Opera has the potential to be the most powerful of art forms, drawing as it does on so many other forms: music rich and deep enough to stand alone; narrative and words sung and spoken; acting; visual design and effects that today include moving images as well as sets and costumes. Armed with such a panoply, it can fall down when the theme or material doesn’t merit such human resources.
This is my frequent complaint, especially when contemporary opera shies away from the grand narratives of human experience, or grand 19th Century epics clunk their way through a dramatic story with no respect for an audience’s intelligence. And the reply is often, ‘Well, what about Wagner?’ What about Wagner, indeed. He was explicit that opera brought together all forms of art, and bold in using mythic stories that embodied what he saw as the grand themes of human life. Parsifal, first performed in 1882, uses a 13th century poem about the knights of the Holy Grail to look at redemption, suffering, and purity. Set in an ahistorical world where mystical religious symbolism meets magical ideas from folklore, it wouldn’t be out of place in a 21st century computer game.
And yet the storytelling is nimble, human and believable, in a way many Hollywood blockbusters should emulate, and the music is fresh and modern, deftly using the timbre and texture of different instruments to shift mood and underscore character. The vocal lines are conversational, closer to a scored Ibsen play than the showstopping arias of Verdi or Donizetti.
This production by Nikolaus Lehnoff was commissioned in the 1990s, and there’s a post-Soviet feel to the visuals. A concrete bunker silting up with stones, guarded by knights so stonelike themselves that they call to mind the terracotta army, an empire that has lost its sacred mission and ossifies in despair. But the atmosphere of demoralisation as King Amfortas, racked with pain from a never-healing wound, neglects his leader’s duties, still feels contemporary now. Into this world of grey comes Kundry, the wild creature of russet feathers, bearing a balsam that may temporarily ease Amfortas’ pain. Then comes Parsifal himself, also ablaze with red and brown skins, the wild hunter from the woods, out of place in this post-industrial stronghold. They’re the vital forces the Grail Knights need, but they’re disruptive and even destructive. Parsifal has shot a swan, knowing no better.
It’s quickly clear to the audience that Parsifal is the ‘pure fool’ who alone can heal Amfortas and restore life to normal, but not to the characters. And so Act 1 ends with senior knight Gurnemanz sending him away, leaving us to wonder how (or whether) the prophecy will be fulfilled.
As well as unfolding the story through dialogue, Wagner lets loose the full force of the massive orchestra and chorus on some transcendent musical moments. The ritual of the Grail, unveiling the divine to spiritually restore the knights, has the emotional impact it needs. This is what sustains Amfortas’ father Titurel so far beyond his natural lifespan that he’s a living corpse. As a musical statement of belief in the redemptibility of humankind, it cuts through the despair of Act 1 like a laser.
Wagner’s notorious for writing long works, but the full evening of five-and-a-half hours (including over an hour of intervals) never drags. Act 2 escapes the greyness in the stronghold of embittered and rejected knight Klingsor, who has created a garden of flower maidens to seduce the pure Grail Knights. Here Parsifal’s struggle is not only with the wiles of Kundry in her other guise as seductress, but with his own human emotions. Finally he does return to heal Amfortas, arriving along a railway track that peters out in a further dilapidated Grail Sanctuary. The depleted Knights now resemble First World War soldiers, ready in backpacks and greatcoats for a futile death in the dirt. Former free spirit Kundry is cowed and swathed in white, and Titurel is truly dead.
Parsifal, now ‘made wise by pity’ has returned with the holy spear he reclaimed from Klingsor. But in this production, at least, the order of the Grail is not made whole again. Amfortas hands his crown on to Parsifal, but the release from suffering promised by the spear means not health, but death. Instead of taking on Amfortas’ role as King, Parsifal then lays the crown on Titurel’s mummified bones and walks away, departing along the railway tracks towards an unseen light source, leaving the knights to gather around their leader Gurnemanz in a needy huddle. Where is the redemption promised by the legend? Is it the wise fool, indeed, who refuses to be King, or does the malaise afflicting the defenders of the Grail go deeper than one man’s vulnerability.
In the same week, I heard Mahler’s second symphony, performed by the students of Guildhall School of Music. Written a little later than Parsifal, it also deals with the theme of redemption and renewal and, like the Wagner, sounds astonishingly modern in its refusal to be bound by narrow limits of form. In the first movement, abrupt shifts of tempo, timbre and key unsettle and excite the listener, as if two different symphonies were fighting for dominance within the orchestra. With no comfortable reiteration and variation of themes within a familiar structure, the ear is constantly alert to the range of sounds Mahler asks of his players, from plucked chords on the harp and harsh tapping of wood on wood in the string sections to explosive bursts of brass and cymbals.
It’s another long work and, eschewing the satisfying resolutions of classical symphonic form and the climax that draws together that movement’s themes into a conclusive cadence, it provokes a sense of uncertainty that’s by no means pessimistic. Though some themes are wistful, even tragic, they never take hold of the piece. Muted brass and the low rumble of drums invoke an almost visceral feeling of approaching danger, or perhaps rescue from danger.
Everything is possible and open ended throughout the middle section. Brass and drums are heard from outside the concert hall and, later, from the balconies above and behind the audience. Even the space itself is being opened up, the audience’s expectations assaulted from all directions. Eventually, the large chorus give voice, not in a brash, showy addition to the orchestra, but in a soft harmony that fills out the instruments with human warmth. After so long in suspense, the final coming together of chorus, orchestra and solo singers is all the more powerful. Some of the chorus’ moments are a shout of hope; the soprano and a lone trumpet in unison after the disunity of the first movement have a simple cleanness of attack. And the ending is an overwhelming, shared outpouring of the possibility of renewal.
Nikolaus Lehnoff may have his doubts that humanity is redeemable, but the Guildhall students under James Gaffigan brought Mahler’s vision of hope to searing life.
Parsifal is at the Coliseum till 12 March 2011.