There’s a bit at the end of the first act of Parsifal where Gurnemanz looks at Parsifal and says “you haven’t understood anything have you?” or words to that effect. Watching Romeo Castellucci’s 2011 production for Brussels’ La Monnaie theatre my sympathy was very much with the Pure Fool. This is one of the most incomprehensible productions I have seen. Act 1 is very dark. Most of the time only a tiny fragment of the stage is lit. The first thing we see is a snake in its own tiny patch of light. Then we are in a forest and the Grail Knights appear to be part of the forest. Whether they are just wearing suits of leaves or are actually plants is unclear. Kundry, in a white hoodie, and Parsifal in street clothes are recognisably human. Titurel and his squires wear overalls and hard hats. One of them carries a chain saw. The “swan” appears to be a lit up tree branch though later it appears as a very decomposed skeleton. The Grail Scene is played out with a white curtain, with a small black comma on it, across the entire stage. The curtain is withdrawn and we see fluorescent lights above the greenery, which takes up much less space than one has so far imagined. Is Monsalvat a grow-op and the knights marijuana plants?
Act 2 is a little bit more comprehensible. It’s Klingsor’s lair, so pretty much anything goes. Curiously it opens with cue cards describing various poisons and carcinogens before we move to the stage proper. We first see Klingsor conducting on a podium in evening clothes. He has a double. They arrange elaborate Shibari suspension bondage for four, mostly naked, girls who are lying on the stage. (This is the only opera production I have seen with a programme credit for a bondage choreographer) There are contortionists; equally naked. At the end of their contortions one of them will be left naked with her legs spread over Klingsor’s podium. The Flower Maidens are represented by, surprise, mostly naked dancers. When it’s clear that Parsifal is going to be seduced one of the dancers closes the contortionists legs and ties them with red rope. Kundry has the snake in this scene before she gives it to one of the dancers. During Amfortas! Die Wunde! we get a video of Kundry and Amfortas shagging. The back wall of the stage has “ANNA” graffiti’d on it. Kundry adds “ME NOW TIED” to the graffiti while Parsifal unwraps one of the bondage babes. He’s got white face paint on at this point. Kundry daubs her face black. The Flower Maidens come in with rifles and strike through the “ANNA” part of the graffiti. Klingsor starts conducting again.
Act 3 is rather straightforward. At the beginning of the scene Gurnemanz finds Kundry and covers her with his leaf suit. The stage is full of a big crowd in street clothes. They move very slowly down stage. Occasionally a person is lifted above the crowd. Someone is holding the snake. There is no spear, nor wound, nor Grail. Everyone puts on black hoods then takes them off. Everyone except Parsifal and Kundry walk off. Kundry, now minus the leaf suit, looks at Parsifal and walks off. Parsifal is left alone on a garbage strewn stage. I’m not going to attempt to deconstruct this. Some of the sybolism is obvious and some is, to me, completely obscure. I’m not sure it’s Parsifal. I’m not sure it works. But it is a trip.
The music side of things is pretty good. Helmut Haenchen conducts with judicious tempi and great clarity. Even at the weirdest moments of the production I was struck by the sheer beauty and power of the music. The cast seems totally committed to the concept and act convincingly. The singing varies from acceptable to rather good. Amfortas (Thomas Johannes Meyer) and Gurnemanz (Jan-Hendrik Rootering) are both powerful singers but not very subtle or beautiful. Act 1 could have really used René Pape. Andrew Richards is a rather good Parsifal with quite a lot of variation in colour and all the notes. Tómas Tómasson is rather good as Klingsor but, for me, the pick of the bunch was the impassioned Kundry of Anna Larsson (I guess that’s ANNA Larsson). She’s good looking, can act, has a lovely lower register and doesn’t get squally. The Flower Maidens, singing off stage, were very decent too, as was the chorus.
No video director appears to be credited so I’m guess Castellucci was responsible for the filming. It’s pretty decent for a production that must have been very hard to film. It’s so dark. Picture and sound quality (Dolby surround and PCM stereo) are both excellent though the extra detail of a Blu-ray would have been welcome. There are no extras which is a pity. The booklet does contain essays by Haenchen and Castellucci but they are very much of the “important European intellectual” variety and are translated into the sort of English one might pick up from important European intellectuals. there’s also a synopsis and track listing. Subtitle options are English, French, Dutch and German.