Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Staatsoper Hamburg: Parsifal

30 September 2017

Before being persuaded to direct the Ring for LA Opera at the beginning of the decade, Achim Freyer had apparently decided to abandon directing opera to concentrate on painting. Now, however, he also gives a new Parsifal. And he’s staging Hänsel und Gretel at the newly refurbished Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin in December as well—that glorious work by a composer, Humperdinck, who was of course intimately bound up with Parsifals early history in Bayreuth. 

Parsifal at Staatsoper Hamburg, with Wolfgang Koch (centre) as Amfortas (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)

In Hamburg his take on the Master’s great Bühnenweihfestspiel is a serious, often enchanting piece of work, and a staging that is refreshing for its patience, its willingness to take its time and its singlemindedness. His set, a dark semi-circle with multiple walkways set behind a gauze stretched right over the orchestra pit, feels like its own self-contained galaxy.

Numbers and hieroglyph-like objects are dotted about it as if set free from both weight and significance; an adjustable mirrored semi-circle hovers above, as does a big metal structure resembling the mixing attachment of a food processor.

Kwangchul Youn as Gurnemanz (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel))

Swirls and various Parsifalian keywords are projected (video by Jakob Klaffs and Hugo Reiss) at various moments onto the gauze, though were difficult to take in from my seat in row 4 of the stalls. The players, their expressions frozen in semi-grotesque face paint, drift in and out during the Prelude and seem barely to be in command of their own destinies thereafter.

Kundry flies in, with the help of naïve stage effects (not always fully realised), at her various entries; Parsifal bounces in and out and rolls about like some malfunctioning children’s entertainer; Amfortas, stretched across some sort of yoke, his body represented by a painted cloth, is manhandled from side to side by a couple of hooded retainers hovering in a state of semi-invisibility. Titurel consists, in two dimensions, of little more than two arms, a wheelchair and what, to me at least, looked like stubby telescope.

Gurnemanz, a crude papier-mâché face suspended in a haphazardly spiralling frame above his head, glides around with little sense of purpose. Squires and grail knights arm themselves in moments of threat with arbitrary objects: an oversize spanner, a stuffed rabbit, a dismembered arm. At the climax of the grail ceremony a small white figure with oversized head and an underlit lampshade for a skirt makes its way slowly across the stage.

On one level it’s a magical mystery tour de force from Freyer, who works with the music, surfing its slow-moving waves to sometimes hypnotic effect. There are plenty of telling little details, too, not least in the grotesque costume for Vladimir Baykov’s powerfully-sung, leering Klingsor: an enormous tie covers a bright red patch in his groin, the site of the self-mutilation we see acted out wittily—if that’s the word—at the appropriate point Gurnemanz’s Act 1 narration. I liked the bulbous, punky voluptuousness of his Flower Maidens, too, who manage to combine, like so much of the production, playful irreverence with an underlying seriousness. 

Claudia Mahnke (Kundry) and Vladimir Baykov (Klingsor) (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)

As the show progresses, though, it becomes a case of diminishing returns. Having cast everything into a state weightlessness, Freyer has no interest, it seems, in tethering it back onto anything as the gravity of the final act’s drama kicks in. 

The first half of that act, with only the merest hint, through Sebastian Alphons’s lighting, of Easter greenery, resorts to a somewhat conventional rehearsal of Wagner’s stage directions. And Wolfgang Koch, sounding slightly under par, was unable to give specific meaning to his suffering as a bedraggled, lank-hared Amfortas. With the action never having been allowed too fully take root, the final redemption amounted simply to a further clearing of the decks, with the set pulled down and whisked away. We are left with an emptiness both spatial and conceptual.

Andreas Schager (Parsifal) in Klingsor's magic garden (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)
Part of the sense of dissatisfaction here might also have been down to Kent Nagano’s conducting. The orchestral playing had some wobbles, but I enjoyed his streamlined but largely persuasive account of the first two acts—are the conductor’s plans for a period-instrument Ring with Concerto Köln already affecting his approach? The third act, however, felt almost evasive in its swiftness. The winding lines of the Prelude came across as dogged, while elsewhere things remained somewhat earthbound, without conjuring up enough of sense of anything, however difficult to define, being at stake.

None of this helped the cast, either. Kwangchul Youn’s Gurnemanz provided superbly resonant and authoritative foundation for the drama, but  was left unable, in the circumstances, to plumb the depths in Act 3, or really to make much of the text. 

Andreas Schager (Parsifal) at the close of Act 3 (Photo © Hans Jörg Michel)
Andreas Schager’s Parsifal, dressed in asymmetric black-and-white, sang powerfully and acted, as usual, with total commitment, but both he and Claudia Mahnke’s impressive Kundry (rich in the lower register, seductive in the middle if stretched at the top) struggled to convey their passions and sufferings through the make-up and, in Mahnke’s case, industrial dreadlocks.

In a statement in the programme, Freyer talks, apparently unironically, of being obliged to save the essential works of our time from the mistakes of interpretation. That represents quite a lofty stance, and what he’s offered has its own special beauty and conviction. It doesn’t, however, really offer the compelling alternative he seems to be after. 

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