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June 23, 2005

Towards the Light - Wagner's Parsifal at the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

Posted by David Conway

Wagner's Parsifal
Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg
conducted by Valery Gergiev, directed by Tony Palmer
19th June 2005

I could have sworn – although I can now find no evidence for it – that it was Tony Palmer who once wrote in the late '60s the immortal phrase "If Wagner was alive today, he'd be playing with King Crimson". Wagner it is true had many disparate acquaintances ranging from Kropotkin to Lola Montes, so Robert Fripp might perhaps not have been too out of place in such a gallery. As a true 19th-century Schizoid Man, for Wagner the far out trips were not so much sex and drugs but religion and nationalism, but the concept of a Palmer production of his Parsifal was tempting, or at least titillating. The knowledge that it was being conducted by Valery Gergiev, had René Pape specially imported to sing Gurnemanz, and was revived for one night only, made attendance essential.

Parsifal is not, mind you, my favourite night out at the opera. The queasiness of its pseudo-Christianity and the absence of any really inspiring sung passages – it is the closest Wagner came to his vision of music-theatre and he himself called it not an opera but "a sacred stage festival" – and, most difficult of all, the fact that virtually nothing at all happens over five and a half hours, make it an endurance test for the audience as well as the singers and orchestra. Rossini's alleged comment on the Ring"il y a des beaux moments, mais des mauvais quarts d'heure" – applies to Parsifal in spades.

Bearing in mind Palmer's lurid film treatments of musicians (who can erase from memory, having once seen them, his casting of Roger Daltry as Liszt, or indeed his 7-hour version of the life of Wagner with Richard Burton giving his terminal performance?) my anticipations of his stage production were not high. I have more or less reached satiety with eccentric Wagner productions – Senta and her chums riding exercise bikes in a gym (Moscow 2004), or the last Parsifal I saw at Covent Garden which appeared to end up in a railway siding – but at the very least Palmer might counter the work's tendency to tedium.

In fact the production – although I have reason to believe it has been watered down a little since its original presentation in 1997 (which despite Palmer's claims, was not the first performance in Russia) - was engagingly traditional, the costumes vaguely of the Arthurian epoch, and the scenery suggestive of the locations which the composer had specified. Nor were we treated to excess of respect for the stage directions, and thus were spared, for example, a dove hovering over Parsifal's head at the close.

My major objection was that at the one moment when an event takes place – the magician Klingsor launching the Holy Spear at Our Hero – instead of it remaining suspended in mid-air, whence Parsifal seizes it (as directed), it was merely dropped on the floor by Klingsor (Mikhail Petrenko) as he and his castle sank and vanished. Add to that the bizarre heavily knitted shawl in which King Amfortas, (Evgeny Nikitin) is costumed, and the disrespect shown to Kundry (Larisa Gogolevskaya) when at the end, in her death-throes, the population of the Castle of the Grail seem too busy gaping with awe at Parsifal to take any notice, and my serious complaints about the production cease – except for my continual grouse, which I once again evoke, about the inability of Russian stagings to deal with crowds. They either stand rock solid, or engage in manifestly artificial rhubarbing; they cannot enter or leave a stage without forming into lines crossing the stage in opposite directions, or, even worse, rings circulating in opposite directions. It is highly distracting; as there is a law about almost everything else in Russia, an ukaz on chorus behaviour is long overdue.

Perhaps my main problem with Parsifal is that, myself being a Ring man, the later opera seems something of a ragbag of story-line and musical offcuts from the former. Once again we have deep forests, a spear, a simpleton virgin yokel-redeemer with unknown parents; once again the typical Wagnerian musical tics that seem as likely to break into a leitmotiv of Wotan as one of Klingsor. Indeed the mood of the music is almost continuously that of the Dragon's Lair and the spookier parts of Götterdämmerung, except for the regular reprises of the "Dresden Amen" at pious moments. (What a chutzpah on the part of the Wagnerites to have derided Mendelssohn's music as sanctimonious!). The characters and their motivations remain a mystery. What do the Knights actually do, other than moping about the castle and whingeing at their ailing king? We are never told. Kundry at least has the excuse for her strange behaviour that she is under the sorcerer's power of Klingsor, though she is scarcely more coherent once he has been defeated. Parsifal himself is so overcome by his first moment of passion when embraced by Kundry (who has seduced him by making him feel guilty about his mother) that he immediately becomes a pious Christian. After he has retrieved the Holy Spear he takes several months to return it to the Knights, who do not seem to have been aware that their mortal enemy has in the meantime vanished from the scene. Can we really care about these weirdos? And I don't even wish to embark here on the question of the extent to which Wagner sought to embody his racist credos in the libretto.

But it is now clear to me that one way to deal with all this, at least temporarily, is simply to put oneself in the hands of a true believer. Gergiev, who can claim nearly all the credit for the revival of Wagner in Russia since 1990, writes that:

Parsifal brings together all of Wagner's main lines of thought. It is his artistic will and testament and, as such, the key to his musical and philosophical legacy.
In the opera house, against all the odds, Gergiev somehow has the mastery to cast the spell which can make one credit this statement (which I could otherwise extensively deconstruct). A musical commitment which somehow communicated itself from the very first notes continued throughout the whole work, sustaining our attention, circulating the house like an electric current. To put it practically, if crudely, this is the first Parsifal I have attended where I have not found myself at some point drifting into a doze. The music knows, better than (consciously) Gergiev or even Wagner, what it is doing, and by allowing it to speak clearly and with a true pulse Gergiev was able to transport his audience to a world of musical affect where the shortcomings of the story and the staging were of minor significance. Forget the McGuffin about spears and wounds, this is an exquisitely graded progress for darkness to light.

Of course Gergiev could not have achieved this without the contribution of the orchestra, sounding exceptionally rich in tone, and the singers, all Russian except for Pape. Pape, who is also singing the role at the Berlin Opera, proved an authoritative anchor for the performance; after all it falls to Gurnemanz to do virtually all the story-telling, (often at great length), necessary to understand the actions of the characters, and if we cannot enjoy listening to him the whole enterprise fails. Although his physical acting of old-age was somewhat mannered, he managed to suggest some humour in a character who can otherwise risk appearing a pompous bore, and his tone was full and resonant throughout. I rank his overall performance very highly.

Although put a little in the shade by Pape, none of his colleagues was less than competent. I would have appreciated more power from Petrenko, but he was appropriately sinister, assisted by his Beardsleyesque costume and trappings. Oleg Balashov as Parsifal looked every stout inch the Aryan and had the appropriate timbre, although it was slightly fraying at the edges towards the end of the evening. Kundry is a very difficult role, as the autistic drudge of the outer acts must be a sex goddess in Act II. Gogolevskaya made the most of her opportunities in this ungrateful part - and of course we all enjoyed the Flower Maidens who assist her in attempting the hero's downfall.

The magical atmosphere induced by the opera was enhanced by walking back after the opera at midnight along the canals of the city in the eerie twilight of the "White Nights". Full marks once again to St. Petersburg.

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