Leipzig routinely honours its native son with performances of Parsifal scheduled on and around Good Friday, which tempts a state of ritualized enactment best confined to the opera itself. (Vienna maintains the same tradition and is a magnet for self-appointed enforcers of the Bayreuth applause customs and their confrontational silencing of the ‘transgressors’.) The permissive atmosphere in Leipzig was a great deal more pleasant, with much of the audience applauding at the end of Act I and those with a need for solitude just quietly slipping away.

© Andreas Birkigt
© Andreas Birkigt

The cast certainly deserved their applause, having given fine performances all round. Stefan Vinke’s youthful-sounding voice lacks Heldentenor ring and wouldn’t carry so well in a larger theatre, but his Parsifal steadily built in vocal stature and his spiritual journey was a credible one. Tuomas Pursio was a full-voiced Amfortas, his pain vocally acute but never unattractive in sound, even if he took a little too much delight in rolling his Rs (his ‘Erbarmen’ was particularly hammy). Lioba Braun and James Moellenhoff gave standout performances as Kundry and Gurnemanz: Braun with resonant top notes, a rich middle, and compelling dramatic singing throughout; Moellenhoff fully inhabiting his role and every detail of the text. One doesn’t usually hang on to Gurnemanz’s every word with rapt attention, but that was the case here. With the small auditorium and deep pit in this house, no singer had to push their instrument and the text carried over well (I barely glanced at the supertitles).

Ulf Schirmer led a well-paced account of the score, which achieved good balance: tempi were just right for this cast and maintained an unbroken musical line, and while the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s playing was on the lighter side of Wagner performance, the warm cushion of their strings and bright sonority of their brass never lacked fullness of tone.

Roland Aeschlimann’s production is a mystical mishmash of colour symbolism and Christian, Buddhist and Pagan imagery which doesn’t tell us what to think but is too much of a jumble to stimulate reflection. The set is pared down to a collection of abstract shapes: Venetian blinds in the background for Monsalvat, a suspended disc for the Grail hall which doubles up as the backdrop for Klingsor’s castle in Act II, and rows of painted Buddha figures for Kundry to unwrap in Act III. A register of the Grail knights is printed on the raked stage apron, but apart from Kundry briefly trying to scrub off the name of Amfortas it plays no part in the action.

Parsifal’s entrance and scolding got things moving after a static start to Act I, but the stage director could have gone much further and still not have strayed far beyond the letter of the text. In Scene II the Grail Knights enter cloaked in vast tubes and leave us with no doubt as to how rigidly they are set in their ways when they park them on the stage with thudding firmness. An alphabet soup graphic is projected onto the suspended disc, which shifts when Amfortas raises a mirror, revealing a Stargate portal with something indistinct glittering at its finite point. Adding to the puzzling accumulation of all things symbolically loaded is that the mirror projects an image of the Turin Shroud.

In Act II the flower maidens’ attempts at seduction hit the right note, with enough sensual movement that their efforts are convincing and yet not so much that they become a source of titillation. The same goes for Kundry, who gets quite far with a visibly unnerved Parsifal. Klingsor has a hypnotic spiral (the disc, again), which makes a neat point about the potency and limitations of his magic, but as a character didn’t make much of an impression. A massive spear occupies the stage throughout this act, and is reduced, I would say, to one of Hitchcock’s empty MacGuffins. In the circus trick we all saw coming, Parsifal levitates it to defeat Klingsor.

Act III sees Kundry’s removal of the white sheets from the metaphorical sleeping Buddhas, which worked on the level of communicating blank servitude, though her aimless wandering among the figures continued right up until the second scene and didn’t make any further point about her as an outcast. Back at Montsalvat, there’s nothing significantly different to the Grail Hall scene except that the glittering shape (that is, the Grail) is fully revealed as a dodecahedron. At the very end Aeschlimann dispenses with the symbolic patchwork quilt and closes, in lieu of a dove, with an effective tableau which focuses Act III’s central theme of regeneration squarely on Amfortas and Kundry. Parsifal and the knights fade from view and the final spotlight centres on the pair, who will never again be pure but, united through redemption, have gained something greater than that which they lost.