Monday, March 26, 2012

An Inconvenient Parsifal: From Opera de Lyon 2012 to The Metropolitan Opera in New York 2013

Parsifal, Opéra National de Lyon, March 25 2012

François Girard ..... Director
Kazushi Ono ..... Conductor

Nikolai Schukoff ..... Parsifal
Elena Zhidkova ..... Kundry
Gerd Grochowski ..... Amfortas
Georg Zeppenfeld ..... Gurnemanz
Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester ..... Klingsor
Kurt Gysen ..... Titurel
Tehmine Yeghiazaryan ..... Flowermaiden 1
Ivi Karnezi ..... Flowermaiden 2
Katharina von Bülow ..... Esquire 2 / Flowermaiden 3
Heather Newhouse ..... Esquires 1 / Flowermaiden 4
Sonja Volten ..... Flowermaiden 5
Ulrike Helzel ..... Une voix / Flowermaiden 6
Daniel Kluge ..... Grail Knight 1
Lukas Schmid ..... Grail Knight 2
Olesiy Palchykov ..... Esquires 4
Pascal Pittie ..... Esquires 3

Orchestre, Chœurs et Maîtrise de l'Opéra de Lyon

François Girard succeeded in producing the show that should reconcile everyone. The only problem that I believe is worth emphasizing is that the interaction among protagonists is not at the level of modern theatrical standards. There are several patches during the show when it started to look as a rehashed show from in the 80's (especially in the first act). Other than that, I can only talk about the positives. 

At first sight this is a classically produced Parsifal with only several counterpoints that the conservative critics apparently liked. A couple examples of these counterpoints: the knights do not wear armor but are the modern men wearing suits, the community is not lost in a desolate forest but trying to survive in an empty lifeless space... Other than that it is a totally narrative staging with several spectacular images that are beautiful, not overcharged, stylish and perfectly toned as to  lett the music make its impact on the crowd.

On the way back from Lyon I read several reviews and realized that none of the reviewers captured the basic concept of the show (or if they did, they did not write a word about it), which is why I try to underline it here. To do so I should take you through the show.

After entering the auditorium, instead of a curtain you see a tightly fixed cover that acts like a mirror. We obviously see a reflection of ourselves but as soon as the prelude begins that screen progressively turns transparent, and we notice a group of people sitting opposite to us -- staring at us the same way we stare at them, only they seem more worried than us. We are them, they are us -- that tricks always works and whirls you in what is about to happen on the stage during the following 6 hours.

We soon recognize that the crowd on the other side of the mirror is a society of men standing upfront and women in the background. While the men look worried, the women are faceless: they either turned their backs on us or wear black veils. All men take their jackets, ties and shoes off, and gather in two concentric circles on the right side of the stage, with the women clustering in a corner of the opposite side of the stage.

Only then a crack that goes through the center of the stage becomes visible; a crack that divides the left from right, men from women. Soon we hear the water running through that crack, a stream that little by little turns into [Amfortas'] blood. A stream of blood reminds us of an episode from One Hundred Years of Solitude by G.G. Marquez, but it deepens the gap between the male and female territory: even when Kundry gives Gurnemanz a balsam for Amfortas, she stays on the female part of the stage while Gurnemanz remains on the male. The only woman who shows her face is Kundry and the one who brings a dead swan to the front of the stage to show it to the Knights of the Grail.

Almost simultaneously arrives Parsifal pursued by a couple of Knights. The rest is as in the libretto: the knights prepare for the ceremony of the Holy Grail, poor Amfortas arrives in terrible pain and carries on the ceremony. He opens the box and takes out the Holy Grail that is actually filled with blood. All knights pray and have ritual gestures that nevertheless bring no peace to their worries but only make Amfortas' pain stronger and the whole ceremony pointless. Gurnemanz realizes that Parsifal is not the one who would bring redemption to the community and chases him away. Parsifal stops at the blood-streaming crack on the ground, gives it a closer look, and the crack starts opening wider and larger... which is where the Act One ends.

In the second act we are in the Klingsor's castle which is quite suggestively vaginal in form. The stage is of a triangular shape, with two rocky-looking walls that lead to the back but they [walls]  never meet. They leave space for a irregular but brightly lit slit. The triangular space is filled with blood and is occupied by women in white dresses and with long black hairs, each standing behind her spear.

Klingsor is mean, nasty, manipulative and abusive. His shirt is soaked in blood  -- in contrast to the impeccably white dresses on numerous "esquires".

Parsifal (who seems to have fell through the crack at the end of Act One and landed in Klingsor's domain) is attracted to the Maidens, fascinated by them. They instead play the game of seduction that is stagewise quite impressive: the crack in the back between two walls opens wider and is accompanied by a sensual video imagery. All Maidens slip away, leaving only Kundry behind them, Kundry whose task is to seduce Parsifal.

Later on the Flower-Maidens come back, carrying a large bed on which Kundry will give a fundamental kiss to Parsifal, that coincides with the moment in which he understands the meaning of Amfortas' pain and Amfortas' blood (instructive kiss). That too is scenically beautifully done: a few stains of blood on the white bed appear,  they get larger and larger during the crescendo monologue, and a couple of minutes later the bed is almost completely covered with blood. As Klingsor's rage grows bigger, the Maidens start staining their white dresses and even soak blood by their long hairs. When Klingsor throws the Holy Spear at Parsifal, all the women pull their spears too --until then in a vertical position each-- and point them towards Parsifal. None of it worked: Parsifal broke the Klingsor's magic, which is fatal for Klingsor who falls in blood with a spectacular splash. Flower-Maidens die too.

Act Three begins in the same stage configuration left in the first act but the lights are darker, everything looks cold and desolate, ghastly. Several open graves almost wait for the last survivors to be buried. Death dominates life! Gurnemanz is tired on his/male side of the stage, while Kundry, breathing heavily, is the only one on the female side. Parsifal will soon arrive, dressed like a Tibetan monk, with a Holy Spear in his hands.

He sticks the spear in front of Gurnemanz and prostrate himself on the ground to embrace for the first time both sides of the crack (the same crack through which the Amfortas' blood continues streaming). A small flame of hope in Gurnemanz becomes a fire  -- redemption is still possible. Parsifal is a savior. A beautiful scene in which Kundry tries to use  water/blood from the stream, and Gurnemanz stops her with "Nicht so!" to offer her a bottle of Holy water that he saved for that day. Parsifal is bald. He baptizes Kundry, puts on a white shirt (like the community of Knights wore in the first act), while Gurnemanz makes a last call for the Good Friday ceremony.

The exhausted people are coming back, looking like the living deads, while in the background run the stunning images of sunlight beaming through the thick gray sky -- something holy is about to happen. Amfortas is brought again, this time in total agony and with the overwhelming desire to die, to join Titurel and be buried  in one of the graves. He eventually manages to open the box for the last time takes out the Holy Grail and allow Parsifal to stick the Holy Spear in the blood of the Holy Grail that brings the salvation to everyone, including Amfortas!

When I give you the keyword "Nature" it all becomes wonderfully coherent, and absolutely modern. François Girard did not want to make it about the religious beliefs, or the role of spirituality in the modern society, the solitude in the post-modern society. His Parsifal is about the relation between man and Nature.
The stage in the first act is a dry earth. Water running through the cracks is life but that water is polluted and that's why the water turns into blood, making unbearable pain to Amfortas.
Amfortas is a human conscience who understands and suffers the damage made by his other side, represented by Klingsor. Klingsor is a short sighted and mean spirited polluter, who does not care about Nature -- he only exploits 'her'! Nature is the female. Nature are the women who turned their backs and who didn't want to show their faces. Nature is the girl who showed her face when she saw a dead swan -- another example of dying Nature.  Men separated from bleeding Nature by the crack that widens up.
Girard implicitly suggests that action is needed. It is not enough just to note the level of abuse of Nature by men. An action is needed!  This is obvious in the first act when the community of Knights realizes the problem, they gather ceremonially in concentric circles (like politicians around a table), trying to discuss together, trying to do something in order to stop destroying our environment, but they are too weak to take action and it gets harder with the sky getting grayer, earth dry. Klingsor's side of humanity keeps destroying Nature and the Knights are too weak (or too politicized) to oppose it.
Parsifal will come to the Klingsor's domain and will be seduced by whatever beautiful is remained of Nature, but he will resist the temptation [to join in destroying Nature -- for personal gains, for example] and will fight Klingsor against the mindless destruction. His fight is a fight for life, for equilibrium.  On a bed with Kundry he understood the importance of the dialectical relationship between men and Nature.
Holy water that Gurnemanz gave to Kundry to wash Parsifal's feet is just a pure natural water, that is a rarity in the overly polluted world. The last Good Friday ceremony is happening with a beautiful image of light in the background. The planet seems to emerge from menacing clouds. A peace has arrived. Parsifal will be the first one to cross onto the female side and lay down (excellent light effects!) indulging in the beauty of Nature celebrating its renewal (it fits impeccably with the text!)

So, yes, this is a production that contains a very noble message. It brings one more time the awareness that the natural resources are not endless and that Nature is not there only for us to exploit it without damaging ourselves in the process. It is very a 21st century take on Parsifal and very modern in its core message. With lots of spectacular images and cleverly organized stage, with not too many props and  superbly tuned lights and videos, it would gain in theatricality if the first act was a bit amped up, and the vaginal association in the second act received a clearer contact with Nature -- in the ecological sense. Other than that, the production is excellent! 

To make it extra good, this Parsifal benefited from a truly superb cast. My endless admiration for Georg Zeppenfeld was at its maximum during the third act. That man sings! His Gurnemanz is not all about good declamation. He goes beyond that. It is perfectly in sync with this production: Gurnemanz is desperate, he's tired but did he never lost his faith in humanity. All of his vigor and his lost youth came back in the third act after he realized Parsifal was the redeemer. You could close your eyes and hear that by the way Georg sings it. What a sensational unique singer this man is! Gerd Grochowski concentrated all the pains of humanity in his gripping interpretation of the role of Amfortas. This was a dangerous route to take because it could have easily crossed the verismo (vulgarity) line which he delicately avoided. Nikolai Schukoff was never better than in this show. Scenically impeccable, and vocally distinguished the boyish, rebellious Parsifal from the more solemn one in the third act. Kaufmann will have to deliver his most extraordinary self to beat this interpretation at the Met next season.  Elena Zhidkova has a huge voice and it is almost mindblowing how effortlessly she hits the top notes head on and in full voice, and only a second later she digs deep to produce perfectly audible velvety gravi. Her German is not always comprehensible but the sheer vocal energy she generates, her physique... it's all very-very remarkable. Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester is as usual: superb singer and actor.

Kazushi Ono and his orchestra did a very good job without ever being really great. It went crescendo and while I appreciated Kazushi's care for preservation of the 3D texture of the sound, I noted several problems with superposition of various parts of the orchestra in the first act. It all  sounded very good in the second act and eventually was magnificent in the third act.

In the end I could not wait for the curtain calls because the intermissions were long and the whole show was 6 hours long, and if I stayed to take a few photos I would have missed my train to Paris. 
I'll refer you instead to my previous entry which contains many photos and a video trailer of the show.

The production photos added to this post are © Jean-Louis Fernandez.


  1. Fabulous review! I simply can't wait for this at the Met. I'm bookmarking it and will post/tweet later (at work now). Thank you!!

  2. Thank you for this wonderful and painstaking review.


  3. Flabbergasted by your review. Thorough and accurate.

  4. Thanks for the detailed insight :-) I really like the theme for now, ie nature. And somebody who can effectively translate the story for a modern audience while at the same time creating artistic and aesthetic beauty has many brownie points in my book. I want the opera to make love to my ears , touch my heart, tickle my brain, puzzle and enchant my eyes. And this one seems to tick all the boxes, which is so rare! :-) Looking forward to the chance to see it, hopefully.

  5. Considering that you will see it with Kaufmann in the title role, I have no doubt you will love the show ;)

    Seriously, it is a very good production. I like that Girard avoided the heaviness of religious themes. This kind of "religious" touches everyone. Even if you're not pious and practicing religion, in the situation in which life of all of us on Earth is in danger, you start grabbing the irrational side to find your comfort. Now, that might be OK as it brings you some emotional/psychological stability, but --what I like the most in this production!-- this is not enough. You cannot be passive but should engage in protecting your environment actively, both "from yourself" and especially from other humans (remember numerous oil spills, pollution levels in China and India...)

  6. I wish that Girard would have emphasized the nature aspect in the 3rd act, particularly with the Good Friday scene. The ground was too barren and parched for me to grasp the link to nature. Nevertheless, the cast was very good and it will be a challenge for the Met to match the level, even with Kaufmann and Pape!


  7. Thanks everyone!

    Eric I agree that the eco-message could/should have been a tad more straightforward but I believe the third act was not a problem. Remember when Parsifal crossed the stream and the light shone over him, he laid down on the ground and said "Nature is so beautiful here!" Before the ceremony Gurnemanz took out a bottle of clean water and in he background the planet was emerging from the gray clouds. Later on again the thick clouds were dispersed and the beam of sunlight came on Earth...

    I got a bit derailed by the second act but in the end, after the third act sank in, the second act made much more sense too. Anyways, I still am amazed how wonderful this idea actually was. It perfectly makes sense: we are not religious the way they used to be in the past centuries, but when Nature turns its back on us we are hopeless and start believing in super-natural. The problem is that this belief can make many people passive and the production critically exposes that side of us ("us" in abstract sense)


  8. And I agree that I don't believe the Met cast could outsing the formidable cast in Lyon. This was extraordinary in so many ways...

  9. Yeah, thanks for this abomination which sedulously ignores every word the composer wrote describing the mise en scene. What's a libretto, anyway. It's a tragedy that now even the Met has succumbed to the imbecilical pseudo-intellectuality of modern Regietheater.

    Thank goodness the previous Met production is available on DVD, otherwise we could never see an authentic performance of this masterpiece again.

    1. Good thing is that nobody is pointing gun at you to go and see it.

      To me DVD of the previous Met production is abomination of its own, but that's fine. Times are changing and that's inexorable...

      Relax! Cheers

  10. Thanks for this review. I am slowly prepping myself for the Met in HD production. I've been watching the new Bayreuth production and I have DVD of a pretty stark-looking version from Zurich. I really appreciate this preview of the production we'll be seeing and I am (of course) looking forward to hearing/seeing JK as Parsifal!

  11. No matter how cleverly you try to explain all the incongruent rubbish that is going on on stage, I have a feeling I'm not going to like this production. I'll go see it in HD on march 2nd, and as I am a great fan of both mr. Kaufman and Pape, I'll simply close my eyes and remember so called "old" or "traditional" productions I had the good fortune to see before.

  12. Sounds like an interesting take on the Parsifal story.
    I wonder how the Met audience, fresh from a topless pole dancer in Act III of Rigoletto, will react to an entire Wagner act staged in a pool of blood. Especially considering that many of the audience are there because of the money they made off the "Klingsor"s of the world...

  13. May I suggest, that 2 limit the opera
    2 a clever geologic parable is 2 under estimate
    the myth & times
    of this opera - not 2 say that that isn't a crucial theme also...

    Freud was on the horizon,
    (Interpretation of Dreams was 1999)
    returning 2 the past 2 understand one's self...

    love with a woman as love with one's mother
    blood as source of life
    menstruation & fertility
    all of that richness is there 2...
    thank U
    4 some very fine insights
    THROUGHOUT your review.
    Best Regards,