Opera as Theater--design cannot defeat music

But, boy, did it try.

I attended Parsifal at the Royal Opera in Stockholm on Tuesday evening. I prepared myself for the long haul--a roughly 4.5 hour opera with two 35 minute breaks, by reading the libretto and bookmarking a couple translations on my phone, to check during intermissions if needed. I also ate a tasty burrito at a local Chipotle-esque chain called Zocalo.

My decision to attend was simple: 50% off student tickets and the study of live opera. Writing an opera is half of my Fulbright, and Wagner's operas, in particular, make use of folk and traditional stories often times to espouse his personal political and social ideas.

Christof Loy's version of Parsifal offers a similar tract, placing Loy's own visions onto Wagner's masterpiece. If you're unfamiliar with the story of Parsifal, read here. Loy's version is fairly different, so having a relationship with the original plot may be helpful.

Reviews of Loy's production have all been stellar. Here are a couple examples. One thing you'll notice is that the two reviews had different impressions of the theme of Loy's Parsifal. Both seem to focus on positive aspects of how Loy's theme was played out on stage.

Personally, I had issues with several of the characterizations. My issue didn't come from the performance, nor from the continuity of the theme. I didn't read any reviews before going, so my judgements were my own. My issue had to do with a disconnect between Loy's telling and Wagner's story. To put it bluntly, the words did not match the action.

Parsifal was sung in German with Swedish super-titles. My German is weak, and my Swedish even worse, hence me reading the libretto and having it handy. From the outset, I was confused regarding the choice with Amfortas. Oh, there's no denying who Amfortas is supposed to be: he is portrayed as the forsaken savior, crown of thorns and all. It was his actions that didn't seem to fit the dialogue at times.

In the opening scene, Wagner's Parsifal has Amfortas arrive via processional, carried on a litter by his knights. Loy has Amfortas stumbling in, terrified, injured, barely functioning. The squires on stage look at him in complete disrespect, one even with obvious hate. Loy was beating me over the head--Amfortas is the forsake savior. I get it. But...why's he so pathetic? And why does everyone hate him?

Amfortas enters, and, later, hears that Kundry has found balsam for his wound. His lines: You, Kundry? Do I owe you my thanks again, you restless, timorous maid? Well then! I'll try the balsam now, and thank you for your trouble. (from http://www.monsalvat.no/trans1.htm)

In Loy's version, Amfortas sings these lines laying on the ground, weeping, reaching for Kundry, wanting to touch her, be with her. Kundry, in Wagner's version, is possibly a witch, the temptress, but also the redeemed whore, Mary Magdalene. When she is with the nights, she is paying her penance.

In Loy's version, she is the temptress, who as much reviles herself as relishes the role. She seems to have no control over all men fawning over her and falling for her. And all men DO fall for her in this version--Amfortas, who it later comes out was tempted by Kundry and that's why he is injured and lost the spear, wants nothing more to love her. Of course, in Wagner's version, he has no idea it was Kundry that seduced him and made him lose the spear. Gurnemanz is likewise tempted, regularly by Kundry...and in fact he is afraid to even touch her in Act III when he's supposed to be reviving her. Loy's version of revival is Gurnemanz singing from across the stage at Kundry, before coming near her at the end, taking her hand, and promptly falling into a deep longing for her.

So, thematically, what do we have so far? Amfortas as the frail, weak man, searching for redemption that is not his to attain.

Kundry as the free sexual spirit, and the temptation of all men through this? That men are weak of the flesh and women have infinite power over them, even when they don't want to power?

Ok...I can rectify those with the dialogue, though it makes Amfortas an incredibly weak character. His raging scene, excellently choreographed and designed in the second half of Act I, lays somewhat impotent. To me, he has no choices--he'll keep performing his duty because, while he rails against it and only wishes to die, he's too scared, too weak, of even death to possibly not hold on to this little thing.

The disdain shown to him by the knights and squires also caused me issues. Where did this come from? Why do they hate him so? Is Loy really just being this obvious that Amfortas is the forsaken Savior?

Enter Parsifal. For the most part, he is played close to Wagner's character, but in Act II, we see another moment where the words and the actions seem to be at odds. Or, at least, the interpretation of the words seems confusing to me at best. In "traditional" versions, Parsifal enters the garden after defeating Klingsor's knights, and sees a large amount of beautiful women. The lines to begin:

Chorus:Woe! You there! O woe! What is the cause of this distress? Cursed, cursed shall you be! Parsifal jumps down into the garden. Ah! Bold one!
Maiden Group 1:You dare to approach?
Maiden Group 2:Why did you strike down our beloveds?
Parsifal:You lovely children, should I not have fought them? They barred the way to you, pretty ones.

Now there are lots of ways to do a line reading of the above. Parsifal has entered, he needs to get through these ladies now that he's gotten through the knights. He can do the above lines as a sort of "Hey ladies, you're looking good...if you let me through, I'll come back and take you to a nice steak dinner." Parsifal can play the ladies man.

Parsifal could play it sardonically and sarcastically: "Yeah, I killed the knights to get to you. Now move your asses."

The action plays out to the point where Parsifal continues, "Never before have I seen such a handsome race: if I call you fair, don't you think I am right?">

and then

First Maidens: You struck down our playmates
 All Maidens: Who will we play with now?
Parsifal: I will, gladly!
Remember, Parsifal is supposed to be the "anointed fool." He doesn't know what's happening half the time. From the text, what would your reading be?

Loy's reading is that Parsifal starts out sarcastic, then tries to fight all the ladies, then finally flees until Kundry appears.

This is one possible reading--that everything is turned into sarcasm, that the flower maidens are more than just simple maidens, but horrible seductresses meant to turn Parsifal from his path to the spear. That Parsifal, in his combination of innocence and anger, chooses to flee rather than kill these evil sirens. Possibly.

But that's not what came across to me--what came across is action that didn't fit the words, line readings that seemed inconsistent.

The end, to me, was trite, unoriginal, and tossed in as an extra theme. Throughout the entire opera, the idea that "this is a story, a thing happening in the past" was beaten into me. From the book Gurnemanz is borderline obsessed with, to the lady in 20th century garb entering in every Act at some point, and even the stage direction. The blocking, to put it simply, was about creating pictures, images. This first happens before there's any dialogue: the squires enter, one by one, take a specific place, and pose, statuesque, for at least a minute or two. Then, one by one, they move, and take a new pose.

This happens, continuously, through every scene. That is the entire style of blocking--move one at a time, everyone in position? Great, now, PICTURE! and now one at a time move.

The style of blocking is obviously meant to make a connection to the idea of paintings, of history and stories told in other mediums. In the first Act as Gurnemanz tells the squires the story of Amfortas, a picture is revealed. One review comments that it looks like Monet, but I didn't see the connection to Monet. It appeared more like Arthur Hacker's The Temptation of Percival (which makes sense, considering Parsifal = Percival).

After 4.5 hours of seeing this type of group blocking, I was actually annoyed. When there were two, three, or four characters on stage, the direction was magnificent! Act II between Kundry and Parsifal is beautifully done. Act I during Amfortas' railing against his duties was also fantastic. But add a chorus, and, look out for monotonous movement.

Yes, it ties into an overarching theme...but...

The musical finale is played as the back wall opens revealing a present day library. The same modern garbed woman takes Gurnemanz's book, hands it to another associate to be filed.

I actually groaned. This, this is what Parsifal has been leading toward? Amfortas is on the ground upfront playing in his father's ashes (btw, his father dies in this version), completely unredeemed. Humanity is still as frail as its ever been. And the rest of the troupe wanders into the library, looking amazed, as patrons, slowly mill (entering one at a time, though moving more fluidly now, as they aren't in the book). To me, this is so blatant that it's almost Absurdist. The final moments something is revealed.

And I honestly have no idea what. You see, it was placed at the furthest back point, and all the way up top. The front curtain was raised and lowered to various heights to create depth (great idea), and at this point was about 3/4 up...From the front row of the top balcony, I COULDN'T SEE THE BIG REVEAL!!!

This is one of the biggest blunders I've ever seen in a production. You lead up to a point, all the patrons in the library have stopped milling and are pointing and staring. And at least 1/4 of your audience can't see what's happening. Just because I could only afford a 150SEK seat doesn't mean I shouldn't get to see your big reveal.

This was either a) a mistake by the person operating the front curtain. If it had been all the way up, I would have been able to see it or b) a massive design mistake where no one bothered to check from the balcony.

Loy's production suffers major problems from my perspective. First off, it lacks all subtlety. Let's be honest: Wagner is not going to help you with subtlety nor with blocking. He has large blocks of stand and sing "I'm going to tell you a story now." That's one of the challenges of Wagner. He's blatant in lot of his imagery, such as Kundry anointing the feet of Parsifal when he returns: Yes, that's Mary Magdalene anointing Jesus' feet. He has his subtle moments, but those mostly come from when Wagner has mixed his original texts together, when Christianity meets old Germanic and Norse stories and you have to decide which meaning you'd like to take.

The design choices, to me, feel tacked on. They're not from the story, they're in lieu of the story. Wagner is incredibly direct, even blunt, with what his story is. There are multiple interpretations. But I just can't see where Loy's incredibly blunt statement of "This is a parable. I shall make this apparent that it's a story, but just because it's a story, doesn't mean you can't learn something. See, it's a library, because someone was reading the story, and look, the painting from the first act (I found that out by reading reviews. Lame)" is rectified in the story. It's added to the story, an outside idea forced on top.

And for me, that idea didn't work. I prefer theater that is organic, that comes first from the story, and is then brought out.

That is my problem with this production: so much of it comes not from Wagner, it comes from Loy. In fact, there's very little of Wagner's story. Oh, there are Wagner's words and Wagner's music, but not his story. This is Loy's story. Which, when the actions and characterizations don't match the words, then Loy's story can't work very well.

All the negative out of the way, the performance itself was spectacular! Ola Eliasson as Amfortas, Christof Fischesser as Gurnemanz, Michael Weinus as Parsifal, Martin Winkler as Klingsor, and Katarina Dalayman as Kundry were all spectacular. The chorus numbers were powerful, the flower maidens were all strong in their more soloistic moments.

Major hats off to Christof Fischesser, whose powerful bass voice was absolutely stunning. Not only was the singing technically perfect and musically satisfying, it was delivered with apparent ease and conviction. It allowed Fischesser to performer subtle and complex vocalizations, adding a layer of nuance to Gurnemanz character that was incredibly enjoyable.

The same can be said for Katarina Dalayman. This was especially apparent during her long scene with Weinus during Act II. Weinus has a strong voice, but needs to ground himself to really belt the difficult Wagnerian tenor role. This led to moments of action, then standing, then action. Wagner is unforgiving of his tenors, so this is not meant as negative criticism. Dalayman added nuance to the scene, being able to perform her lines in a variety of positions, sitting, lounging, reaching, and seducing all the while singing in a full, rich tone.

The orchestra matched the musical superiority on stage. Wonderful playing and musical direction. When a trained musician can count on his hands the tiny mistakes, then a group has performed amazingly. The loud sections of the orchestra were huge, nearly deafening (in a good way), and the more subtle sections were nuanced and immaculate. So far I've heard orchestral playing three times in Sweden, and all three times have ranked in the top 10 orchestral performances of my life. Amazing musicianship.

And this isn't to say that all the design choices were poor. I absolutely loved the choice of Kundry being in all black. This, to me, made a connection between Kundry and mourning, her dislike of her "role" and her fervent wish for redemption. The scenic design, other than the finale, was amazing. The front was designed as an all wood enclosure, first as a Gurnemanz cottage, then fancied up a bit for Klingsor's castle. The back wall of the wooden structure opened to a full, raked, and beautifully designed perspective of, first the chapel at Amfortas' castle, the garden of Klingsor's castle, and the library. The use of the sets caused movements from intimate (with a small cast, such as Kundry and Parsifal in Act II, or Gurnemanz and the squires in Act I) to claustrophobic (Amfortas being berated and attacked by his knights in Act III--a Loy construction). Amfortas' castle was open and spacious, while Klingsor's was enclosed and dark. Great scenic comparisons.

Klingsor's castle was perfect, the entire scene and idea. Placing Klingsor as aristocracy vs. the workingman garb of the Knights showed differentiation. His obvious control of the girls, dressed as ballerinas and other performers, as well as having spare chairs from the opera house made a "subtle" statement about the arts becoming controlled by money and being useless entertainment. But it was done in a way that didn't hinder the story in any fashion, in fact, added a layer of subtlety that gave me nice pleasure, a moment of "Here's the plot, here's Klingsor and he's an ass, and...wait, is that? Oh, it is! Nice..." This subtlety was lacking in most of the other scenes.

The lighting designed was equally masterful. It was, for the most part, utilitarian and sparse, but perfect. Windows would be opened to shine light across the stage, and the shadows cast became as interactive and important as the characters themselves.

One note on props: characters seemed to become attached to a single prop: Gurnemanz with the book, Amfortas first with the Grail, then with his father's ashes in an urn. This causes the props to have power. The power of the book becomes apparent at the end (or earlier for some). The power of the Grail is, actually, ignored. It is often placed on the floor, or on a bench, and the chorus moves around it, ignoring it. It's an odd sequence to see everyone reverential to an object, then put it on the floor, and almost kick it over. This was an interesting artistic statement. The same thing happens with Titurel's ashes: Amfortas fumbles them in the quarrel with his knights, breaking the urn and spilling them on the floor. Amfortas goes to wallow in them...moments afterwards the chorus is walking through them, kneeling in them, and ignoring them.

The statement, to me, seemed clear: what we revere in an object is only a personal affectation, fleeting in the moment. Or, perhaps, it is meant to personify the chorus, a group that is actively betraying their one time savior, now fallen--how easily they discard the past and ignored it's ramifications. Of course, all the while, they're telling Amfortas to uncover the Grail and perform the sacrament, even as they ignore the Grail itself. Always this double sided nature to Loy's direction which just added frustration to my experience--not because I "didn't get it" but because it was continuously at odds.

Finally, a moment of amazing direction, and which set-up my expectations for the show, which were then sadly not fulfilled. During the first Act, Gurnemanz talks of the past, of Titurel passing kingship to Amfortas, and Amfortas' quest. The squires move closer, and start to be swayed by the story. The movements become somewhat seductive. Two female squires/flower maidens move down stage, one brushing the others hair. All the other squires inch toward Gurnemanz. As Gurnemanz reaches the point of describing Klingsor's castle, the girl down center rips open her shirt, now topless, moving sensually. The other two female squires have reached Gurnemanz, seductively touching his leg and chest. The males move toward the downstage girl and toward Gurnemanz.

Quickly, Gurnemanz ends the tale. The squires, in a daze, replace their clothing, move away, and seem confused.

This was absolutely fantastic. If Loy was going for "the power of a story and history to affect the present," this scene showed it perfectly. It also shows the frailty of the human spirit, that at any moment we can be swayed, changed, and coerced away from our own ideas and beliefs. It was powerful, subtle, but not so subtle that I think it was lost on the audience.

If Loy had continued in this vein, and not gotten even more blunt, prosaic, and banal, the production would have been a complete success. Instead, I was left with absolutely loving the music, appreciating an amazing performance, and wondering where the nuance and cohesiveness of theater had gone.

No comments: