Wagner’s Parsifal both attracts and repels. It has gorgeous music but a problematic plot that, on the surface, is a weird mash up of Christian symbolism, medieval romance and (more than likely) anti-Semitism. With reference to the latter it’s no great surprise that an Israeli conductor taking on the work would want to take an approach that deals with that aspect head on. That’s what Omer Meir Wellber does, with the willing collaboration of director Graham Vick in a production staged and recorded at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo in 2020.
It’s worth quoting Vick on his approach as I think we must measure the production by whether it achieves what he sets out to do. Vick seeks to expose “those who hijack religion to reinforce tribalism” and to portray “the suffering of those who are caught in the conflicts between the great religions”. He really goes about this by portraying three worlds, or three possibilities; one in each act. In Act 1 we have the Grail Knights. They are portrayed as a disciplined military force, committed to a mission, but with great doubts as shown by the declining power of the Grail after Amfortas’ fall from grace. The actual “communion” scene is quite disturbing with Amfortas bleeding into a tin cup which is passed around after which each knight cuts himself.
Act 2 shows Klingsor overtly using religion/magic as an instrument of power. If the Grail religion is to be seen as rooted in some sort of sexual (male only) purity, Klingsor’s highly sexualized world is its antithesis, Anyting goes here as we see in the cavorting of knights and flower maidens and, especially perhaps, in Parsifal and Kundry making out in front of an ikon of Mary Magdalene until the power of the Wound reveals itself.. Ok, so far the message is clear but it’s not very different from many other productions of Parsifal.
Act 3 brings it together. The military discipline of the Grail Knights has collapsed as the power of the Grail has faded. A crowd of (refugee?) children of different races and faiths appear. Shadow imagery of great brutality appears on a scrim at the back of the stage while the Good Friday music plays. Almost every visual cliché of “religiously” inspired brutality is seen. (This “shadow play” technique is used earlier as well for similar purposes). When Parsifal retrieves the Grail there isn’t one; no magic cup, no holy blood, no symbolism separating “us” (communicants) and “them”. Instead we see Parsifal telling stories to an excited ring of children while a little girl fetches Kundry. At the end, everybody is on stage; the Grail Knights, Klingsor’s people, the children. It could come off like a Coca-Cola ad but t doesn’t. It’s as moving, though quite different from, any Parsifal Act 3 I’ve seen and I really think it achieves what Vick sets out to do.
I don’t think this would work without really good acting and strong singing and it gets them. Perhaps the star is John Relyea as Gurnemanz. At first I thought his rather dark voice was a bit unlovely but it grew on me. He’s every inch the military commander in Act 1; smart, confident, secure in himself. Which makes the transformation to older, wiser Act 3 Gurnemanz who recognises the new “truth” all the more effective. Julian Hubbard’s Parsifal is very good too. maybe he is not as overtly heroic as some Parsifals but he shouldn’t be here. It’s a solid singing performance but it’s his ability to represent, in a non triumphal way, the triumph of humanity that impresses. Catherine Hunold is also a very human Kundry. There’s not much sorceress here, rather a sense of a woman excluded from society, except as a tool of designing men, by virtue of her sex until the conclusion.
Tómas Tómasson’s Amfortas has some striking visual moments that he makes the most of. He portrays agony and despair as well as anyone. Thomas Gazheli’s Klingsor (in bloody underpants) is suitably creepy. There’s plenty of eye candy, as well as excellent singing, from the Flower Maidens and all the minor roles are well done. Wellber has the measure of the score and the big orchestral moments sound suitably grand. It’s musically very satisfying.
Technical values and video direction (Tiziano Mancini) are very good. It’s may not be the hardest production to shoot but Mancini doesn’t use any gimmicks and I think we get a fair picture of the production on video. Picture and sound (DTS-HD and stereo) on Blu-ray are top drawer. The booklet has a synopsis and full track listing plus a useful essay which, for once, tells us about this production! Subtitle options are English, German, Korean and Japanese.
This is a different take on Parsifal and it works. It takes its place as one of many excellent recent video recordings of this piece.
Catalogue number: C Major Blu-ray – 759404