It really is worth clicking on arte.tv/en/arte-concert to see and hear the new production of Richard Wagner's Parsifal by the Wiener Staatsoper, available until 17 July 2021. The Staatsoper, like most Austrian theatres, is a repertory theatre that offers about forty opera titles and about twenty ballets every year. To a very large extent, they are stagings that are performed every season for several years. Only four or five are new productions. The theatre has been closed for months due to the pandemic. This new Parsifal production was presented on the Franco-German ARTE television circuit in early May and can be seen streamed via the ARTE website, while awaiting for the theatre to be reopened and for live programming to resume. The performance was recorded in 2021; without intermissions, it lasts slightly over four hours.
This is a production which is, at the same time, disturbing, moving and religious. For stage direction, sets and costumes, the Staatsoper relied on the Russian film-maker Kirill Serebrennikov, the lighting is by Franck Evin, and the photos and video design by Aleksey Fokin and Yurii Karih. The plot takes place entirely in a prison, probably in a snowy place of the Russian Federation. The action is on several levels, from an upfront stage and a multi-layered stage to three screens above the stage: on the screens, similar to those of Abel Gance's film Napoléon dated 1927, black and white videos flow to illustrate either details of the action or the environment surrounding the prison, such as the remains of an Orthodox church and frozen rivers.
In the first act, we are in a men's jail where small corruption and violence - even rape - are raging; Kundry wanders around taking photographs, Gurnemanz tries to keep order and Amfortas attempts to celebrate the Eucharist.
In Act II, the location is the office of the jail director, Klingsor. Kundry is his chief of staff and the 'flower maidens' are the secretariat; on a wall there is a cross, but behind Klingsor's desk, photos of semi-naked young men.
In Act III, we are back in the Act I jail; firstly, in the women's section (where Kundry works with the other prisoners before being baptized by Parsifal); then in the same place as in Act I. The doors of the cells are opened as well as that of the building, after Parsifal's celebration of the Eucharist. Gradually, the snowfall is replaced by signs of a Siberian Spring.
The metaphor is clear: prison is the sin that dominates humanity until redemption. There is very accurate acting, as shown by the close-ups and the American-style plans.
A final note: Jonas Kaufmann (as Parsifal) is fifty-one years old; he is side-by-side with a Russian-born German-resident young, handsome movie actor, Nikolay Sidorenko, who performs the teenage Parsifal and undresses on stage in the 'flower maidens' scene.
Let us go to the musical part. Philippe Jordan conducts the Wiener Philarmoniker and Thomas Lang has prepared the Wiener Staatsoper Chor. Jordan follows Hermann Levi's rigorous 1882 diary of the first rehearsals of Parsifal under Wagner's close watch. Therefore he offers faster conducting than most listeners are accustomed to; to give an example, Act I in 1882 lasted exactly one hour and forty-five minutes while Daniele Gatti in 2008 in Rome, at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, extended it to two hours and five minutes, and Arturo Toscanini, in Bayreuth, to two hours and twenty minutes. Jordan's direction is sometimes nervous, sometimes sensual, sometimes highly mystical. It resembles that of Pierre Boulez, with great attention to stage action and a little less to the orchestral colours, as in Karajan's recording. The orchestra and choir are always magnificent.
In the cast are two debuts and numerous singers accustomed to the score. Elīna Garanča as Kundry and Ludovic Tézier as Amfortas both debut in their respective roles, and both are of the highest standard. Garanča is a seductive Kundry, especially in the central scene of Act II, and a suffering soul in the rest, with a perfect emission. Tézier is not the Pelléas who enchanted me sixteen years ago at La Scala or the Marquis of Posa seen and heard in Salzburg in 2013 in Don Carlos: his voice has darkened - as required for Amfortas - and fully expresses the pains and the ennui de vivre of the character.
Georg Zeppenfeld as Gurnemanz and Wolfgang Koch as Klingsor are long-time performers of their characters. So is Kaufmann: he no longer has the ringing high C of twenty years ago, but what a magnificent legato! And what mastery of phrasing! The 'flower maidens' are Aurora Marthens, Ileana Tonca, Isabel Signoret, Slávka Zámečníkova, Joanna Kedzior and Anna Nekhames - all top notch.
Take your time and devote an afternoon or an evening to this production before 17 July 2021.
Copyright © 8 May 2021
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