The ENO’s Parsifal: Knights of the living dead

Regietheater is by definition non-canonical but Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s well-travelled 1999 staging of Parsifal is one of the few productions that can be said to have achieved iconic status. Last Sunday I caught its current revival at the English National Opera. It’s still worth seeing. The cast is almost universally fantastic, and the orchestra and conducting are good too. There was only one hitch, and that was that it is in English. (Maybe this wouldn’t be a big deal for you, but it turns out that I hate Wagner in English, or at least I can’t stand this translation.)

Wagner, Parsifal, English National Opera, 2/27/2011. Production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth with Stuart Skelton (Parsifal), John Tomlinson (Gurnemanz), Jane Dutton (Kundry), Iain Patterson (Amfortas), Tom Fox (Klingsor). English translation by Richard Stokes.

As well as in London, this production has been seen in Baden-Baden, San Francisco, Barcelona, and Chicago, supposedly making it the most-seen Parsifal production ever. This is supposedly its last appearance in London. It is also on DVD (from Baden-Baden). This was my first time seeing it and I can understand its popularity. While it looks a little dated today, it mixes a clear basic idea with a collection of more elusive (and allusive) images that illuminate this challenging work without oversimplifying it. It’s good, and I can handle some ambiguity in Parsifal, but yeah, it beats me as to what Lehnhoff is saying some of the time.

The setting is your basic post-apocalyptic wasteland, of the indoors sort. The knights of the Grail are already encased in their own cement tomb, a decaying order (whose first appearance alludes to the terracotta army of ancient China. The Grail is a beam of blinding light, an empty signifier of a religious cult of devotion without purpose. Parsifal enters through a meteor hole in the fortress; he and Kundry, the only outsiders in the first act, are both wild creatures dressed in reddish brown, contrasting with the grayish white robes of the knights. Amfortas is almost a mummy already, and we actually see Titurel this time around, looking like a zombie.

Act 2 is basically the same set, which is a problem. Klingsor, looking like a Japanese warrior, hovers in the sensitive area of a giant pelvic x-ray (castration, we get it, OK). Kundry gets a succession of ruffly and colorful costumes whose shedding may suggest a butterfly, but whose first shell was obviously a giant vagina (perhaps this interpretation is a sign of Anna Nicole’s lingering influence on my mind). The staging of the seduction is a little on the routine side, and the buttoned-up flower maidens are more like nuns behaving badly than seductresses (albeit with, um, balls on their heads).

Act 3 is the most enigmatic. The knights have disintegrated into a disorderly mess, all now dressed in rags, and the curved train tracks and mass grave suggest a famous image of Auschwitz. But I’m not sure exactly what Lehnhoff is getting at here. The lack of a scenic transformation with the Karfreitagszauber and Parsifal’s departure from the group at the very end of the opera don’t quite add up. Amfortas dies, Kundry leaves with Parsifal and a few of the knights, and the rest seem to hail Gurnemanz as their leader and start worshipping the spear instead. This group doesn’t seem to be saved at all, but Parsifal’s retreat confuses me.

This is an addition to my growing collection of Christian God-free Wagner productions (see also this one and this one), but a non-Christian Parsifal is rather a larger challenge than a Tannhäuser or Lohengrin. As someone with limited interest in religion in general I thought it worked surprisingly well. However, this does add complexity to the reading of the libretto, and I’m afraid that this was already dealt a severe blow by the English singing text. The dense network of allusions and rhythms of Parsifal are impossible to translate. Beyond this, this translation simply suffers from many problems of tone, sounding too often like low doggerel (and I believe it contains many more rhymes than the German). For example, and I may be paraphrasing in word order:

Du siehst, mein Sohn,
zum Raum wird hier die Zeit.

You see here, my son
Time and space are one

It’s close to literal, but still presents problems of meaning–the Verwandlung from time to space is made into an equivalence–as well as adding a rhyme where one is really not called for. I can’t say I find “A single weapon serves” a satisfactory translation of “Nur eine Waffe taugt,” either. The emphasis is right, but “taugen” is so much more noble than the utilitarian “serve.” (It also creates a connection with Kundry’s “Dienen, dienen,” translated here as “to serve, to serve,” which is something different.) The obvious solution is to forget about it and do it in German, if you ask me. The enunciation of words was done with a conscious correctness that was not always musical, but I could always understand it. Unfortunately.

I’m sorry that the translation interfered with my enjoyment of the music so much, and hope this isn’t true for everyone else. Because the musical performance was really good! The orchestra sounded thoroughly excellent and well-rehearsed if a smidgen less than world-class in sound. Mark Wigglesworth proved an able conductor with beautiful balance and coloring, though I sometimes missed the larger sweep of the score. It didn’t do anything so crass as drag or rush but it didn’t quite hover in timelessness either.

Stuart Skelton is a fantastic Parsifal, with a large, forceful, yet still beautiful and clear Heldentenor. I missed a certain fragility at first, but it is lovely to hear a role like this sung with such security and passion the whole way through, and acted with both naïveté and dignity. John Tomlinson’s august Gurnemanz got the largest share of the applause, and his wisdom and authority pays great dividends despite some severe wobbles in Act 3. Iain Paterson threw himself into Amfortas’s tortures with mostly touching and occasionally awkward results, and sang with nobility and Textdeutlichkeit. (OK, screw it, I’m going to throw in as much German here as possible to make up for the lack of it onstage.) Jane Dutton was the biggest disappointment as Kundry, with blowsy, scharf tone. Tom Fox sounded at times recht ausgesungen. Chorus and small roles all solid.

More than worth seeing. Especially if you have a greater tolerance for Wagner auf Englisch than I.

Photos copyright Richard Hubert Smith.

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  1. I always thought the gigantic pelvic x-ray placed the characters in a womb? Maybe I should find Lehnhoff's interviews or something, but of course in many ways it's out of his hands now.

  2. Hmmm? Maybe? Since the act's content and much of the rest of the symbolism are sex-centric, I first thought otherwise. Parsifal's awakening could be seen as a kind of birth but the literal setting is Klingsor's lair, and his method is seduction. This production is kind of like that–it drops in images that seem relevant but it's hard to pin down a precise meaning from them, kind of like the train tracks in Act 3.