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The redeemer redeemed

By Dave Snowden  ·  December 18, 2013  ·  Opera & Theatre

Driving out of London and home last night was a tedious business and it was after midnight before we made it.  I abandoned any idea of unpacking as I had an 0719 train back to London.  Maybe I should have stayed up that night, but then with a day trip to Amsterdam and the need to get Huw home with his bags I opted for the four hours sleep option!  It was a busy day of meetings with new and old friends and a visit to the Rohan shop in Covent Garden to get a new winter coat.  Brilliant design as ever, the insulated jacket I had already bought zips into the Countrywide Jacket I choose (and a medium fit at that).   The main event however was the evening performance at the Royal Opera house of Wagner's last opera Parsifal.

Now regular readers will know my love of Wagner and my realisation many years ago that his operas transcend human experience, beyond other forms of music or drama.  Parsifal was long reserved for Bayreuth and was not performed elsewhere until it came out of copyright.  It is ambiguous in respect of Christianity as Wagner, profoundly influenced by Schopenhauer, would always be ambiguous as the closing lyric (the title of this post) implies.  In at least one interpretation the whole idea of religious experience is redeemed through the transformative power of music.

The production was brilliantly staged with the staging using the box like structures that provide a theme to Bacon's explorations of the human condition.   This is one of the glories of opera in that each production has its own ability to explore and integrate different art forms and ideas.   Just watching that production will send me to the Tate and its bookshop to see what deeper meaning I can gain from the staging.   Otherwise the quality of the voices, especially René Pape in the demanding role of Gurnemanz, was outstanding but Simon O'Neill contrasted badly in physical appearance and presence with my first ever Parsifal, the WNO production conducted by the greatest of all Wagnerian conductors Reginald Goodall.  Warren Ellsworth was a true Heldentenor in both voice and experience and his first Wagnerian roles as Parsifal and as Siegmund were for the WNO.  Now he looked the part of the young innocent innocent fool and the WNO staging with a circular metal gantry provided the ritualised transitions between narrative and the sacred which are key to the opera.

Another Goodall production at the ENO with Ann Evans as Kundry also comes to mind.  It was staged in a magical garden for the second act that attracted the odium of the critics.  Mind you Evans famously soaked the Guardian critic with red wine ("that's from me and Reggie") as a result, for which I silently applauded her.   In another performance at the ROH the opera was interpreted into blitz in London which disturbed the traditionalists who too often inhabit the ROH but which my mother and I adored.  I've seem many performances since but those three stand our for me.  Wagner's music which always transports you into another place if you have the soul to hear it, carries an unearthly beauty in Parsifal, especially the final act.

One of the most interesting aspects of this production was the portrayal of the Grail as a young boy, dressed to represent Christ.  By the final act the character was first a man of the age of Christ at the crucifixion, then an empty box.  The knights need to drink the blood or sweat of the Body of Christ at the close of Act I approached perversion in its representation and I assume with deliberate intent.  The Flower Maidens were clearly prostitutes and Kundry moves from a scarily bald figure in a costume reminiscent of a mental home to a red headed temptress between the acts.  This was a production that clearly sort to situation the   opera into a Baconic view of human nature.

Music creates a possibility of redemption, and without art it is not a concept we could understand in practice.  The deep message of Parsifal is that of compassion and its power, something that is too often lost from modern life.