Kwangchul Youn has established a reputation as a Wagner singer in Bayreuth and the most important opera houses around the world. He is particularly noted for his performances in the role of Gurnemanz, a role he never sang before in his native South Korea until this week. As far as I understand, one of the reasons is that this was the Korean premiere of Wagner’s last masterpiece here.
For this performances, the Korea National Opera has ordered a new production by Philippe Arlaud, a director who worked with Christian Thielemann both in Berlin and in Bayreuth. Those used to Regietheater productions on the Green Hill would probably find this staging unchallenging in its straightforwardness – I would say that it was a sensible idea to focus on telling the story to an audience who is seeing the work for the first time. Also, it is refreshing that a stylized, minimalistic approach (rather than a traditional approach in a country where this tradition means very little) has been chosen. Act I shows one tree trunk surrounded by an iceberg borrowed from Caspar David Friedrich – a symbol for a social order whose propelling energy is gone (a red glowing grail being the only warm color on stage); act II has no sets, Klingsor’s world being just make-believe; act III predictably has the decayed version of act I. As one can see, nothing new here, but one should not underestimate the the fact that the cast showed great conviction under the coherent guidance of a director who took the pains of sharing his visions with his singers in a way that also made sense for the audience.
Saying that Lothar Zagrosek opted for comfortable tempi that made it possible for his musicians to produce adequate results would be oversimplifying it. His orchestra played with enthusiasm and was able to fill the hall with sound when this was necessary. Brass was less accident-prone than I would have imagined and strings would sound pale only in fast or soft passages. What is important is that the right gravitas has been achieved – and singers could find the necessary time to let Wagner’s text and music “speak” for itself. You might be thinking that this is no guarantee of success for act II. Indeed, a while after the exit of the flower-maidens, things tended to get a bit pointless. Orchestral passages missed denser strings – act III having a couple of problematic moments.
Although Yvonne Naef has her taut/narrow moments, her Kundry is dramatically alert, tonally varied and seductive in a Crespin-esque way. In actIII, her acting alone was effective as her singing. Christopher Ventris is less gripping, but subtle and youthful-toned. Also, he sings with unfailing technique and musicianship. Gerard Kim (Amfortas) has an interesting voice – dark with a cutting edge – and he is the kind of singer who knows how to test his limits in a positive way. Moreover, he has a very expressive face. Antonio Yang (Klingsor) too has an intense stage presence. His dark and forceful baritone very much at home in this repertoire.
Kwangchul Youn does not need introduction in this part. He was also in superb voice and colored the text with the sure hand of a master.