A Night at the Opera

Last night we were at the Brussels opera house, La Monnaie/De Munt for the dress rehearsal of what is by many accounts the Wagner event of the year, a production of Parsifal directed by Romeo Castellucci and conducted by Hartmut Haenchen. Castellucci is a well-known and controversial theatre director (his production of Dante’s Divine Comedy caused some major ripples in the theatrical world) making his operatic debut (as they say). Haenchen is recognised as one of the leading interpreters of Wagner in the world today.

We had the tickets courtesy of a friend of Gélise. By the same route we were also privileged with some insights into the production process. We knew about the outbursts of the (in many ways anticipated) tensions between the renowned Wagnerian musical director and the modern, edgy stage director. We knew that the director of La Monnaie had to intervene (publicly, during a final run through at the weekend) to sort the two of them out so the show could go on. We heard about Parsifal’s hissy fit in rehearsals a couple of weeks ago when he felt that the stage direction was getting in the way of his singing. We had some inside knowledge of the dancers and the dance sequences, the staging and the set. We knew there was a snake, bondage and nudity. We were ourselves tense with anticipation.

Quite a lot has changed since we last went to the opera (in fact this was the first time Dee and I have been to the opera together). Last week we bought and downloaded a recording of the highlights in iTunes so we could do our musical homework and at least recognise the main leitmotivs. We’ve been following the preparations on Parsifal’s blog (tenor Andrew Richards), including a candid and apologetic account of his hissy fit (he called it his divo moment). This included a picture of what he called his flight belt, a Black Diamond climbing harness not dissimilar to the one I have for climbing trees (safe working at height) – a touch of reality that ironically brings the suspension of disbelief back down to earth. One of the dancers was also keeping a blog which included rehearsal pictures, so amongst other things we were reasonably familiar with the beauty of the tiger python before it made its very dramatic entrance and performance. Most importantly, we were able to read Castellucci’s reflections on his own dramatic process in coming to know, then represent, the key themes and meanings of Wagner’s Parsifal. There was no spear, no chalice, no cross in this production – so quite challenging to follow the plot with the central symbolism absent. There was a lot of veiling, hiding and camouflage, boundaries and bounds, sexual interplay and duality, ambivalence in the dichotomy of good and evil. The eternal feminine was starkly, barely and intimately central (das Ewigweibliche zieht uns hinan). There was no swastika either, and a huge projection of the face of Nietzsche on the screen at the start to remind us of the love/hate relationship of the philosopher with the musician/magician and how his work could be interpreted.

It was a very special night. I still have the ‘redemption through faith’ leitmotiv playing in my head, and some extraordinary images before my eyes. I have a renewed appreciation (the word is weak, something more akin to love would be nearer the mark) for Wagner’s music. Special too because Dee and I have experienced together – and this is strong testimony to the production – a sense of hope confirmed in the power of collective humanity, the rhythms of life, and the constantly shifting immutability of the cosmos.

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