Albino Snake, Bondage Enliven Lush Brussels ‘Parsifal’: Review

Friedrich Nietzsche, accompanied by a live, wriggling white serpent, greets the audience in a new staging of Wagner’s “Parsifal” at the Brussels opera house.

Romeo Castellucci’s production of Wagner’s 1882 mystical pageant at La Monnaie/De Munt is a radical reading of the composer’s jumble of Christian and pagan symbols. It moves from a pantheistic wood in the first act to a grim sadomasochistic laboratory in the second and a crowd on the march in the third.

The philosopher’s giant portrait disappears -- the snake will return -- and we discover the Knights of the Holy Grail camouflaged as shrubbery in the forest that fills the stage. They await an innocent, pure hero to save their wounded chief. Parsifal (Andrew Richards) stumbles onto the scene, the forest evaporates, and he finds himself contemplating the cosmos.

Castellucci, co-founder of the Italian theater troupe Societas Raffaello Sanzio, designed the decors, costumes and subtly effective lighting for his first ever opera staging. He dispenses with traditional medieval imagery. Forget cloaks, helmets and chalices.

Instead, we get striking, sometimes perplexing imagery in a different setting for each act. The focus on lavish visuals results in a dazzling theatrical experience, yet it crimps the storyline and is likely to rile fervent Wagnerians.

Evil Conductor

Parsifal is less an enlightened savior than a humble everyman on a path of self-discovery. He encounters the evil Klingsor, portrayed as a baton-wielding conductor, in a bleak white space where near-naked women are being tied up and suspended in air.

Parsifal resists advances from the beauty Kundry (Anna Larsson) -- who is escorted by the snake -- in a startling 3-D video scene, and attains a moment of realization while undoing the elaborate bondage of a blonde woman.

Some 200 extras in street clothes jam the stage in the final act. Led by Parsifal, they march on a treadmill as soloists and members of the chorus emerge to sing amid them. The crowd drifts away and Parsifal is left alone, quizzical.

Hartmut Haenchen elicits a smart, analytical performance from the orchestra with an almost Baroque attention to detail and color that drew cheers from the audience.

Richards’s voice sounded a bit thin, although his restraint fit the portrayal of Parsifal as a man in the crowd. Larsson was impressive as Kundry, with vocal mastery that radiated sober power and emotion without thundering. Jan-Hendrik Rootering was a solemn, moving Gurnemanz.

A special mention for the chorus, which plays a key role in the staging while singing eloquently. The curiosity prize goes to Japanese-bondage choreographer Dasniya Sommer.

Rating: ***.

“Parsifal” is at La Monnaie/De Munt in Brussels through Feb. 20. The production is supported by Toyota Motor Corp. Information: http://www.lamonnaie.be or +322-(0)70-23-3939.

(Jim Ruane is Editor-at-Large for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****            Outstanding
***             Good
**              Average
*               Poor
(No stars)      Worthless

To contact the writer on the story: Jim Ruane in Brussels at jruane1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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