So I am now leading my not-so-secret band of 30 acolytes at the City Lit through ten classes on what Mark Wigglesworth recently declared in an email to be 'the greatest opera by the greatest composer' (he has promised us a visit). Well, it depends what you want, but after three decades' acquaintance I'm certainly more open than I used to be to the possibility that Wagner's Parsifal is the most spiritual. And I had better keep liking it because in early December I record a Building a Library for Radio 3's CD Review on this of all works. Not my choice, and a very surprising offer, but under the circumstances - and soulfully primed by the incredible Proms performance - I can only rejoice.
Ask me if I still do by 14 December, the broadcast date. But I welcome the journey ahead, be it strewn with thorns as well as roses. With the third class looming next Monday, we've still only got to the end of the Prelude after so much setting up, so many glances back at Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Tristan. Preparing ahead to Gurnemanz's long opening narrative, I was surprised - using René Pape with Gergiev conducting Mariinsky forces in glorious sound - to discover that what had felt like the first ten minutes of the opera proper had lasted nearly half an hour.
The famous 'time becomes space' syndrome is largely due, I realised, to the special setting-up effect of the Prelude's vasts. I liked what I heard of the Mariinsky recording - past achievements of the increasingly alarming Ossetian are permitted here, live events are not - and of Marek Janowski's performance. But I stick unyieldingly, for sound and sense, to Bruno Walter's concert version with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. It isn't on YouTube, and I know that background silence should really be an integral part of the experience, but I'm fascinated by Walter's 1927 version with the Royal Philharmonic, not least for the strings' extraordinary use of portamento.
Now we at last tackle the sources. My Penguin copy of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival is full of significant markers sticking out of the book, yet I have no memory of having read the whole. It's so funny and quaint and ungainly, reminding me why Cervantes made fun of such romances with their silly names and aims in one of my two favourite books of all time, War and Peace being the other (Pope Francis, whose demi-Tutuesque promise I must reflect in another post, also cites Don Quixote as his No. 1 and among films he loves La Strada, Roma, città aperta and The Leopard. No poker-faced prelate he).
I've also ordered up the Chrétien de Troyes version which inspired Wolfram, so bathing in chivalry will be obligatory from now on. As to interpretations of the opera, we've only just begun.
After unhappy experiences with Calixto Bieito's productions of Don Giovanni and Un ballo in maschera at English National Operas, his Parsifal was not one I thought I wanted to see. But then last season's Carmen, for all its flaws, changed my mind. And in the same way his Fidelio is touched with genuine vision as it gathers weight.
Three things drove me to want to see the ENO takeover of the Bavarian State Opera production despite warnings: Ed Gardner's conducting, especially in the Leonore No. 3 Overture which I haven't heard live for so long, Emma Bell's Leonora and the intelligence that a string quartet descends in cages to play the slow movement from Beethoven's Op. 132 Quartet - shorn of the bouncy bits; no one ever seems to jump for genuine joy in Bieito's world - after 'O namenlose Freude'. All production photos for ENO by Tristram Kenton.
This last was more compelling that I'd anticipated - indeed, moving to tears as a symbol not just of the quiet intimacy between husband and wife which the noisy duet can't achieve but also of freedom in chains: physically the players are contained, but the incredible sounds the Heath Quartet achieve reach out as the music of the spheres. It's actually the first time I've ever wept in a late Beethoven quartet movement, and the intimacy of the couple who haven't been able to express themselves properly in song alone, at least while it holds, adds to the sense of painfully private emotion.
At first the variously lit glass and steel labyrinth of Rebecca Ringst's design seems like an overwhelming concept that dwarfs the singers. Bieito seems to have no idea what to do with the unwanted characters of Marzelline and Jaquino (poor Sarah Tynan is just left to despair all over the place, with, what is it, red lipstick or blood smeared around her mouth for no intelligible reason). James Cresswell's Rocco animates the space with a well-projected bass, Philip Horst deflates it again as a woofy, self-harming Pizarro. David Pountney's English translation is banal and sounds so old-fashioned.
Yet as usual in the work, if you've got a great Leonora, everything soars upwards from 'Abscheulicher!' onwards. Emma Bell has an odd technique, a rather hollow choral-mezzo-ish sound at times, a little like Kathryn Harries used to sound with a similar mixture of hits and frays in the totally different voice of the upper register, but she projects the text with such urgency that you're won over. At times it truly is heroic. And the Prisoners' Chorus works with the voices coming at you from all levels at the front of stage, Leonora distributing photographs of her disappeared husband. This I liked.
Everything comes down to ground level for the dungeon scene. The labyrinth flips to suggest that we're heading into the depths of the earth. Perhaps it was this that allegedly prompted Gardner to throw in the towel, only to be held to his contract (a ruckus confirmed by him, again allegedly, in a pre-performance talk). Maybe a compromise was reached, for the creaking happens before the Act 2 Prelude, not during it. Last night we had a second Florestan in the absence of Stuart Skelton (pictured here), Bryan Register, a bright but genuine heroic tenor who just made the ridiculously strenuous vision music. Lovely line in the trio; not much of an actor.
Still, it all flowed, despite inept attempts at applause. A weakness, Bieito's attempt to get the singers to declaim portions of eloquent texts by Borges and Cormac McCarthy when these would have been better amplified or video-projected, had dwindled; the music took over, Gardner always lucid and keenly springing. Leonora's acid attack on Pizarro got round the usual awkwardness of a too-long freeze at the trumpet call.
The 'Heilige Dankgesang' remained the höhepunkt for me: why can't we hear the Heath Quartet's Tippett/Bartok series in the UK? Nor was the ambiguous parade-ground scene the mess I'd read about: Roland Wood's Joker-Fernando had his moment, the open-ended suggestion of government-forged manacles of a different sort after supposed liberation worked well. The blank cards with 'free' scrawled on some of them offered a symmetry to the 'disappeared' photos of the First Act, just as the quiet of the quartet echoed the only still point of Act One, the celebrated chorus. This is the kind of joining-up I always love about a more consistent genius of the stage, Richard Jones.
How often have I seen this opera fail - at Covent Garden, here at ENO under Graham Vick - and yet Bieito really had something to say at times, and said it unforgettably. Kudos. And who knows, I may end up enjoying the Christopher Alden Fledermaus more than expected, though I'm not going to see it until after my pre-performance chat with Christopher Cook next Wednesday; much as I love the froth on CD, at least the Boskovsky and Carlos Kleiber sets, it has NEVER worked on stage for me and I don't want to slam the prison door decisively shut before I speak.
STOP PRESS (5/10) or rather something that slipped my mind: I'm talking on Mahler and Opera tomorrow (Sunday 6 October) for the Gustav Mahler Society of the UK at the airy, attractive Austrian Cultural Forum in Knightsbridge, 11-4. I'm interesting myself in unexpected areas of the subject, so I hope I can communicate that. Full details on the Mahler Society website here.