Pierre Audi’s time as artistic director of Dutch National Opera is approaching its end – he will leave this position for that of director of the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2018 – and the revival of his Parsifal from 2012 already feels a bit like a tribute to his work in the Dutch capital. His staging of Wagner’s last masterpiece is undoubtedly one of his most memorable productions, both visually and dramatically.

Christopher Ventris (Parsifal), Petra Lang (Kundry) © Ruth Walz
Christopher Ventris (Parsifal), Petra Lang (Kundry)
© Ruth Walz

As often with Audi, this is an abstract staging that leaves a lot of space for the spectator’s own interpretation. It offers a particularly dark vision of the tale: at the end of the piece, not only Kundry but everyone else collapses, while Parsifal leaves to pursue his quest. Ultimately, Amfortas and his knights of the Grail only find their salvation through death.

Visually, this Parsifal is spectacular. Magnified by the lighting by Jean Kalman, the monumental sets designed by Anish Kapoor are breathtaking. They have a recognisable Kapoorian flavour. There is the use of bold matte colours, especially a deep red pigment, a few shades darker than vermilion, which is reminiscent of some installations by the Mumbai-born artist, like My Red Homeland from 2003. This same red pigment outlines the ridge of the giant rocks that loom over the knights’ refuge of Monsalvat, and echoes the ever-opening wound in Amfortas’ flesh. There is, most memorably, the gigantic mirror that is tilted from the ceiling in Act 2 – think of  Sky Mirror at Nottingham Playhouse, another of Mr. Kapoor’s signature works. This giant disk of polished metal creates a stunning effect as it reflects and distorts light and images on the stage.  Inadvertently perhaps, it also at times distorts and amplifies the voices of the choir of Flower Maidens as they try to seduce Parsifal. This eerie side-effect only adds to the other-worldly atmosphere of Klingsor’s magic castle.

Ryan McKinny (Amfortas) and chorus © Ruth Walz
Ryan McKinny (Amfortas) and chorus
© Ruth Walz

Another striking tableau is Act 1’s unveiling of the Grail, when the athletic Christ-like figure of Amfortas unfolds what appears to be a holy shroud stained with crimson blood in front of the crowd of knights gathered around staggering wooden scaffolding. The choir of Dutch National Opera certainly gained Wagnerian credentials in this ensemble and my only reservation would be for the Amfortas of Ryan McKinny, whose skilled acting couldn’t compensate for a cavernous but monocoloured baritone.

The rest of the cast was excellent. Bastiaan Everink managed to let the vulnerability of the fallen character transcend the menacing posture of the magician Klingsor. Petra Lang gave a complex and intense portrayal of Kundry, riveting and dangerous in her seduction scene. It is easy to understand why Christopher Ventris has become a much sought-after Parsifal: his handsome timbre is both youthful and heroic, and the ease with which he appears to project his voice is admirable. Günther Groissböck’s role debut as Gurnemanz was nothing short of a triumph and won him the loudest cheers from the audience on the first night. His noble sound fits Gurnemanz as a glove and, with his impeccable diction and handsome oaky timbre, he was thrilling in his declamatory singing.  

© Ruth Walz
© Ruth Walz

In the pit, conductor Marc Albrecht led the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra in a splendid performance, often choosing colour over transparency, as if to echo the visuals on stage. Tempi were assertive, sustaining the tension admirably throughout the five hours.

****1