Not far from the legendary site of the mountain castle of Montsalvat, Barcelona boasts a close connection to Parsifal. It has not always been a savoury one—the Catalan obsession with Wagner and this work in particular spilt over in the 1930s into a nationalist youth movement inspired by Parsifal mythology—but the city can claim the distinction of having officially broken the embargo on performing the work outside Bayreuth. Other houses (not least the Met) ignored the Wagner diktat and got there first, but since 31 December 1913 the GRAN TEATRE DEL LICEU has enjoyed one of the richest and most regular Parsifal performance histories, as the cast lists printed in its latest programme attest. Its newest staging, a co-production with Zurich (where it will open in June) directed by Claus Guth, sets the opera soon after Barcelona’s first engagement with the work, locating it in a World War I sanatorium.
As the prelude floated towards its end—full of detail thanks to the Liceu’s wide, open pit, and the baton of Michael Boder, who caught both the sting and consolation of the music on February 25—a dinner table was revealed in a glowingly lit old mansion. Around it sat a family in disagreement, the ‘brothers’ Amfortas and Klingsor with their father, Titurel. By the close of the opera, Amfortas and Klingsor (now wearing identical ties and tails) were reunited, as if to show the dangerous futility of their feud, especially as the search for a new leader had just ended badly, with Parsifal being acclaimed in his fascist uniform and with Kundry wandering off like a refugee carrying a suitcase. Gurnemanz’s Act 1 lecture to the swan-hunting Parsifal was especially moving, since the wounded-soldier onlookers lent the opera a powerful pacifist message. Once again one was reminded that the whole of the human condition is here in Parsifal, even (or especially?) when the religious element is played down (as also in Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s recently revived ENO production).
Using Christian Schmidt’s huge revolving set to spectacular effect—perhaps sometimes over-using it, since too many scene changes go against the musical flow—the production was a fascinating piece of stagecraft. The peeling walls of the mansion-turned-sanatorium seemed to ooze sickness and death, especially when the wounded soldiers assembled in the Grail Hall gathered around an old gramophone, one of them deliriously conducting. An upstairs room contained two display cases, one holding the chalice and the other emptily awaiting the return of the spear. Gurnemanz was portrayed with gravitas by Eric Halfvarson as a sympathetic chaplain, while the First and Second Squires (female voices) became nurses. Act 2 featured an al fresco party in the courtyard, with the Flowermaidens
transformed into flappers, and Act 3 was set back at the hospital, now a ransacked ruin. The beauty of the Good Friday Music contrasted with the human devastation shown in old film footage of the trenches.
Though he has already been singing the title role for 17 years, Christopher Ventris still brings brightness and heft to the eager figure he portrayed here, and Evelyn Herlitzius was an exciting Kundry; countless Brünnhildes may have taken their toll (and she has just added Elektra to her repertory), but even if her singing was sometimes beautiful and sometimes wild, she had verbal attack and great clarity of presence. Egils Silins’s Amfortas was solid in his suffering, and Ante Jerkunica brought a voluminous black bass to his top-hatted Titurel—a figure who made Boaz Daniel’s Klingsor seem a bit benign, but perhaps that was the point of Guth’s staging.