On Tuesday I saw Wagner’s Parsifal performed by ENO at the Coliseum. Before going I’d glanced at a couple of reviews and was told that the singing and playing was superb, and the staging bleak, grim, but not trivial or factitious. And I’d have to agree with all of that. The isolation as well as the bonds that tied together the beseiged little community made perfect sense in this setting; the frailty of belief and the search for hope also.
One of the comments I did not agree with, though. Or not exactly. ‘The final act shows a single railway line leading into a dark tunnel. For Lehnhoff, Wagner’s mystical racism has only one destination: Auschwitz.’
The setting in all three acts (that is, for all of it except the brief scene in Klingsor’s magic castle, a place of darkest fantasies) is desolate, war-torn, post-apocalyptic. The knights themselves resemble Holocaust survivors, as Igor Toronyi-Lalic has suggested in The Arts Desk. And for me, the final scene, in which Kundry (who does not die, here) leads Parsifal and everyone else out along the broken railway tracks, seemed strongly to suggest that they were all going out, away from Auschwitz or whichever broken place it was, to seek new life. In other words, while it’s possible to read the ideology of Parsifal in Nazi terms, Lehnhoff didn’t try to avoid these sinister associations: he confronted them head on, and found a way forward which left at least a little room for the positive spirit of Wagner’s score, without trivialising its dark side.