Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Haenchen's Parsifal from La Monnaie (BelAir DVD)


Richard Wagner, Parsifal
Parsifal : Andrew Richards
Kundry : Anna Larsson
Gurnemanz : Jan-Hendrik Rootering
Amfortas : Thomas Johannes Mayer
Klingsor : Tómas Tómasson
Titurel : Victor von Halem

Orchestra and Choir of La Monnaie
Conductor : Hartmut Haenchen

Stage Director : Romeo Castellucci

Recorded live in HD on 20 February 2011
BelAir DVD BAC 097 (also available on Blu Ray)

The Haenchen and Castellucci Parsifal from the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels has generated controversy and fierce debates between proponents and detractors. On viewing this CD it is not hard to see why. Castellucci’s production is strikingly original in many ways. Particularly so because it turns its back on the Christian symbolism that is at the heart of the opera and foregrounded in every production I can think of. There is hardly any Christianity here at all – no Holy Grail, and a crowd of men and women in working clothes walking on a treadmill for most of Act III instead of knights seeking their sacrament on Good Friday.

It is ironic that the overture to Act I is played against the backdrop of a huge portrait of Nietzsche, since Nietzsche reacted violently to the Christian themes in Parsifal and launched an excoriating attack in The Case of Wagner on what he described as a work of “perfidy” and “vindictiveness”. Or perhaps, on second thoughts, it is not ironic at all – rather a clear marker that the production will ignore those aspects of the drama that caused Nietzsche so much grief.

 Act I opens in darkness, slowly revealing a forest that in turn reveals Gurnemanz, squires, and Amfortas all dressed in similar leaf outfits, blending almost completely into their surroundings. The Ceremony of the Grail takes place in what looks very much like an indoor marijuana plantation, tended by a few agricultural workers wearing overalls. The vegetation eventually reveals itself to be the Knights of the Grail!

Act II is pretty out there. Klingsor’s flower maidens wear very little and are then tied up and suspended from the ceiling by Klingsor (and a doppelgänger). One flower maiden spends much of the act completely naked on a pedestal and looking as if she is about to give birth in the direction of the audience. Everyone is wearing their clothes in Act III, but they are unusual clothes for the drama. No armour for Parsifal, for example – just an open-necked short and a pair of slacks.

It would be easy to poke fun at this production (and I haven’t event mentioned the python that appears in the overture, apparently coming out of Nietzsche’s ear, and then reappears triumphantly held high in Act III – or the dog that makes some cameo appearances). But the striking thing is that it actually achieves what I assume it is trying to achieve – that is, strip away much of the baggage that has become attached to Parsifal so that we can listen to it again with fresh ears and focus on aspects of the drama that often get obscured in standard renditions.

The conducting greatly helps here. Harmut Haenchen is a very good Wagnerian. I greatly appreciated his Amsterdam Ring (released on DVD by Opus Arte in 2008). Haenchen’s approach to this Parsifal is grounded in a conviction that performance practices in Parsifal have strayed far from Wagner’s original conception. Haenchen’s studies of the notes taken by Wagner’s musical assistants (including Hermann Levi and Felix Möttl) suggest to him that modern conductors may be taking up to an hour longer in Parsifal than Wagner intended.

Haenchen may or may not be right about Wagner’s intentions. The important point is that his tempi work very effectively. He gives the drama a driving pace and maintains momentum magnificently. Both Transformation Scenes are powerfully conducted, as are the overtures. In many ways the orchestra pit is the real star of this production.

One of the very interesting and challenging features of Parsifal is how the principals each evolve and grow during the drama. This is well captured by the two principals. Andrew Richard’s Parsifal is a real find. He acts the brash adolescent well in Act. By Act III he has gained depth, maturity, and gravitas. Both Richards and Anna Larsson sing very well in their Act II duet. Larsson starts out weary and somewhat lost in Act I. She struggles convincingly in the thrall of Klingsor in Act II and by Act III has acquired a degree of inner peace.

 Jan-Hendrik Rootering is less convincing as Gurnemanz. His singing is somewhat unidimensional and he does rage better than regret or melanchology. This works better in Act III than in Act I and unfortunately it is Act I where Gurnemanz really needs to shine. Of the other three main characters, Tómas Tómasson is a fine Klingsor, with the right air of malevolence and command in Act II. Victor von Halem (Titurel) and Thomas Johannes Mayer (Amfortas) are solid and certainly carry their weight.

This DVD of Persifal is highly recommended. Haenchen’s conducting is outstanding and his musical interpretation distinctive. Some of the singing is exceptionally fine and none of it is weak. The production is unorthodox but very thought-provoking.