Turning Parsifal’s Moral World Upside Down

BelgiumBelgium Wagner, Parsifal: soloists, Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, and Children’s Chorus of the Flemish Opera, Eliahu Inbal (conductor), Opera House, Antwerp, 3.4.2013 (BJ)

Parsifal: Zoran Todorovich
Kundry: Susan Maclean
Gurnemanz: Georg Zeppenfeld
Amfortas: Werner Van Mechelen
Klingsor: Robert Bork
Titurel: Jaco Huijpen
Grail Knights: Vesselin Ivanov, Gevorg Grigoryan
Esquires: Mirella Hagen, Marija Jokovic, Michael J. Scott, Stephan Adriaens
Voice from Above: Susan Maclean
Flower Maidens: Mirella Hagen, Anneke Luyten, Marija Jokovic, An De Ritter, Tineke Van Ingelgem, Joëlle Charlier

Direction: Tatjana Gürbaca
Sets: Henrik Ahr
Costumes: Barbara Drosihn
Lighting: Stefan Bolliger
Dramaturgy: Bettina Auer
Chorus Direction: Winfried Maczewski, Yannis Pouspourikas

Copyright: Vlaamse Opera/Annemie Augustijns.

The interpretation of Parsifal expounded by the director, Tatjana Gürbaca, in the excellent program book of this fascinating Flemish Opera production is a vision not so much of the opera Wagner wrote as of the opera she wishes he had written. If he had indeed written that opera, it would surely have been a greater Parsifal than the one he did leave us.

In contradistinction to Wagner’s fundamentally Christian conception, Gürbaca sees the knights of the Grail as a profoundly loveless brotherhood, its male dominance in urgent need of an infusion of the female principle that she perceives, rather wishfully, in Klingsor’s realm. This, at least, seems to be her theory, and it is a view with considerable appeal to this non-Christian, non-macho, non-Wagnerite critic. But it is not until the third act that what she has actually put on stage gives perceptible reality to such a view. In Act I, the knights are a fairly inoffensive bunch. In Act II, Klingsor’s lordship over his female crew hardly suggests even a distant approach to women’s liberation. It is only in Act III, with the revoltingly callous and murderous attack on Amfortas that she has invented, that the director finally and decisively paints the knights in what she sees as their true colors.

I should explain that, having first seen Parsifal at the 1964 Bayreuth Festival and taken a strong instinctive dislike to the work, I had sedulously avoided any re-acquaintance with it until this month, so I am not in a position to compare this Flemish Opera and Grand Theatre of Luxemburg co-production with other ones. What I can say is that to my distinct surprise, while I still found the morbidity of the libretto’s Christian symbolism repellent, the music blazingly beautiful only in short stretches, and some elements in Gürbaca’s production questionable, I found this presentation in Antwerp’s venerable and elegant Opera House a quite enthralling theatrical experience. And what impressed me no less was that the vocal and orchestral impact of the performance conducted by Eliahu Inbal in no way suffered against the remembered background of Hans Knappertsbusch’s leadership, and the singing of a cast headed by no less than Jon Vickers, George London, and Christa Ludwig, all those 49 years ago.

In a cast without a single weak link, vocal honors should perhaps go first to the Gurnemanz, for that, along with Kundry, is the most demanding role, at least in terms of the requisite stamina. In the first act I thought Georg Zeppenfeld’s delivery was a shade too unvaryingly loud, but the voice itself is gorgeous, and it took on subtler nuances as the evening went on, while his psychological identification with the character was unwavering. In his role debut as Parsifal, Zoran Todorovich was no less impressive, affable yet inwardly dignified of stage manner, firm and silver-toned of voice. Werner Von Mechelen made of Amfortas a suitably harrowed–and harrowing–figure, Susan Maclean’s Kundry rose to all the varied dramatic and musical demands of the part, from seduction to rage, and Robert Bork sang and acted with style and conviction as Klingsor.

In Acts I and III, Gürbaca earned gratitude by allowing long stretches of the preludes to proceed with the curtain down, allowing us to revel in the orchestra’s fine playing without distraction from any premature on-stage goings-on. The rise of the curtain revealed a stage practically bare, with only an assortment of detritus such as plastic mineral-water bottles, and a wheelchair for Gurnemanz’s use, in front of a plain, undecorated cyclorama. This was to be the conduit for multiple drippings of blood, a commodity that took a prominent place in the director’s view of the work. Congratulations are certainly due to Stefan Bolliger, whose lighting drew all possible dramatic effect from the stark setting.

At least in Act I, the policy of costume designer Barbara Drosihn might well have been interpreted as an instruction to the chorus to “wear whatever you have around the house”—but perhaps that was precisely what Gürbaca’s conception demanded, in reducing an assemblage of supposed knights to fallibly ordinary human proportions. And the younger Flower Maidens’ striptease–in–reverse was carried out brilliantly in terms of both dress and undress. It was a telling touch, by the way, to represent four of the Flower Maidens as ladies of a certain age.

In conclusion, I should mention that the director’s blocking presented one or two problems: some important action took place so far to the side of the stage that it must have been invisible to a fair number of spectators sitting at the edges of the house. More significant, however, than this small technical glitch was Gürbaca’s achievement in never once putting a foot wrong in the matter of relations between and among the characters. Thanks to her work, and to Inbal’s triumphant direction of the score, while I still don’t love Parsifal, I thoroughly enjoyed this Parsifal.

Bernard Jacobson