße to shop for old productions – the sets could have been borrowed from Götz Friedrich’s Elektra (as on DVD). So, Klingsor has an African-style outfit and is followed by a cult of zombie-likes Flowermaids. Kundry keeps her shabby dress from act I to the end of the opera. The scene itself is very conventional, but Parsifal doesn’t make the sign of the cross. He just kills Klingsor with the holy spear. The closing act shows us the ruined version of the rocky landscape with some people with Lacoste outfits who seem to be in some sort of religious pilgrimage. Among them, Gurnemanz too seems to have had a fashion makeover in Friedrichstraße. Kundry makes her appearance, the Lacoste people are a bit shocked, but the Gurnemanz-guy (what exactly he is to these people is not clear…) tells her that spring has already come (not really…). Parsifal shows up, the Lacoste people anoint him, while Kundry prefers not to join in. In the meanwhile, Amfortas is in his via crucis (literally), Kundry tries to be helpful this time and offers him water, but people keep flogging him. Parsifal shows up and, again!, kills some one with his spear. Actually, this time it was not his fault – Amfortas jumps into it. Everybody knees down and prays, while Kundry stays back and seem unconvinced.
At this point, you probably have guessed that I share Kundry’s disbelief. The concept is at the same time superficial and all over the place, the sets and costumes suggest rather Night in the Museum than Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia (as the performance book seems to suggest) and the fact that religion is here taken in face value makes it almost a traditional production in disguise. A labored and unclear one.
When it comes to the musical aspects, this evening was quite successful. After a prelude where the violins could be a little bit more refulgent, Donald Runnicles settled for a no-nonsense performance, with ideally Wagnerian full but not overloud orchestral sound, forward-movement and clarity. Act II was particularly coherently conceived – the Parsifal/Kundry scene well-structured and intense. The cast had its ups and downs. Both soprano and tenor were clearly not in a good-voice day. I saw Violeta Urmana’s Kundry in a concert performance in Munich with James Levine back in 2004 and she was note-perfect then. This evening, even if she has showed a deepened understanding of the text and an engaged stage presence, her high register was unwieldy and harsh. By the end of act II, she was clearly tired. Stephen Gould and Parsifal are not a match made in heaven – his voice and physique do not suggest any boyishness and he himself seemed detached throughout. Moreover, his high notes were tight and his phrasing a bit stiff. By the 3rd act, he seemed to have warmed and produced some beautiful turns of phrase. Replacing Thomas J Meyer in the last minute after singing Amfortas yesterday in Zürich, Detlef Roth still finds this role on the heavy side for his voice, but shows absolute commitment. Liang Li is an imposing-voiced Gurnemanz with very clear diction and some charisma. His bass is sometimes a bit grainy and there is not this irresistible sense of story-telling that the very great Gurnemanzes provide. But this is definitely a name to keep in mind (he would have been a forceful Hunding or Fafner, since we have been talking about that). Last but definitely not least, Samuel Youn’s powerful, cleanly-focused singing in the role of Klingsor is beyond any criticism. An exemplary performance.