While many will be delighted by the return of Bernard Haitink to The Royal Opera for the first time since he stepped down as Music Director in 2002, I find it difficult to be equally glad about the decision to celebrate it by reviving Klaus Michael Grüber's production of Parsifal. A co-production with Teatro Real, Madrid, it is based on the director's 1990 production for Netherlands Opera which was first seen at Covent Garden in 2001. It was roundly condemned then and is not worthy of the fine musical performances which surround it in this incarnation.
As revived by Ellen Hammer, the production strips the story down to its bare essentials, wipes away most layers of meaning and presents it in the most static way possible. The results are utterly banal most of the time. Grüber leaves the singers standing on one spot an awful lot, so that Gurnemanz hardly moves in Act I and Kundry delivers most of her Act II music from the same position. The set designs by Gilles Aillaud and Vera Dobroschke-Lindenberg are no better. The forest clearing in Act I is a series of poles which intersect in groups to represent trees. When Parsifal pops up to shoot the swan, the latter is a piece of white cloth on the end of a piece of string which was dangling through the set about five minutes before it was needed; it was one of many woefully amateurish moments. Then for the scene in the castle, a long table comes on clumsily from the wings, leaving very little space around it for the action to take place. The Holy Grail is apparently a black precious stone with white bits in it, but looks more like a piece of coal; the intention seems to be to undermine the image.
If anything, Act II is even worse, because there's hardly any action at all and most of it is again very stilted and timid. The set for Klingsor's magic realm is one of the most hideous things I've ever seen in the theatre - truly, why were people so offended by Kismet compared to this? A kind of raised island at the back has a series of plasticine blobs on it, reminding me of jelly babies, though apparently it was meant to be 'a coarsely carved rock.covered in a tangle of cactus'; at the end of the act, all of these flop over on hinges in a pathetic attempt to illustrate the end of Klingsor's kingdom, but it is merely comical. An oval panel on the ceiling with a giant fish dangling off it just looks like something tacky out of a James Bond film, but again the programme informs us that we 'are in a submerged castle, imaginable only in a world of poetic magic'. To me, it was all so highly constructed that it wasn't poetical or magical at all. Nor do the lines of Flowermaidens really evoke much more than a school assembly, with girls popping up and down as they sing, and the vegetable shapes suspended from the roof later in the scene only add to the static feeling. The business with the spear is also mismanaged: Klingsor makes as if to throw it at Parsifal, then the lights go down and flash around the vegetable shapes (a bit like a contestant selecting a prize on a game show, it seemed to me), and lo and behold, Parsifal has it in his hand.
More grimaces and chuckles greeted the set for Act III. Poor Gurnemanz looks like he's been living in a scout's tent, not a hut in the domain of the Grail, and apart from a few more 'trees' and weird lights in the background, there is no other stimulus until the male chorus march on at the end pushing suits of armour in front of them (flagrant Macbeth imagery which surely did little to enhance the evening). At the end, Parsifal is left in front of a transparent curtain with his spear, the other characters behind him observing in silence.
While I don't want to imply that there should be any prescribed interpretation of the opera or any correct way of staging it, it felt to me at this performance that the most able singers managed to overcome the 'production' (which at times resembled a concert performance) and make vivid, living characters, albeit within the limitations of their costumes and the sets. The most able actor-singers came out of it best; those in smaller roles made it clear that there had been little direction at all because they struggled to make an impression.
Thankfully, the cast was largely quite strong, led by Sir John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz. Although the top of his voice is frayed nowadays - and what could one expect thirty years after his debut at the house? - I found his performance utterly captivating almost all of the time. There is such a sense of the text, such a richness in the bass register of his voice and such musical intelligence present here that any minor defects are easy to overlook. You can't stop Sir John from acting, thank goodness, and even when he was delivering most of his lines from the same position in Act I, he worked hard to bring meaning and emotion to everything he did.
Equally good was Petra Lang as Kundry, and for most of the same reasons. Though she was pinned to one point on the stage during her lengthy encounter with Parsifal in Act II, hampering her potential for seduction, the range of sounds and facial expressions Lang created made this an excellent, important role assumption. Credit, too for her screaming, screeching and whooping, which is taxing to a singer's voice but was full-blooded here. (Read our interview with Petra Lang here.)
German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann was excellent in the part of Amfortas, making an auspicious Royal Opera debut. Indeed, at times I felt he was the most vocally distinguished singer on the stage, from the point of view of the thrilling tone he produced at moments of high tension. I suspected that his dramatic portrayal of this role came from a mixture of natural talent and experience of it in previous productions, because nobody else was quite so physically active.
In the title part Christopher Ventris sang beautifully but was perhaps a little lightweight, both vocally and dramatically; Willard White was a strong Klingsor, trying his best to play the magician as showman whilst wearing a reddish-pink dressing gown; and Gwynne Howell's Titurel was an amazingly vivid creation, considering his concealing costume. Of the many Young Artists involved, Krzystof Szumanski (Second Knight), Haoyin Xue (Fourth Esquire) and Ji-Min Park (Third Esquire) were all absolutely superb. For me, the Flowermaidens had tuning problems and were not consistently cast, but former Young Artist Ana James sang with just the firmness and beauty of tone which one imagines her great mentor, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, must have had when she sang one of the Flowermaidens thirty-seven years ago on this very stage. James' Glyndebourne Pamina promises to be something to look forward too.
There was an interesting atmosphere in the theatre from the very beginning of this performance, due to the highly-anticipated return of Haitink to the company. Loud applause greeted his every appearance and the loudest cheers at the curtain calls were reserved for him. On the whole, this was well deserved. From the very beginning, it was refreshing to hear the orchestra play with such abandon. Under Pappano recently (in the Ring, for instance), they have been sounding rather muted and subdued, whereas Haitink seems still to have the measure of Covent Garden's acoustic; he inspired technically proficient, warm playing from the musicians. Because the production is so static, it felt like most of the drama was coming from Haitink in the pit; and it was noticeable that the orchestra achieved a huge dynamic range - both sensitive to the singers and able to rise up and overwhelm the ears during passages of punctuation. The Good Friday Music was one of the most beautifully played sections of music I've heard this orchestra produce in months. Only two aspects concerned me. There wasn't quite the golden timbre or German angst in the sound which the best performances of Parsifal contain, and occasionally I found the approach a little ponderous and lacking in purpose. Both problems were apparent in what was for me an interminable Act I Prelude, but on the whole this was an emotional and successful return for a conductor who is clearly loved by much of the audience. Let's hope he returns with a better production.
Read our interview with Petra Lang here.