AUTUMN 2007 was a rich one in London for Wagnerians. At the start of the season came four cycles of Der Ring des Nibelungen in a strange but thought-provoking production by Keith Warner; then, in the run-up to Christmas, came five performances of Parsifal in the first revival of a production by Klaus Michael Grüber that was certainly strange; but all it provoked, alas, was irritation.
I don’t remember feeling thus when the production was new in 2001: perhaps the revival director, Ellen Hammer, had made some changes. It was saved by the quality of the musical performance. The conductor was Bernard Haitink, returning to Covent Garden for the first time since he retired as Music Director after a tenure of 15 years.
The Prelude was not impressive, partly because the ensemble was shaky, partly because — at the performance on 9 December — the audience was notably bronchial; but, from the moment the curtain went up, things began to improve. Once Haitink had got into his stride, the orchestra glowed. The supreme moment was the climax of the Good Friday Music in Act III.
We are accustomed to listening to the Messiah in Advent, even though most of it is a meditation on the Passion and Resurrection. It should not feel odd to be watching Parsifal in Advent — but it does, perhaps because the Good Friday Music is so graphic and because the theme of redemption is so pervasive.
Nevertheless, although the setting is a Christian one — knights, the grail, the spear that wounded Christ — Parsifal is not a Christian opera. In his book Wagner and Philosophy, Bryan Magee asserts that “it is not possible to be a Schopenhauerian and a Christian”; and, if anything is certain, it is that Wagner was a devoted follower of Schopenhauer’s philosophy from 1854 until his death. What Parsifal is about is compassion — Mitleid in German, fellow suffering — and, in the end, it is Parsifal who is the redeemer.
The first scene, in a forest of what looked like aluminium cylinders, was quite properly dominated by the Gurnemanz of John Tomlinson. In his long narration and in his interrogation of Parsifal, the intensity of Tomlinson’s movement and gesture, and his superb, resonant articulation stilled any impatience with this character who knows so much but does so little.
In the transition, Haitink held the orchestra back, so that the climax was all the more weighty. Then, in the hall of the castle, Falk Struckmann — not helped by a noisy wheel on the end of a prosthetic arm — gave a harrowing account of Amfortas’s spiritual and physical torment.
The staging of Act II was a succession of muffed opportunities. Parsifal wandered on to the ramparts of Klingsor’s magic garden in desultory fashion, stood motionless as Petra Lang’s wonderful Kundry poured out a torrent of golden tone, and delivered his parting shot far upstage. Christopher Ventris succeeded against the odds in giving a gripping portrayal of Parsifal’s painful journey from ignorance to comprehension.
Tomlinson and Struckmann were again riveting in Act III; but the moment when Parsifal heals Amfortas with the holy spear that had wounded him went for little, and the closing minutes were nothing more than a tableau vivant.
All praise to Haitink, the singers and the orchestra; nuls points, or very few of them, to Grüber and Hammer.
BBC Radio 3 is to broadcast this production of Parsifal tomorrow at 6.30 p.m.