Designing the fractured realm of the Grail

18 Feb 2019

The director and designers of Parsifal share a unified vision and a love of simplicity. While reflecting the key themes of Wagner’s masterwork, Victorian Opera’s new production of Parsifal keeps the focus on the music and performances.

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Parsifal set model box (Act One, Scene One). Designed by Richard Roberts for Victorian Opera.

Richard Wagner, composer extraordinaire and an accomplished dramatist in his own right, provided elaborate stage directions in his libretti. In Parsifal, this includes a miraculous transition from the forest to the Grail Hall, which was originally achieved using ornate painted scenery on different speed rollers to create a near-cinematic illusion.

Director Roger Hodgman knew from the start that he didn’t want a traditional set design with a vast forest and a great hall. Nor did he want a conceptual production – setting the opera in the specific time or place with an implied interpretation. He wanted the focus to remain on the extraordinary music and the intense unfolding of the story, with a contemporary feel.

The director and designers spent many months listening to the music and discussing the work to gain a shared understanding of the world of Parsifal and the underlying themes.

Set designer Richard Roberts says, ‘With this opera, it feels like we’re in a very big landscape. Even when Wagner describes those spaces, he says “a great hall” or “the clearing in a forest”. All of those spaces have a sense of scale which make the human figure look frail and vulnerable in a big landscape. So, marry that with a desire to create an acoustically helpful environment for the singers, and we’ve ended up with this very, very large plywood box in which figures look quite small.’

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Parsifal set model box designed by Richard Roberts for Victorian Opera. Clockwise: Act One, Scene Two; Act Two Scene One; Act Three; Act Two, Scene Two

The set design is a simple yet dynamic space, a box with a jagged split running across the stage, to which elements will be added to create different scenes. The curtain will open to reveal 160,000 black leaves creating the forest in Act One and then 26 chairs will form the Grail Hall. Inside the box set is another, much smaller plywood box which holds the Holy Grail. This abstract layering is indicative of the complex layers of the world Wagner created.

The set reflects other themes of the opera, including the fractured realm of Grail. The spilt in the stage represents a community torn apart – the devout asceticism of the knights contrasting with the garish, inhumane world of the character Klingsor. A shiny glitter curtain and a staircase representing the castle tower will make up Klingsor’s world in Act Two. 

One of the inspirations for Roberts were the designs of Adolphe Appia – a Swiss architect famous for replacing two-dimensional painted scenic art with three-dimensional elements, such as staircases and platforms. Appia also recognised the important role of lighting in fusing everything together and the Parsifal set has been specifically designed in bleached wood for Matt Scott’s dramatic lighting. 

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Costume designs by Christina Smith for Victorian Opera's Parsifal. L-R: Knights, Amfortas (Act One), Flower Maiden

The costumes are not bound to any specific time and place, despite a contemporary look. For the humble knights, costume designer Christina Smith took an ‘everyman’ approach. She says, ‘The knights are dressed as simply as possible in modern terms (shirt and pants) with fabrics like linen and cotton that feel humble and simple too.’

The asceticism of the knights contrasts with the fabricated world of Klingsor where all the materials are shiny, plastic and manufactured. Klingsor’s costume is made of mirror pieces, reflecting the superficiality of his world and Wagner’s stage directions which introduce him sitting in front of a mirror. The Flower Maidens wear costumes covered in reflective sequins which will dazzle audiences with their prism effect.

‘Ironically, all these mirrored fabrics will shine very brightly, but will emphasise the superficial nature of Klingsor’s pursuits. The brightest person on stage is the dullest in terms of compassion and enlightenment,’ explains Christina Smith.

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Detail from Flower Maiden costume. Designed by Christina Smith for Victorian Opera's Parsifal.

As a character who crosses worlds, Kundry has the most dramatic costume changes, transforming from witchy wild woman (Act One) to beautiful seductress in red (Act Two) to humble peasant (Act Three). Meanwhile the knights’ costumes deteriorate, becoming more ragged as their world falls apart. 

The designers have endeavoured to get to the heart of the opera and open it up for the audience. ‘My philosophy of design in general is finding the right trigger for the audiences’ own imaginations,’ says Roberts. ‘The audience has the music, the incredible singers, the orchestra and the story unfolding for them, and if you can provide them with the right visual triggers, they can imagine the rest of the world of the opera for themselves. That will always be a much more powerful experience than if you depicted everything.’

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Kundry Act One, Act Two and Act Three costume designs by Christina Smith for Victorian Opera's Parsifal.

Victorian Opera performed Parsifal as part of Season 2019.