Review: Stephen Langridge’s Parsifal

Posted on 10, Jun, 2015 in Uncategorized

Stephen Langridge’s Parsifal

Review by David Penton

When I saw this production I had the advantage of not coming to it fresh. I had spoken to friends who were at the first night, had read Charles Furness-Smith’s stimulating review, as well as others, and heard discussion when it was broadcast on Radio 3. So I knew it was controversial, was prepared for what I would see. And intrigued. In particular, I was interested that some claimed that it was not about christianity.

To me it was totally about christianity – more than any previous production I had seen. I find it bizarre to read that it is not about that just because Jesus is not mentioned by name and because Wagner was interested in buddhism and other oriental philosophies in his later years. Just look at the words, especially at the end of the first act. But as far as this production is concerned the knights all literally take communion, all those wounded have the wound in the exact same place as Christ did on the cross, the four who make the stigmata in their hands and, when they set off on their mission with the guns, I believe they represent the four apostles, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who went out to face aggression and attacks in pushing the Message – hence the need for protection. Moreover, down the years guns have frequently used by christians to impose their religion on others.
I see Amfortas as Jesus and when he opens the box to see the young boy he is seeing himself when pure and young and innocent. He then inflicts the wound causing the pain and bloodshed which he knows he (the young boy ) will have to experience in due course. And Gerald Finley cowers back in pain at exactly the point he cuts the boy as if he were cutting himself. Ah yes, I hear you chorus, but Jesus was a pure and good man free from sin. Are you so sure? Don’t forget that there is an unexplained gap of about ten years in his life when he disappeared. I am sure you know the Japanese think he travelled across Asia ending up in northern Honshu where he married and had children and he is now buried along with his brother. He had returned to Galilee when he felt the call when he was about 30 and his last wish expressed to his brother before he was crucified was that his body be taken back to be buried there. You may not believe this: but there is still the 10 years to be accounted for and it is very possible that he ‘sinned’ during that time. And don’t forget that to be compassionate and understanding of sinners, which he clearly was, you really need to have some understanding of what it is to do so.

So what about Parsifal? I see him as the second coming. After all Jesus did pretty well first time round but, like Nelson Mandela, did not complete the job and we have all had it drummed into us that there is a second coming which is what I think Stephen Langridge is reminding us of and perhaps what Wagner was hoping for. Another big pointer to my christianity theory is that the only thing Parsifal remembers is his mother. Who is the central dominant figure in catholicsm, the biggest christian sect and of which Wagner, living his later years in deepest catholic Bavaria could not have been unaware of? Why, it is Jesus’s mum…the virgin Mary. There were also a number of occasions when Parsifal struck a crucifixion like pose either with his arms outstretched or using the spear in the third act to make the sign of a cross with his body.

And who does Kundry remind you of? Well Mary Magdalene. Apart from the fact that she has sinned, think of the parallel between Judas’ kiss and that of Kundry. Perhaps a bit obvious, but first time round Amfortas accepts the kiss from her which leads to his downfall just as Jesus accepting that from Judas did the same for him, Second time round, when the scene is repeated during the ‘second coming,’ he rejects it and is thus able to go on and complete his mission.

And then there is the christian reference at the end when the box lights up and it is empty – the empty tomb.

Yes, of course it is strongly about compassion but then so is the message of Jesus even if it gets hard to remember when you read books like In God’s House or see films like Philomena and The Magdalene Sisters or meet some committed ‘christians’. Most productions major on the compassion bit and play down the religion which is, of course, deeply unfashionable now especially in the arty community: perhaps why this seemed so powerful to me was that Langridge has hit on an interpretation that really does work and ties in with Wagner’s words. As Charlie wrote in his review, I think Wagner would have liked it and thought to himself: “yes the boy has got what I was trying to say.”

I thought it was one of the best Parsifal productions I have seen although I felt the second act was weak. But the first was wonderful and highly moving as was the central scene in the third act with the annointing and removal of the blindfold – I felt the blind business fitted really well. However it was all perfect and bits that jarred were those awful lips on the curtain before the start suggestive of oral sex, all those people rushing abut in the woods during the overture and far too much activity in the box, Did we have to see Klingsor’s castration and did the flower maidens really need to be so tacky? Finally the main thing that did not work for me was the end. The best I have seen is still the Nikolaus Lehnhoff one a few years back at the ENO when there were some railway lines leading up the back of the stage into infinity up which Parsifal led Kundry followed by (I think) Amfortas and the knights all going harmoniously and positively into a new world. Langridge’s production is all a bit odd with Parsifal disappearing out the back as if the job was done while Kundry and Amfortas sneak off into the trees with his trousers and shirt still undone to do heaven knows what while the knights all look rather bewildered….a pity.

All in all it was a great evening – and I haven’t even mentioned the wonderful orchestral playing and some marvellous signing. I will certainly be back when it is revived.

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