When Omer Meir Wellber took over at Palermo’s Teatro Massimo it was inevitable that the Israeli conductor would come up against Wagner. In tackling classical music’s antisemite-in-chief head on, his declared aim was to become an “anti-conductor”, to “cleanse [Wagner’s] image” and to “rid his music of all the pathos that is often attributed to it.” 

Parsifal

For his production partner, Wellber chose Graham Vick, a director adept at getting to the heart of the matter and unafraid of rocking political, religious or societal boats. This 2020 staging of Parsifal is accordingly a searing inditement of the cruelty of organised religion and its way of attracting the fanatic. “Somehow, from Catholic vs. Protestant in Northern Ireland, to Shia vs. Sunni, Christianity vs. Islam and the continuing blight of antisemitism, we continue to hijack religion to assert our tribalism,” he wrote in his program note.

In relocating the action to a Middle Eastern combat zone, Vick occupies similar territory to Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s controversial 2016 staging for the Bayreuth Festival, especially with the Grail Knights ghoulishly forcing Amfortas to reopen the wound and pass around a cup of his actual blood. Vick’s Amfortas is a flawed prophet with a tin cup for a Grail, done up in loincloth, blood-red cape and crown of thorns. His gun-toting soldiers quiver with pleasure at the thought of drinking his blood, after which they open their veins with combat daggers in a moment of shared ecstasy. That, and some visceral shadow play featuring sexual brutality and human rights abuse mean this production is perhaps not one for the squeamish.

Into this world of unforgiveness and obsession walks Vick’s Parsifal, a kind of Everyman figure in slacks and hoodie. His Kundry, meanwhile, attracts the ire of the Grail Knights presumably because she wears a burka (many of the scantily clad flower maidens also slip into burkas later in Act II). Later, she poses in front of an icon of the Magdalen as if to emphasise a fixation on the ‘fallen woman’ in other religions. Less warranted is Klingsor’s staggering about with his trousers round his knees for no obvious reason other than to show us his mutilated genitals and bloodstained underpants.

Timothy O’Brien’s spartan sets and Mauro Tinti’s utilitarian costumes are less-than-sumptuous but stick with it – by Act III Vick’s production becomes mandatory viewing. No spoilers, but the opera’s brilliantly conceived denouement makes for an emotional, ruthlessly logical and deeply satisfying final sequence.

If Vick’s staging ultimately convinces, Wellber’s demystifying reading of the score is successful only in parts. It’s certainly pacey – the drama has rarely flowed so effectively – and Wagner can certainly take a bit of forward thrust. However, in Act I in particular too much feels rushed and it’s impossible not to feel that key moments are being deliberately leeched of grandeur. Of course, Wellber might be responding to Vick’s antiheroic treatment of the Knights of the Grail since things settle down in Acts II and III and the musical interventions feel less extreme. Either way, the orchestra plays well, the conductor clearly ‘gets’ the music, and the singers must have been grateful for a reading that focussing on driving the action forward.

As a bonus, this is one of the most beautifully sung of Parsifals. In the title role, Irish tenor Julian Hubbard possesses focus, power and lyrical splendour. His wide-eyed youngster is convincing too, and he’s genuinely appealing as the ‘redeemer’ of Act III. French mezzo Catherine Hunold makes a radiant-toned Kundry, singing with intelligence and grace. Her Act III turnaround is touchingly done – there’s a real sense here of a woman with a future. 

As Gurnemanz, Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea’s rich, resonant instrument scores plenty of points, though his position in Vick’s unpleasant battalion of military vampires robs him of some of the usual moral high ground. Icelandic baritone Tómas Tómasson – the Klingsor in two other productions on DVD – steps majestically into the king’s shoes to give an extraordinary performance of vocal potency and dramatic chutzpah as the agonised and bloodied Amfortas. Alexei Tanovitski may not be the sweetest-toned Klingsor but he throws himself into it heart and soul.

Recorded in decent sound, this is a unique Parsifal with plenty to say. It’s also a sad reminder of what opera lost when Graham Vick succumbed to COVID last year.

Composer: Wagner
Work: Parsifal
Performers: Julian Hubbard, Catherine Hunold, John Relyea, Tómas Tómasson, Julian Hubbard, Catherine Hunold, John Relyea, Tómas Tómasson, Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Massimo, Omer Meir Wellber
Label: C Major 759308 (2DVD), 759404 (Blu-ray)

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