Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Castellucci's Parsifal in Brussels

Parsifal, La Monnaie/De Munt in Brussels, January 30 2011

Opening scene -- seen during the overture of Castellucci's Parsifal in Brussels

Music direction ..... Hartmut Haenchen
Director ..... Romeo Castellucci
Choreography ..... Cindy Van Acker
Bondage artist ..... Dasniya Sommer

Amfortas ..... Thomas Johannes Mayer
Titurel ..... Victor von Halem
Gurnemanz ..... Jan-Hendrik Rootering
Parsifal ..... Andrew Richards
Klingsor ..... Tómas Tómasson
Kundry ..... Anna Larsson
Vier Knappen ..... Ilse Eerens
Angélique Noldus
Gijs Van der Linden
Guillaume Antoine
Klingsors Zaubermädchen ..... Hendrickje Van Kerckhove
Anneke Luyten
Angélique Noldus
Ilse Eerens
Tineke Van Ingelgem
Margriet van Reisen
Stimme aus der Höhe ..... Anna Larsson

La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and Youth Chorus

"Tout art doit être dérangeant."
Romeo Castellucci

I obviously love Wagner's operas, but contrary to many Wagnerites who glorify The Ring and consider his other operas as "just a little less great", I love Parsifal and Tristan the most, and only then The Ring. A good/interesting/promising production of Parsifal is difficult to miss for me, but I can also be bitterly disappointed if it turns out to be mediocre -- which is unfortunately frequently the case (three are even available on DVD.)

After the most exhilarating Parsifal by Stefan Herheim in Bayreuth [that I was lucky to see twice], and the one by Calixto Bieito in Stuttgart last year [that almost cruelly talks to us about the spiritual superficiality of our time, and a lack of genuine spiritual support we need], I feared this opera might have been somehow killed for me: How to make it as good as these two? How to be able to enjoy without comparing to these two masterpieces? How to keep the freshness of theater and reach beyond Herheim and/or Bieito? 

Romeo Castellucci found a way to employ the contemporary form of theater and reach to us in an approach different from both Herheim's and Bieito's -- or anyone else's for that matter. Now, after having seen this show, I am grateful to La Monnaie, its extraordinarily open-minded and super-competent intendant Peter de Caluwe, for making this experience possible, for employing the best possible singers in business, and for inviting arguably the best Wagnerian conductor of our time.

This production is not about redemption in a religious sense, or about the spiritual/religious reconciliation with one's being. It is more about the man's quest for apprehend "it" -- "it" that drives us forward, in spite of inexorable end - death. Independently of traditional religion, sooner or later that metaphysical question is hitting each one of us at some stage of our life: What is our inner Grail? Where is it?

Three Acts of this production constitute three states of our mind, each being likely to contain the answer to the Grail-question. Act-1 begins in total darkness. Little by little it will be dimly lit up to reveal  a thick overwhelming forest and slowly you start discerning people who're scared, who're hiding...  [scared to ask that fundamental question of being?!] That mental space in which people find their comfort is the realm of conventional wisdom that gives conventional (mantra-like) answers to metaphysical questions, is steadily filled with doubt and then fear (mantra are not enough.)
There you can loosely follow the story of Parsifal, Gurnemanz, Kundry and Amfortas. Amfortas will indeed com out from his safe hiding and will suffer in front of all of us during the Good Friday ceremony that in this opera has actually no connection with Good Friday at all. He will show his enormous wound (doubt) and will even open it up, revealing emptiness -- although at this stage this is not clear.  He is suffering too much when opening his sore wound and does not to fully open it or leave it open a bit longer. He prefers comfort in hiding...
This Act is also a clear reference to Buddhist Nirvana, and the encompassing philosophy that Yours Truly does not adhere to [I've already understood I'm too much Westerner in that respect, which is why I said in my previous post that my comments about the show would reflect the way I saw it. Others --especially those leaning towards oriental philosophy-- will most probably perceive the production differently. That's actually an extra quality of this show.]

In Act-2 you find another form of mental space: totally aseptic, empty, and white. There you read another quest for answer to our metaphysical question. Is it just survival? Is our Grail inherently sexual? (sexual, in a broader sense)
What destabilizes and cures our mental balance at the same time, and gives us that primal drive to move on? Right before the beginning of Act-2 on the screen that covers the stage (and will become practically transparent once the stage action begins) Castellucci let us read about all sorts of toxins: their names, the way they contaminate and the remedy to cure from their poisonous effects. That's in fact our "reasonable" part talking, trying analytically to find logical explanations. However, science does not provide a full answer to the metaphysical question from the beginning.
In that Act --which I thought was scenically monumental, and one of the most thrilling theatrical experiences I've had in opera-- there is an interplay of our rational-selves seen through that chemical catalog of "what hurts us and how to cure it", with our  sensual-sexual side deeply imprinted in human instincts. That other side is represented by Klingsor, who stands on a little (always white) podium, turned towards us and waves his baton at us -- conducting. He is guiding the traffic of our emotions. You soon realize Klingsor has his doubler standing right behind him and soon you see the doubler's arm disconnecting from his body -- which should be our irrational emotional/sexual side that talks to our irrational.
Central place of that Act is woman: through a highly sensual choreography we see a few girls taking all kinds of forms, that will eventually emphasize their sex (do not worry, you would not be shocked - it is not L'origine du monde; in such a purified environment it couldn't look so even if you wanted it to.) I read in one article that Castellucci thinks that this Act is indeed about woman, and to him the blood in this Act has nothing to do with Christ but in fact represents menstrual blood. That's where the bondage part enters the story: sexuality involves pleasure and pain. Klingsor will tie one girl up,  pull her up and leave her suspended in that moment of orgasmic pain and joy. Parsifal will refuse that pain and will untie one of the girls -- which is close to our time in which men accept to share even that primal pain [even if it is not totally possible]. The orgasmic moment is exacerbated by a swing of the chandelier that was pending in the air and was then set in an angle (not vertical -- challenging gravity; sexual-self challenging the rational one.)

In that environment you will find the story of Kundry and Parsifal. Kundry will show up with the snake on her shoulder (poor Anna Larsson will have hard time taking the albino snake off as her long hair got entangled in the snake), but will give it away to give in and have sex with Parsifal. That part was very cleverly organized on the stage: while the two get close to each other there is a 3D movie happening on the same quasi-transparent screen I mentioned above (one layer of fine fabric covering the whole stage vertically) showing a (pre-filmed) sex scene between the two. The snake is probably the only biblical reference Castellucci retained in this Parsifal.

While this could be a plausible answer to our question from the beginning --answer related to the species preservation instinct--  it cannot be entirely satisfactory, and Act-3 almost becomes a necessity. It will however not provide a clear answer -- it will rather leave loose ends. What happens in Act-3?
The bare naked stage is progressively populated by ordinary people, who have a common goal that drives them to do more, to make more, to create more. Their common 'cause'/denominator could be either a nation, institutional religion, ideology,... you name it -- something that glue them together and give them drive to march together towards a goal.  They are all walking and walking and walking...
In such a group of people you will again find Amfortas, who will give up walking at some point (he's already been too much consumed by the doubts), while the others will go on, follow Parsifal, believing in a higher - transcendental - goal worth pursuing. In the end it will turn out that that elusive goal is in fact void.
Parsifal will find himself alone in a city in which everything is upside down -- a lost soul, completely alone!

It all can be transversely read too and it can be seen as a human quest for warmth, for comfort, for company, but despite all the people around each one of us, deep down, we are all alone, dealing with the same metaphysical question from the beginning, trying to set goals through life that are all elusive and eventually lead us to inexorable end...

As you can see, these 5 hours of Parsifal leave you with questions that further spur more and more existential questions in your head [on your way back from Brussels, for example :)]

I complained in my previous post about the unspectacular side of Act-3, and I stick to that. In an opera the action should --at least in contours-- resonate with underlying music. While you may rebut my comment in the final scene, I'll stick to my guns when talking about last 30 minutes or so. No, they do not resonate with music and the lack of action definitely indicates that something has been cut out from the initial staging of the final Act. Andrew Richards blogged about the whole creation process and explicitly mentioned the scene in which Parsifal is floating on the hands of the crowd -- which would be perfectly appropriate dramatically [Also in the video filmed during rehearsal of Act-3 we see Parsifal suspended]. I guess it was eventually impossible to accommodate it with musical requirements and it was simply left out from the initial director's project. That kills the climax and that elated feeling that usually grows all the way through Act-3. 

Now you may wonder what's the purpose of the picture of Nietzsche from the beginning of this post. That large picture opens up the show; it covers the complete stage during the overture, with a snake in the middle of it. Why is that?!

You cannot tackle philosophically Parsifal without including Nietzsche's Der Fall Wagner into the equation. Nietzsche hated Parsifal because he saw in it a symbol of Wagner prostrating himself before the Cross, while the piece itself to him was a negation of his own philosophy based on the power of will and on Art transcending (taking over) conventional religion.  So, before the snake appeared I feared Castellucci might have completely taken that venue and had built the show on Der Fall Wagner. But the snake entangled around a bar has a purpose of poisonous doubt. So yes, Castellucci's Parsifal  indeed strips the opera off of its religious [Christian] content, but it nevertheless constantly straddles around the same spiritual issues, trying to respond to the same sort of metaphysical questions that Wagner addressed through his Parsifal.

I'm not really sure I like the idea of The Grail being void --I guess I like to romaticize more-- but I respect it as such. One can turn it around and reconnect it to Nietzsche from the beginning: even if it is void, it's that constant doubt that drives us to move on; that antagonism open/close, male/female, certitude/negation that keeps us move on. Moving beyond that antagonism leads to void. (I like this  interpretation better than just a flat "your existence is futile" kind of message)

All in all I loved the show, found it highly inspiring, and scenically certainly a step beyond anything one can see on operatic stage these days.  It shares that seemingly common attitude of modern theatrical directors who see the man of modern society suffering from depression: being alone, who witnessed too many Gods falling, and who is desperately seeking a spiritual support elsewhere. To Castellucci that "elsewhere" leads to void, to Warlikowski [see his Koniec, a show currently running at  Odeon in Paris] that's the place where theater should fill in the gap and provide much needed spiritual support.
Sorry, if I'm taking you far off the main line -- Parsifal.

If you read until here, I guess you're protesting that I talk too much about the production and not as much about musicians. Musically I loved the show too. First of all I liked the pace and the clear/clean sounding Parsifal sculpted by Maestro Hartmut Haenchen. It reminded me of his unforgettable conducting in his previous Parsifal --at Opéra Bastille, in a production signed Krzysztof Warlikowski (criminally ditched by the current artistic management of the Paris Opera). An important difference is that auditorium at La Monnaie is smaller than in Paris, and you can better pick up the analytic features of Haenchen's reading of the score: not a single note is immersed in noise; every note is given a great deal of attention. At Opéra Bastille, on the other hand, he worked more on emphasizing the grandeur of the score, which particularly works on you if you're sitting in a large auditorium such as the one at Bastille.

I was not crazy about Gurnemanz. Jan-Hendrik Rootering is a famous singer, he was of course good, but not a match to the greatness of the other four main characters. To me this was a feast as three male characters were sung by the singers whose performances I particularly appreciated  in 2010. Tómas Tómasson was even maybe too big for Klingsor. He is just too brilliant. His strong singing was especially impressive in a scenically tricky situation when -- while singing-- he was tying a topless girl by a huge rope in many knots and then pulled her to leave her suspended in the air! Scenically it was terrific. Thomas Johannes Mayer must be the strongest Wotan in business today. Amfortas is obviously less big a role but he does not miss the opportunity to impress with his infiniiiiite breath, and a sheer power of his voice. Andrew Richards improved his German pronunciation since Stuttgart, he is obviously more at ease with the role, and is now definitely one of your top Parsifal's around. While Christopher Ventris has that natural dramatic tone in his singing that sits impeccably with Parsifal, Klaus Florian Vogt has that "crazy" Wagnerian voice born for Lohengrin and Parsifal, Andrew's Parsifal is more lyrical. His background is not Wagnerian, and in trying to abide by the rules of Wagnerian singing, he brings his legato to the role, his way to juggle with volume to accentuate Parsifal's intense emotional moments. That's what makes his Parsifal special, and I believe it will sound excellent in the radio broadcast. I did not know Anna Larsson before, except for her Fricka in The Ring by La Fura dels Baus, so she was actually my surprise of the day in Brussels. At first her voice appears as velvety mezzo (close to Nadia Krasteva), and then in Act-2, all of a sudden, she reaches to a high register and her voice almost changes completely -- it changes in color,  becomes very luminous, but very plain. To that add her growing intensity that was more than  welcome dramatically, and you have a girl who rocks in her first take on Kundry. BRAVA!  

Props are due to excellent Zaubermädchen [who were never on stage in this production], to the chorus, and of course to the girls who did the acrobatics and suffered great deal hanging up in the air.   

All the  photos above are ©Bernd Uhlig, except for the first one ©Frances d'Ath. Many more can be found on Opera Rocks and on Supernaut.

I add only a collage of my poor CC pics (sorry!)

Tomasson, Mayer, Richards, Larsson, and maestro Haenchen

Two videos below contain a few glimpses that you might appreciate, in spite of the French/Dutch voice-over. Seeing this show is an experience on its own so if you can possibly make it, please do.

From Arte - in French [Castellucci speaks French; Andrew Richards/TJ Mayer talk in English/German but you can hear what they say in spite of voice-over]

An excerpt from Act-3:

I apologize for the typos. I'll try and clean them up when I get some spare time (?)


  1. Thank you SOOOOO much! Because of your blog I bought my ticket two months ago and went to see it on 3.Feb. It was very moving!

  2. This was amazing. Unfortunately I live one (big) ocean apart from Brussels and couldn't make it, but in these times one may at least have a glimpse of the opera artistry through the Internet. I've being reading Richards' post on this production from the beginning, and your review just rounded up the experience of witnessing the creation of a huge piece of theatrical art. By the way, I love your blog, and can't live without it anymore :)

  3. Brainpack, I am very glad it is so. It is a thought provoking and almost enlightening production. There are parts where you can recognize your way to see life and the world around you, and there are parts which resonate much less with you... But there is nothing gratuitous, nor Castellucci is trying to preach or teach anyone about these highly philosophical issues. BUT it does push you to think about life and YOUR little path in it. THAT's what theater should be about in the first place!

    Hi and thanks gslanfranchi. It's shame you cannot see the show, but if you come to Europe and one of these great productions of Parsifal is on the program somewhere, try not to miss them. I even believe DVD would be a bad idea. These shows are to be experienced live, in auditorium.


  4. Thank you for everything. I followed your recommendation, and attended the 6th Feb performance.

    I'm still dreaming awake with images of that evening.

  5. Listened to the audio broadcast yesterday 27 Février on Musiq3 of the Parsifal performance from 20 Février. Just read your very wellwritten review today. Having only a vocal window on it, my feelings about it weren't quite the same as what you wrote, but close. Roootering as Gürnemanz (my favorite character in the Wagner canon) almost destroyed the performance for me with his uninspired (and tired out) singing. La Monnaie seems to be following the current vogue for casting should-already-be retired singers as Gürnemanz (will Domingo become the Guernemanz of the day by 2021?). This is a grave mistake since Gürnemanz has the most beautiful sustained legato singing in the entire score. I complegte agree with you about Tómasson and Mayer; both gave excellent vocal performances. As far as Richards' Parsifal, I may be reading between your lines, but I couldn't muster up much enthusiasm. As you say his singing is excellent but it's a voice that takes a bit of getting used to; only in the dramatic climaxes did I hear the greatness he may evolve into. Anna Larsson as Kundry was too uneven for me to accept as a totally succesful vocal portrayl. She sounded more mezzo- (and even more contralto) than -soprano. You can chalk it up to dramatic expression if you want, but that's not what I heard; her mezzavoce was too short in it's upper regions and her top notes too cautious. To her credit she displayed superb musicianship, modulating the shifting stragegies, variances of expression within the character as well as anyone I have ever heard in this role (beautiful pianissimos, although not many of them). I was probably expecting too much from her, having heard her before as Erda in Siegfried and Saint-Saëns' Dalila (her Dalila as good as ever I heard from anyone else). Haenchen was at his very best and the orchestra great.

  6. Thanks for you interesting blog as always. Just wanted to mention the following in the aftermath of Parsifal...
    For those interested in Romeo Castellucci's theatrical vision and work method, there is a podcast/interview on France Culture really worth listening to
    - he is putting the final touches onto his newest theatre creation Le Voile Noir du Pasteur based on Hawthorne
    - it's in French

    here's the link