Parsifal at ENO

Parsifal is a journey. A journey from ignorance to knowledge and from emptiness to spiritual fullfilment. At its end the fool redeemed by pity sits within the group of knights and they bask in the light of the Grail. It’s there in the libretto that Wagner wrote. So how come a production can utterly disregard the predetermined endpoint of Parsifal and yet still be utterly true to the deeper meanings of the piece?

Well, for one thing when the creator of the work is Richard Wagner drawing on his poisonous well of misanthropia it might be a worthwhile act to look beyond his ideas for inspiration. But also when you have a piece – like much Wagner – that is apparently straightforward in narrative but simultaneously both baffling and revealing in meaning then perhaps that’s all the excuse needed to delve deeper, twist and, yes, deny the journey its ordained destination.

There is of course the music and the voices. The only change here from Wagner being of course that ENO do this in English. Even now I wish they’d either sing in foreign with surtitles or English without. The singers are mostly very clear and so reading their words even a beat in advance is distracting. The performances (as ever I point out I’m far from an expert here) are all strong but John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz – the knight ground down by the despair he must narrate – in particular stands out and Jane Dutton brings a beauty and depth to the intriguing role of Kundry.

The story unfolds on stage in a straightforward yet also beautiful and illuminating manner. Amfortas, leader of the Knights of the Grail, wounded by the holy spear has lost to Klingsor can only be saved by a fool made wise by pity. Parsifal is that fool. Made wise he reclaims the spear and kills Klingsor. His journey is completed when he is found and returns to the knights who secure their own salvation by restoring the dignity of the Grail. At its end, Parsifal is secure in the heart of the company and all will soon be well.

Except that in this production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff Parsifal does not stay in the bosom of his knights. He walks along the tracks. And Kundry leads him. Wagner says she should be dead. Maybe she is. I couldn’t tell you by this point, so swept along was I. Some of the knights may or may not be following. I don’t buy that these tracks can only be seen as the route to Auschwitz. Even if that is the director’s meaning he has already rejected Wagner’s so I feel quite at ease disregarding his. To me it feels like the start of another journey – not as simplistic as either the railway to the gas chambers or even the faultering walk of the dead to the afterlife or rebirth – but an acknowledgement and understanding that quests don’t end, lives have no neat finales. You can get the sacred spear back and people will praise you – but there is still another day, and another. Still more tasks and no moment of peace. So Parsifal walks along those tracks to … well, the curtain goes down and we leave him seeking meaning, following Kundry.

It’s sad to hear that this is the last time this production will run at ENO. It is an incredible achievement to fuse together so much of Wagner’s thoughts, to challenge some and accept others, and also to take 5 hours of the most sublime music and at the end present not a conclusion but a satisfying question. All opera should be like this.

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