I went to a Wagner opera at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden yesterday. At least, it felt like it. If I had travelled all the way to London and gone to the Royal Opera House itself I could not have hoped for better sound, better vision or a more complete immersion in this grand musical event than we got by going to the live broadcast of the event at the local cinema. To help create atmosphere, before the opera begins they broadcast the sound of the whispering in the auditorium and the orchestra tuning up.
Wagner’s final opera is five hours of dreamy, fabulous music, full of grandeur and intense emotion. It feels like being immersed in a bath of warm milk and brandy. The story is mysterious and allegorical. No matter how often the symbolism is explained and the plot interpreted, it remains baffling, and in fact just gets even more so. Never mind. Being mystified is an appropriate state of mind for enjoying the gorgeous, sensuous music and will do us no harm. Parsifal is a wild young man, a loner, raised in the backwoods, and his name means “pure fool”. Fate has destined him of all people to take on the task of saving the order of the Knights of the Holy Grail from their enemy Klingsor. Their leader Amfortas has been defeated in combat by the evil Klingsor and has lost the sacred spear that was their most treasured possession. Now he suffers from an incurable wound and nobody dares to face Klingsor again in combat – nobody but the foolish, ignorant Parsifal.
All of the soloists in this production are absolutely world-class and their singing was glorious. Angela Denoke as Kundry is both a wonderful soprano and a very good actress. She has to somehow represent all womanhood, both pure and fallen, in this mega-role of the legendary figure who once mocked Christ and has since wandered the earth for two thousand years, cursed until she can expiate her sin. She is wise and maternal, cunning and seductive, defiant and repentant, always fascinating. Simon O’Neill, the Australian tenor who sang Parsifal, was electrifying. Willard White as Klingsor was his usual powerful self.
Frankly, I did not think that this production was a visual treat. I have seen too many stark, monochromatic modern productions of operas to be impressed by another one. The cast looked as if they were dressed for the rehearsal, all apart from Kundry who did have the rudimentary vestiges of a costume. I thought the best way of enjoying this production was to close your eyes and revel in the giant surround-sound experience, because it really is very good. And I hope that the next time I go to a live opera broadcast at a cinema (which will probably be the Don Giovanni at the Vue Cinema on February 12th 2014) there will be a lot more people there, and far fewer empty seats.
Why? Because I think this could be the future of opera. Opera is in danger. It has to do something to survive in the present climate of austerity. Steady inflation and economic depression mean that opera is in deep trouble. The arts cannot rely on government funding in the future and while this is sad, the arts must find ways of fighting back. Opera is expensive to put on, but if one production can be broadcast like this all over the world simultaneously, and be seen by a far wider audience than you could cram into one opera house, then that should help the production to break even. It could also help opera to find new audiences. I hope so. I think this might be the future of all live theatrical entertainment, and it could give a new lease of life to an old art form. Going to London to see this at Covent Garden would cost upwards of £40 per ticket and then all your travel costs as well. The top seats cost £195! You would have to spend hours getting there and back. You would not be home until well after midnight. With a live broadcast you can see the opera in the equivalent of the very best seats for £12.50, somewhere conveniently close to home. Unless you know fluent German, the discreet subtitles at the bottom of the screen are really helpful too.
This really is a great leap forward.