Despite Japanese bondage, contortion, army camouflage, a long view up a supernumerary's vagina, and a large albino python, Romeo Castellucci's new Parsifal for Brussels' La Monnaie is not particularly shocking. This is the radical Italian theatre director's first venture into the world of large-scale opera, and he approaches it with his characteristically anti-dramatic abstraction.
This Parsifal is about today's society, without Grail, spear or balsam. Parsifal finds the Knights deep in a forest (think Lars von Trier's Antichrist). He digs up a swan skeleton from the dirt, and sees the wood clear-felled as he departs.
Klingsor is a conductor, but he is also Friedrich Nietzsche, who hated Parsifal and declared: "The preaching of chastity remains an incitement to anti-nature." His flower maidens are bound in the style of Japanese Kinbaku, about as artificial and aestheticised as sex can get. Parsifal resolutely ignores them. Kundry wears a wedding dress, and Parsifal sees her kiss Amfortas as a soft-focus projection. Actually, they do considerably more than kiss. It makes sense.
Castellucci's Parsifal is psychological, political and environmental. It is also wilfully opaque and often maddeningly static. Hartmut Haenchen goes a long way towards saving the day, with conducting of staggering clarity and sophistication.
A mostly excellent cast also adds to the total experience.Andrew Richards brings grace and easy heroism to the title role. Anna Larsson's Kundry is rich in dark shading but low on self-pity, a confident, complex character who does not die at the end. As Gurnemanz, Jan-Hendrik Rootering appears accompanied by a stoical German Shepherd, so silent that I wondered whether it had been de-barked. The same thought crossed my mind about Rootering as he battled intonation and tone quality problems in the first act, but the polish and emotional depth of his long narrative in the third quite made up for it.
The python, like the dog, seemed indifferent to its many stage appearances. By the end, it was looking rather squashed, but that is probably normal for a python after almost five hours of Wagner. Nietzsche would surely have approved.