Guilt, empathy, redemption. Just three of the myriad themes and symbols that pervade Parsifal. You can add the Grail, the Spear, chastity, sexual temptation amongst dozens more. How to make sense of it all? Wagner’s libretto asks more questions then it answers, filled as it is with contradictions, rambling narratives and inconsistent character motivation. In Hungarian State Opera’s new production, director András Almási-Toth tackles the question head on. Before the final scene, as our heroes ascend to the Grail castle for the final ceremony of redemption, Almási-Toth and video designer András Juhász project the words for dozens of concepts onto the inside of a long rectangular tunnel, zooming past in an ever-increasing flow (I will lay good money that director and designer are fans of the “through the star gate” scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey). As the torrent of concepts begins to fill the whole space, you realise that there was no need to make sense of them – just abandoning your senses to Wagner’s sublime music tells your emotions everything they need, most especially your empathy.

István Kovácsházi (Parsifal, left) and Benjámin Taba (Young Parsifal, centre)
© Hungarian State Opera | Valter Berecz

That music was played superbly by Balázs Kocsár and the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra. What impressed most was their unerring sense of shifting tempo and dynamics, rising and falling, accelerating and relaxing, textures morphing to drag you with the flow. It wasn’t so much that individual instruments stood out as a triumph of the collective, the combined sound being intensely satisfying at every stage. The newly refurbished State Opera House is a wonderful place to hear Wagner. The blending of instrumental sound is helped by an orchestra pit that can be lowered deep to impart a somewhat Bayreuth-like feel to the acoustics. Perhaps no less important is that the seats are now sufficiently comfortable to make five hours of Wagner into a breeze even for back sufferers. A new layout of the stalls permitted a real wow moment: in the paean to the Grail that closes Act 1, two sections of the mens’ chorus appeared in the aisles at each side, enveloping us in a blanket of sound. The chorus were excellent for the whole performance, but that moment was the one to remember.

Károly Szemerédy (Klingsor) and Andrea Szántó (Kundry)
© Hungarian State Opera | Valter Berecz

Not only was Almási-Toth apparently unbothered by the work’s complications and contradictions, he was happy to add a few of his own, including an on-screen explanation that we are seeing the whole story as a flashback; Parsifal has failed in his quest and is desolate trying to live with the memory. Sadly, for any non-German-speakers who hadn’t read the programme synopsis, the hall refurbishment isn’t yet glitch-free; Act 1 of Parsifal, with its 100+ largely unbroken minutes of German storytelling, is possibly the worst conceivable time to have a total surtitle failure, especially with a non-intuitive introduction. The flashback idea enabled Almási-Toth to have a dancer, Benjámin Taba, as the physical incarnation of young Parsifal, accompanied by a vocal Parsifal who is a mature, grey-haired tenor. The idea is interesting but it didn’t really work. I can’t fault the quality of István Kovácsházi’s singing, but I found his rather baritonal voice and downbeat demeanour difficult to reconcile with the character and, in Act 1, I also found Taba rather disconnected from the text and action.

Benjámin Taba (Young Parsifal) and Flowermaidens
© Hungarian State Opera | Valter Berecz

The sets by Sebastian Hannak were generally interesting on the eye and enjoyable. In particular, the Flowermaidens' scene was outstanding. Károly Szemerédy's Klingsor was a sorcerer straight out of the story books, complete with evil cackle, and his castle was a cleverly constructed depiction of the courtyard of a Hungarian palace, with giant trees on which mostly naked dancers perched to add a Garden of Eden/Fall from Paradise narrative to proceedings. Here, the stage movement of the Flowermaidens and Taba’s Parsifal lit up the story perfectly. Most of the elements of staging were attractive and worked well, including using the original Act 3 stage direction of having Parsifal appear in black armour and closed visor, in a staging that was otherwise (the odd breastplate apart) in modern dress.

András Palerdi (Gurnemanz) and István Kovácsházi (Parsifal)
© Hungarian State Opera | Valter Berecz

Vocal performances were generally strong. Andrea Szántó was a vivid Kundry, Mihály Kálmándy an anguished Amfortas, István Rácz a gravelly, authoritative Titurel. My disappointment – not helped by the surtitle failure – was with András Palerdi as Gurnemanz. I liked Palerdi’s acting, his diction and his commitment to the text, but Gurnemanz needs a dominant vocal presence which is sustained throughout the opera and Palerdi didn’t have that. The three other low voices – especially Rácz – all had more raw power with which to take control of the stage.

When you leave an opera house after more than five hours of Parsifal, if you feel that it hasn’t been particularly long, you know something’s right. I’ll be back. 

****1