Tatjana Gürbaca returns to Opera Vlaanderen with her Parsifal production from 2013.
You have to understand something well in order to be able to turn it upside down. Nietzsche did it with the philosophy of Schopenhauer and you could say that Tatjana Gürbaca does it with Wagner's Parsifal. With a hammer, Gürbaca crushes the sacred elements that house in this Bühneweihfestspiel and pulls the male-female relationship (the relationship between Kundry and Amfortas) away from the realm of sin. (With the aforementioned in mind you could say that Gürbaca pushes "her" Parsifal from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche. From proto-Budhist to proto-Dionysian.) Together with set designer Henrik Ahr, Gürbaca, who has already received prizes for best and most promising director, is turning Parsifal into an sobering and, to a certain extent, even disillusioning theatre event. It's disillusioning only to some extent, because also in this sparse, extremely austere staging of Parsifal, the music - one of the most beautiful in all of Western music - regularly lifts the mind to lofty regions. Conductor Cornelius Meister was already an assistant to Pierre Boulez in Bayreuth (the Schlingensief-Parsifal, as dark as the stage was in that production, so light is it is here) and he has taken the tempi preferences from the French maestro with him. In a relatively quick reading he leads the Symphony Orchestra Opera Vlaanderen convincingly through Wagner's last opera (the at times all too robust brass - overture! – is in this respect no reason to be petty).
One could say that Gürbaca pushes Parsifal from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche. From proto-Budhist to proto-Dionysian.
This might not be a Parsifal to start with, because the original story (despite the bright illumination - wink) is often too invisible for that. The prelude is used to introduce the main characters (except Parsifal). Amfortas kisses with Kundry and is blamed for that. By Kundry, who reacts in humiliation, and by the rest of the cast, who look like office workers on (a very) Casual Friday. With the kissing of Kundry, giving in to carnal lust, Amfortas not only injures himself but the whole community of which he is a member. It is something the community of Grail Knights will violently remember Amfortas of that.
The grail knights bring in children who are washed and measured. A balloting, a preparation to take over the role of the adults in the course of time? New recruitment. Still innocent of the sin that stains the life of the adult human being. The shooting of the swan by Parsifal happens by throwing a bucket of blood over a child. It is a crime. A murder, committed in the present, of the future. It is fair to say that this Parsifal is not too clever. Erin Caves sings and plays the title role, averse to heroism, but convincingly and strongly. With his singing Caves makes an impression and in his acting he does justice to the label Der Reine Tor. With his sharp, pronounced voice he reminded me at times of Jon Vickers. (Whether the late Vickers, who was known as a very religious Christian, would step into such an ugly, unearthed staging, wary of religion, can sincerely be doubted).
Perhaps it would have been better if the opera had not been called Parsifal here, but Kundry.
Gürbaca's Parsifal pays special attention to the role of women, except for Kundry also for the flower maidens in the second act. The flower maidens (flower women here actually) get extra depth by depicting them as a community of women of all ages: young and old. The presence of older women highlights the fate of the flower maidens: waiting in vain for years for the man who comes to save them from their fate. These are women who actually want to escape their hate/love relationship with Klingsor but don't see any alternative, they can't go anywhere else. It is tempting, with the emphasis for the position of women in mind and the current discussion about equality between the sexes back from never been away, to call this a feminist Parsifal. Perhaps it would have been better, considering her being a prime mover of things, to call the opera Kundry instead of Parsifal.
One of the unsung virtues of an absent (empty) stage is that the singers cannot hide behind beautiful scenery. That leads here at least to the fact that the scene in which the flower maidens seduce Parsifal does not get bogged down in a sexless (and humorless) choreography. As if struck by lightning, it becomes clear to Parsifal that it was Kundry who, after kissing him on the mouth, was the cause of Amfortas' unstoppable wound. With Klingsor - Kay Stiefeman, who gives the role, despite lacking a castle and magic mirror, a lot of presence - Parsifal has unfinished business and he kills, after reclaiming the holy spear, the wizard. This all to the horror of Kundry who will still blame him for that in the third act, 20 years later.
A good staging is much more than a beautiful picture and Gürbaca takes that knowledge to the edge. The total absence of any spherical images not only emphasises the previously mentioned Regie of personages, the naked stage, far removed from anything spiritual or religious (no crosses here), makes us realise, probably unintentionally, how religious the libretto, full of the urge for redemption and pregnant with Christian symbolism, can be interpreted. Whatever Wagner's original intentions were, whether it was religion or art-substitute-religion he was after, the discussion as to whether Parsifal is a Christian opera (Laufenberg's current Bayreuth production comes to mind) or an opera with only Christian symbolism is completely irrelevant to Gürbaca.
It was the need to escape the everyday grimness that led Wagner to conceive Parsifal. With Spartan resources Gürbaca is pushing us back into that grim world. Where Wagner gives his Parsifal a relatively good ending (Amfortas is freed from his suffering, Kundry, that wicked woman, dies and the grail community gets a new start), Gürbaca grants the opera, and its audience, a grimmer one. What the faith will be of Parsifal and the grail knights - who have showed themselves borderline fanatics in the course of the third act - can be guessed at. The devotion, bordering on madness, with which the knights hoists Parsifal in the old, disproportional large armour of Titurel does not promise much good.
For salvation, only the music remains. The music, improbable in beauty, that opens up a world in which you can live and of which it is difficult to say farewell once the performance is over. It is the music that warms the heart and illuminates the head when I walk back to the hotel, past the construction site next to the opera house, an environment that feels like an epilogue to Gürbaca's staging of Parsifal.
Dates 18 March t/m 4 April 2018
Conductor: Cornelius Meister
Orchestra: Symfonisch Orkest Opera Vlaanderen
Chorus: Koor Opera Vlaanderen
Childrens' Choir: Kinderkoor Opera Vlaanderen
Director: Tatjana Gürbaca
Stage design: Henrik Ahr
Lights: Stefan Bolliger
Parsifal: Erin Caves
Kundry: Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Gurnemanz: Stefan Kocan
Amfortas: Christoph Pohl
Klingsor: Kay Stiefermann
Titurel: Markus Suihkonen