New York Times /International Herald Tribune, 08. Februar 2011
Wagner, Sleek but Deep

At the end of Act 1 of “Parsifal,” after the Knights of the Holy Grail have enacted a ritualized celebration of the Last Supper, the elderly knight Gurnemanz asks the young stranger Parsifal if he understands what he has seen. Anyone who sees Wagner’s last opera at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie might sympathize with Parsifal’s mute response. How to explain this remarkable production by the Italian experimental director Romeo Castellucci?

Much of the ceremony in question is invisible to the audience. After the command “Reveal the Grail!” a white curtain falls so that the Grail as well as the consecration of bread and wine are unseen. When the curtain rises again, other signs of Communion are also absent, though a large disc, no doubt of symbolic significance, is lowered to the assembled knights. In Act 2 the sacred spear that pierced Christ’s side figures prominently, but it too is never seen.

During the prelude, however, we do see a photograph of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ambivalent stance toward “Parsifal” parallels the reactions of many today — he railed against its story but when he finally heard the music he was bowled over. Mr. Castellucci simply chooses not to represent aspects of “Parsifal” often found troublesome, and the opera is no worse off for it. The Christian dimension, which can perplex believers and nonbelievers alike, is ignored.

Likewise, he minimizes the chaste Grail knights and Amfortas, their leader suffering from an unhealable wound, a group that can seem degenerate. In the first scene you can scarcely see them through the lush green forest of Mr. Castellucci’s décor, and when you do, they are costumed to blend in with the trees. In Act 3, they are replaced by ordinary people, including the principals, wearing street clothes, who spend much time walking toward the audience on a treadmill. Among other things, it makes for a stirring choral sound.

Yet Mr. Castellucci importantly dramatizes a crucial dimension of the work — Parsifal’s achievement of awareness in fulfillment of the prophecy that only a pure fool made wise through compassion can heal Amfortas’s wound.

In Act 2, set in the Magic Garden of the sorcerer Klingsor, who behaves like a mad orchestra conductor, the suffering is palpable. With everything in a hazy white, bound women are hoisted above the stage like animal carcasses. The enigmatic Kundry, constrained to do Klingsor’s bidding by seducing Parsifal, carries a large and very live snake. (Another animal, an astute German shepherd, graces the outer acts.)

Kundry’s kiss — the opera’s central event — is rightly prominent, as is Parsifal’s rejection of it, an act that endows him with wisdom and redemptive powers. Whatever those powers are, you felt them at the close exerting a positive force. It was moving when the crowd disbursed, leaving just Gurnemanz, Kundry and Parsifal, and finally just Parsifal himself, with a city projected behind him.

The simplicity of Mr. Castellucci’s production, and his relatively loose direction of the principals, puts special emphasis on the music, which might not have been a virtue had the performance not been so good, especially the conducting of Hartmut Haenchen. In a program essay, he made a persuasive case that tempos in “Parsifal” had generally become slower since its premiere in 1882, citing such diverse factors as failure to heed evidence from Wagner’s day and a tendency during the Nazi era to overly sentimentalize the work.

By my calculation, Mr. Haenchen’s timing of 3 hours and 49 minutes is actually faster than Hermann Levi’s at the premiere — 4 hours and 4 minutes, as cited by Mr. Haenchen — and only five minutes slower than Clemens Krauss in 1953, the fastest Bayreuth “Parsifal.” Toscanini’s was the slowest, at 4 hours and 42 minutes, with James Levine close behind.

Yet Mr. Haenchen’s tempos were wholly persuasive. That his performance never seemed rushed says much about the slack built into the slower tempos we are used to.

But his performance has much going for it apart from questions of tempo. Musical textures, beautifully realized by the Monnaie orchestra, are translucent. And Mr. Haenchen has a fine grasp of the opera’s architecture, which resulted in special breadth and weight for the transformations scenes of Acts 1 and 3.

The young American tenor Andrew Richards gives a splendid performance in the title role. His portrayal has a naturalness and an unforced vocal quality that prove deeply affecting, yet the voice demonstrates reserves of power and attractive baritonal colors for big moments, like the cry “Amfortas! Die Wunde” following the kiss.

Mr. Richards has also attracted a following by discussing the production on a daily basis in his blog, http://www.tenorrichards.com/Opera_Rocks_Blog.html , to which the reader is referred for possible explanations of some of the more thorny aspects of the staging, such as the discs in the Grail Scene or why Anna Larsson, as Kundry, scrawls her own name, Anna, on a wall after she is rejected by Parsifal.

Ms. Larsson, a valued concert and opera singer, bills herself as a contralto and especially early on the voice sounded a little heavy in a role normally the province of dramatic sopranos and mezzos. But she was vivid in her confrontation with Parsifal and dealt with the upper reaches of the music excitingly.

I prefer a Gurnemanz with stronger verbal inflections than those of the veteran bass Jan-Hendrik Rootering, but his singing was satisfying and nobly phrased.

Thomas Johannes Mayer brought imposing vocalism to Amfortas’s expressions of anguish. Tomas Tomasson was a formidable Klingsor and Victor von Halem a richly sonorous Titurel.

Thanks to the telling contributions of Mr. Castellucci and Mr. Haenchen, the Monnaie’s “Parsifal” casts new light on a difficult opera.