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I once had a teacher who would invariably give me the same piece of advice whenever I looked frustrated for not being able to achieve something: if you want the result, concentrate on the process. Although Herbert von Karajan is usually remembered for his megalomania, he was an artist of unsual perseverance, fastidiousness and discipline. Although he would hardly admit it, he was always looking for the best and, therefore, always open to development. For instance, his ambition of conducting Italian opera led him to Milan where he could learn from working with the likes of Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi. Or he would mention in an interview how much he admired a particularly passage of Tosca as conducted by Victor de Sabata. His Wagnerian projects were even higher in purpose. Name an important artist related to the master of Bayreuth – and you will see that somehow somewhere Karajan had worked with him or her at some point. In other words, before he finally launched his greatest project – the Ring conducted and directed by himself in a festival created also by him – he had researched every kind of approach and gathered all kind of experiences in order to have a very clear idea of what he wanted to do.

But that is not the most important part. The real formula to success there was the fact that he truly concentrated on the process. As the Easter Festival has shown in two documentaries screened in an exhibition in the Salzburg Museum, Karajan took the pains of coaching his cast in painstaking detail, rehearsing his orchestra obsessively, recording everything before stage rehearsals began and minutely blocking the gesture of every Valkyrie on stage. As the narrator of one of these videos explained, “he left nothing to chance”. That was the spirit of the Easter Festival – knowing that the audience was being served the absolute best because there was a mastermind there making sure that the best was being served.

When I read that the Easter Festival was celebrating its jubilee by paying a tribute to Karajan’s inaugural 1967 production of Wagner’s Die Walküre and reviving Günther Schneider-Siemssen’s sets in a new production directed by Vera Nemirova and conducted by Christian Thielemann, I decided that I had to see this. I have been introduced to Wagner’s music by friends who had regularly seen Karajan in Salzburg and never ceased to tell me about the paramount standards of these performances (they would also made me frustrated by saying that neither CDs nor DVDs could give an idea of how splendid everything was). As expectations can play tricks on one’s perceptions, I have decided to keep them low – but this evening’s performance has surprised me in how wrongly things can go with a big budget and prestigious forces.

If I say that the best thing in Vera Nemirova’s production is the scenery designed by Schneider-Siemssen, I am still not even close to explaining how poorly conceived and executed it was. To say the truth, there is not truly a concept there: the audience left the theatre without any new information or extra insight about this story and these characters. However, one could clearly see how amateurishly staged it was. Characters would most often than not do things opposed to what the text requires (for example, they would leave when they were supposed to stay or stay when they were supposed to leave); actors would be placed in a way incoherent to the action (Sieglinde says she is watching the veins in Siegmund’s temples although they are 10 meters apart); or things were just wrong (Wotan doesn’t shatter Siegmund’s sword, the pieces of which would inexplicably later appear in Brünnhilde’s hands). In an interview, Ms. Nemirova says she rejected the original costumes, because they did not make the characters look like real people. I wonder what kind of people she knows, for everything looked terribly unconvincing. At least, the 1967 costumes had some éclat, which is more of what I can say about the ones seen this evening, which look like everyone went for their morning run but Sieglinde, who is dressed as Snow White’s evil stepmother.

In any case, I could have lived with the school-pantomime direction if the musical performance had made it irrelevant. The Staatskapelle Dresden is one of the world’s best orchestras, as one could hear (and marvel at) Myung-Whun Chung’s Fauré/Saint-Saëns concert on Friday and Franz Welser-Möst’s Mahler concert on Saturday. One could also hear that in Christian Thielemann’s own Bruckner concert on Sunday (in spite of problematic French horns). But not today. The extra rich and warm strings were often reduced to inaudbility, the brass section would sound unsubtle and glitch-prone, ensemble was often unclear and disjoint, tempi had inexplicable fluctuation and many a mannered unwritten “dramatic” pause, not to mention the high level of false entries that could suggest the highly improbable hypothesis of insufficient rehearsing. I have already seen Thielemann conduct Die Walküre in Bayreuth: although there could be lack of expression and drama, the orchestral sound was invariably rich and beautiful. On hearing the undernourished and unbalanced orchestra this evening I could only wonder if he wanted to try a Karajan-esque “chamber Ring” approach. If that was indeed the case, that was not a very good idea. Differently from Thielemann, Karajan was able to adapt his orchestral sound into a transparent, light but penetrating sound that would envelope singers’ voices without drowning them.

The main victim of this misconception was act I. After an underpowered and awkward opening, the performance never seemed to settle in its meagerness of sound, surprisingly high level of mistakes and indequate casting. Act II was only marginally better due to the contribution of individual singers, which seemed to inspire the conductor to let himself and the orchestra go a little bit more. Predictably, Wotan’s long monologue set a new lowest level of uneventfulness the purpose of which seemed to be offsetting a staid closing scene. As in Bayreuth, act III would show a palpable improvement, but only after a band-like and vulgar Walkürenritt. Maybe the sound of ten singers on stage had the power of finally eliciting an orchestral sound of Wagnerian proportions. Brünnhilde and Wotan fortunately could benefit from the transformation and offer the first truly moving moment in this performance. That would not last to the magic fire music, when the proceedings returned to their heavy, unstuble and unclear standards.

On paper, Anja Harteros is an interesting idea for the role of Sieglinde. Hers is a sizeable soprano with enough warmth in its low reaches to deal with Italian roles such as the Leonora in La Forza del Destino. The actual performance, however, had very different results. The part seats on the least congenial area of her voice, which often sounded smoky and astrigent. The advantage of a lyric soprano in the role is the dynamic variety and sense of legato, as one can hear in Gundula Janowitz’s performance for Karajan. Not this evening, though: Ms. Harteros’s singing had very little variety and affection. Also her attempt of an interpretation seemed mannered, as much as her stage attitude had more than a splash of the grande dame, an odd choice for an orphaned girl forced into an abusive marriage against her will. Her twin brother took the improbable shape of Peter Seiffert, who looked old, tired and bored as Siegmund. Although it is still a beautiful voice that projects well in the auditorium, the low notes are left to imagination and the high ones are open in tone and unstable in quality, some of them sung in indeterminate pitch. Although both of them were quite hearable, the conductor seemed keen on keeping the orchestra very low whenever they were on stage. Georg Zeppenfeld’s noble and round-toned Hunding did not help to create much sense of drama.

Act II had compensation in terms of singing. Although Christa Mayer’s mezzo could do with a little bit more color, her Fricka was forcefully and intensely sung. Her theatrical engagement seem to inspire the musicians in the pit into offering a little bit more in terms of commitment. Even if Vitalij Kowaljow’s bass does not sound as voluminous in the Großes Festspielhaus as it had at La Scala, it remains a voice of admirable firmness and beauty of tone throughout the complete range. If he has clear diction and sense of line, act II still lacks spontaneity and expression, but he lived up to the challenge of the closing scene, when he showed control of mezza voce and musicianship. The shining feature of this performance, however, is Anja Kampe’s sensitive, touching Brünnhilde, sung in the ideal blend of velvet and steel. The sincerity of her interpretation and her naturalness and emotional generosity made it a beautiful tribute to the singer who took this role here 50 years before, Régine Crespin, whose Brünnhilde was also exemplary in its wide expressive range.

Life is full of surprises. For instance, when the Salzburg Easter Festival announced its program for 2017, I read “Lohengrin” and thought it improbable that a second Wagner opera could be added to the traditional scheme. But then this was not Wagner’s Lohengrin, but Sciarrino’s Lohengrin, which is called by the composer an “azione invisibile”. The name itself makes it difficult to call this an opera, a genre supposed to show something to be seen. Then one will discover that the work barely involves any singing at all.

Sciarrino’s Lohengrin, as performed in its final version, has a prologue including two preexistant pieces by Sciarrino himself and Claudio Monteverdi’s most famous madrigal Lamento della ninfa, for soprano, tenor and two basses. The same group of singers would appear in the opera itself, which is rather a melodram, in the sense that the soprano does sing at all, but rather speaks Jules Laforgue’s text over an ostinato-like orchestral accompaniment only occasionally commented by the remaining singers (who sing very short groups of notes). The fact that the main role (Elsa) is referred to as a soprano part has to do with the fact that the text is spoken in a musical way, in the sense that there is a rhythmic structure and, if one cannot really speak of something as detailed as “Sprechgesang”, there are different registers  prescribed by the composer, not to mention noises produced by the singer.

There is also some contradiction in the word “azione”, for very little happens. Elsa is in a nuptial room trying to make Lohengrin (whose lines are said by herself) consummate their marriage without success. Then the pillow transform itself in a swan and flies away carrying Lohengrin with him. She tries to understand what has happened but the swan flies back mounted by a majestic boy. Finally, the scene changes to show that Elsa is actually a patient in a mental institution.

Michael Sturminger has the prologue performed as a concert. In the end of it, the soloist climbs on stage and becomes Elsa in the room of an apartment. The “magical effects” described in the libretto are indeed invisible to the eyes of the audience. Here Elsa is clearly deranged: the pillow scene is just her tearing her pillow apart and covering the stage with white feathers. There is indeed a boy who appears at her room, whom she smothers with another pillow, a suggestion of the rason why Elsa was locked up there in the first place. Those who saw the old Kupfer production of Wagner’s Lohengrin for the Lindenoper will remember that, in that staging, Ortrud did not lie when she said… she had not lied. In any case, Sturminger has done a very efficient job with a nut hard to crack as this. The lighting effects and video projections were beautiful and produced indeed an uncanny atmosphere, not to mention that he really took the pains of blocking the stage action based on the score. He was also lucky to find an excellent actress in soprano Sarah Maria Sun, who has excellent Italian and did not spare herself here. Her singing of the Monteverdi, though, was not particularly expressive.

Peter Konwitschny’s yellow-sofa Tristan for the Bavarian State Opera is now almost 20 years old and has developed from the outrage of its premiere into some sort of museology of Regietheater, i.e., it has become “a classic”. I had only previously seen it on video and remember joining then a discussion about it on an Internet message board. It was my first “eurotrash” Tristan, but I have curiously enjoyed it from moment one. I remember having written about the yellow sofa and its meaning of homeliness in a inhospitable world and other seemingly clever ideas in order to make a case for its validity. Well, I have just seen it live for the first time and I stand by it. As always with Konwitschny, things could be more coherent, but it has been able to rekindle the thrill of an opera that has become shrouded in monumentality, profoundness and hermetism, while it has always essentially been a Romantic (and also romantic) opera.

At first Simone Young seemed to have understood the spirit of this production, offering an act I marked by an extremely flexible beat, deep theatrical understanding and almost Verdian sense of emotionality and vigor. In this approach, the youth and its sense of life and death intensity rescued Tristan and Isolda from the world of abstraction into palpable drama. Alas, as Tristan and Isolda themselves have noticed, some things are not meant to last in this world. A cast not in their best health pressed the conductor to a compromise. The string section has been kept under tight leash during the entire act II (a fancy for showing everything you are probably missing in the woodwind department must have something to do with that too) in order make it easier for soprano and tenor. That – and a tempo that increasinly tended to slowness – only had the dubious effect of exposing these singers’  shortcomings and drained the proceedings of any expressive content. Things would show some improvement in the last act – the conductor would now and then come to the obvious conclusion that it was better to screen her soloists behind orchestral sound and let it sing for singers who were obviously facing vocal troubles and could not do more than making do. In the end, a performance starting intelligently and brilliantly ended into being something about the mechanics of being an opera conductor under unideal circumstances.

As announced, this run of performances would feature Christiane Libor’s Isolde, whose youthful tone and sense of line would have made a lyrical, sensitive Irish princess at least on paper. However, she cancelled “for health issues” and was replaced by Petra Lang, a singer I had only seen as Ortrud and never a particularly subtle one. As heard this evening, Ms. Lang’s reinvention as a dramatic soprano does not involve the volume one usually finds in a Wagnerian singer. She does have truly amazing stamina and gets to produce forceful acuti tirelessly, even when things go wrongly. This adaptation, that is vaguely reminiscent of Martha Mödl’s method (I mean “vaguely”, for Mödl was far more adept in it, as her admirable recording in this role with Herbert von Karajan live from Bayreuth shows), has consequences: her middle register is unfocused to the point of inaudibility, her low notes are guttural, the hootiness is inevitable and intonation is dysfunctional. She is an alert actress and can surprise you with isolated phrases in which she sounds like an important singer, but in the end one just feels like listening to consistently unproblematic singing. The sheer size, beauty of tone and youthfulness of Okka von der Damerau’s mezzo soprano just exposed her Isolde’s inadequacy. Unfortunately, even her could not survive the prevailing vocal poor form that plagues this evening’s performance. In act II, her voice sounded thick and a difficulty with high notes would prevent her from floating her warning. She would recover for her short appearance in the end of the opera. To make things worse, Stephen Gould, a reliable and experient Tristan, was frankly ill. His big, warm and powerful tenor started to grate in his act I scene with Isolde. This is never a good sign, and one could see that high notes on “ee” and “ay” started to sound more and more constricted until they finally made him cough. After a while, excursions above a high f were more a matter of will than of possibility. The fact that he agreed to sing act III is a sign of perseverance. If one has in mind the illness that affliced his voice, he really deserve the applauses for recklessly forcing it into keeping “acting with the voice”  and adaptations to the written notes as minimal as possible. Iain Paterson (Kurwenal) could not escape this evening’s vocal indisposition either: his baritone lacked steadiness and sounded a bit opaque. Only René Pape proved to be in infallibly good voice, singing the part of King Markly richly, expressively and beautifully. If the conductor had cushioned it in the rich sonorities the Bavarian State Orchestra is more than able to provide, it would have been this evening’s emotional highlight.

 

Although Mozart’s operas are considered to be central to the repertoire of every opera house, this does not seem to apply to their casts. When one reads the archives of the world’s most important theatres, one will find operas like Così fan tutte featuring singers like Kiri Te Kanawa, Frederica von Stade, Francisco Araiza or Ferruccio Furlanetto long after they were international stars. For some reason, those who would like to hear the world’s best singers in roles like Fiordiligi or Ferrando will need to resort to recordings like Colin Davis’s to know the sensation of hearing Montserrat Caballé and Nicolai Gedda dueting in Fra gli amplessi.

As it is, the team gatered by the Bavarian State Opera for this evening’s performance of Così fan tutte is quite above average for today’s standards. For instance, the lovely Golda Schultz offers a lesson in Mozartian singing in her impeccable phrasing, very long breath, beautiful pronunciation of the Italian language and real commitment to the text and dramatic situations. Moreover, her lyric soprano is all velvety and soars in effortless high notes. In a theatre the size of which Mozart saw his operas staged, she would leave nothing to be desired. But this is a voice that does not count with reserves of projection when a high (or low) note REALLY has to pierce through an orchestra in to the auditorium. I do have the impression that the sceneries without backdrop and open on the side must make things even more difficult to these singers. Her Dorabella, Rachael Wilson has a fruity yet finely focused mezzo that blossoms comfortably in her high notes and still retains resonance in her bottom range. Now and then she would hit the wrong notes, but one would blame a natural ebullience that has compensations in terms of acting. The blend of these two singers’ voices was the speacial featuring of this performance. Never in my experience, I’ve heard two sings float their high pianissimi in moments like Soave sia il vento as beautifully and integratedly as they have done tonight. Tara Erraught too is a mezzo with no problem with high notes. She can lighten her tone and even sound convincingly soubrettish, but the tonal quality is too grainy and even matronly in her middle register. This – and the fact that her Italian is artificial – prevented her from offering a truly valid performance in the key role of Despina.

Mauro Peter is one of the rare tenors today who seem happy to follow all the basic rules of Mozartian phrasing, but he is also the kind of tenor whose high register seems to spin backwards rather than forward from the passaggio up. Although he handles high-lying phrases (and passagework) effortlessly, the sound has very little chest resonance and brightness. Michael Nagy did not seem to be in a very good day, but that did not prevent him from offering a stylish Guglielmo, easy on the ear. Christopher Maltman’s forceful Alfonso involved a great deal of parlando effects, but he is the kind of singer who can always count on his charisma.

After an extremely cautious overture, Ivor Bolton seemed keen on trying to compensate by rushing his singers in a way that suggested insufficient rehearsal time. The level of mismatch between singers (including those of the chorus) and the orchestra was almost alarming for an important opera house, not to mention the mistakes. In order to adjust to a light-voiced cast, the orchestra was kept under leash in a way that tampered with clarity and often went beyond to the realms of the inexpressive. This is one of my favorite operas, but after Per pietà, I caught myself checking my watch every now and then.

Dieter Dorn’s 1993 staging is far more satisfying than his take on Le Nozze di Figaro for the same theatre. The sets – that could look less wobbly – are pleasant to look at and, although the original personenregie has been replaced by an assemblage of stock gestures, the whole cast scored high in the acting department and won over the audience in its sincere engagement.

This year’s Berlin Staatsoper Festtage’s operatic première is Claus Guth’s new staging of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten under Zubin Mehta, whom I had previously seen in the same theatre some years ago conduct Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus with the same leading soprano seen this evening.

Mehta has one recording of Salome with the Berlin Philharmonic to his credit, but he is hardly a regular in what regards the operatic production of the Bavarian composer. Although I cannot tell how often he conducted Die Frau ohne Schatten in his long career, the first impression I had today was of extreme caution. To his defense, the Italianate orchestral sound, very transparent and light, was very flattering to his cast and made for great vertical clarity. I would not say, however, that structural clarity was truly there, since the complex poliphony concocted by Strauss was shown rather at face value, some important motivic references sunk into the background of restatement of musical ideas already presented as they were shown before or among accompaniment figures. When one listens to Herbert von Karajan’s live recording from Vienna (with Leonie Rysanek and Christa Ludwig), one can see how helpful the masterly hand of the conductor can be in guiding his audience through this multilayered score. Thus, Mehta’s tool to achieve “legibility” was a certain kind of fastidiousness that involved a regular beat in a very steady and considerate tempo. This was again very helpful for his singers, but did not help to provide the necessary theatrical effects. The end of act II, where the stage director too seemed to have had lost his hand, was this approach’s main victim – the impression was rather of politeness in its clean transversal of the tricky harmonic development. Compare it to Karl Böhm’s broadcast (from Vienna? I would have to check, again with Rysanek and Ludwig) and the Austrian conductor will knock you out in an awesome display of excitement and precision. Most surprisingly, though, was the positive effect of the Indian conductor’s organized and restrained view on act III, here unusually subtle and coherent in his unifiying control of the proceedings. As the last act rarely works out in live performances, I left the theatre with the sensation of witnessing something special.

In any case, the cast gathered for these performances would make sure that this was something special. I have always admired Camilla Nylund’s solid technique and tonal warmth, but this evening she offered a performance of outstanding finesse and beauty, floating velvety sounds throughout her range even in the most impossibly difficult passages, without ever disregarding clarity of enunciation and the dramatic demands of every scene, including the Kaiserin’s act  III melodram, not a small feat for someone whose first language is not German. She was ideally contrasted with Iréne Theorin’s powerful and bright-toned Färberin. The Swedish soprano was in exceptionally good voice, particularly smooth in the middle register that is not usually her forte. She could float beautiful mezza voice, even in very high-lying passages and scored many points in subtleness. Only in her act III duet with Barak, her intent of singing softly taxed her, but she soon recovered to her best form, adding stunning dramatic acuti to a performance abundant in vocal excitement.  Burkhard Fritz sang the part of the Kaiser with clean sense of line and something very close to the spontaneity of an Italian tenor, but his high notes soon became tight and, somewhere in the middle of his act II solo, he started to sound tired and dealt with the rest of the part with prudence rather than abandon. This is my third Barak from Wolfgang Koch and probably the best one. Although the conductor challenged him with slow tempi, his bass baritone sounded generously round and rich. Moreover, his personality is extremely proper to this role. I leave the best for last. I had seen Michaela Schuster’s Amme in Salzburg with Christian Thielemann, but found it small-scaled. Now I am inclined to believe that the unimaginative production must have straitjacked her (and the smaller auditorium in Berlin is an undeniable advantage), for this evening she just stole the show, even in such prestigious company. She projected her high mezzo insolently, handled the text in a way that would make Meryl Streep envious and twisted the audience around her little finger. During the directorial miscalculations in the end of act II, she proved to be a secret weapon, commanding everyone’s attention with her precise body movements and facial expression. Bravissima.

Although Jung-Sang Han showed an attractively dark tonal quality to his Erscheinung des Junglings and Barak’s brothers (Karl-Micahel Ebnerm Alfredo Daza and Grigoery Shkarupa) were unusually smooth sounding, the voices of the unborn/imaginary servants to the Dyer’s Wife were not properly cast. The impression was of extreme effortfulness, what ruined the effect of everyone of their “appearances” .

Claus Guth’s new staging is inspired by August Strindberg’s Dream Play. The oneiric atmosphere being the perfect excuse for many sensible and clever solutions for many of the unrealistic stage instructions. It also allowed him to deal with the mirrored structure of the story by showing the Dyer’s Wife and the Nurse as projections of the Empress’s own personality and Barak as an idealized version of the Emperor. Here, the Empress, as in many other stagings, is a patient in an institution, suffering from something very close to catatonia. Then the libretto’s most problematic feature (i.e., that the Emperor is punished by the Empress’s inability to produce a shadow) is avoided by showing her as the one “turned to stone”. The dramatic moment in which she demands to be punished by Keikobad is nothing but her seeing herself bed-ridden in the hospital. However, the most curious dramatic device developed by the conductor is the fact that the patient does not recover. Her disease is actually her only way of achieving her connection to a husband a children she cannot really deal with in real life. Although there was some booing in the audience, I have to say this is unfair: this was alright a bizarre solution, but surprisingly one that delivered the best act III I have ever seen either in the theatre or in videos. I won’t say “if I had to change something”, for I would have changed a couple of things, but I couldn’t help finding the video projections subpar in quality. More creative images in sharper quality would have done all the difference in the world. Christian Schmidt’s sets and costumes were otherwise beautiful and very efficient.

 

I remember having read a long time ago in an Italian dictionary an anecdote about a group of monks who gave shelter to some women in a very cold night. In the morning, they were found sleeping in the same room because it was the only one sufficiently warm. As the abbot found them and demanded an explanation, the answer was “tutto è permesso agli innocenti” (everything is permitted to the innocent man”). After a puzzling second act during which stage director Dmitri Tcherniakov gave me more questions than answers, this story did occur to me in the beginning of act III and inspired me to an interpretation of a staging that seemed outright incoherent until then.

To say the truth, act I was not problematic. This is not my first Parsifal in which the grail ceremony involves extracting blood from Amfortas’ wound for the consumption by the congregation. Claus Guth’s staging seen in Barcelona and Tokyo turned around a very similar ritual in a concept that turned around blood (also in the sense of “family ties”) and I somehow expected a similar development this evening. But that was my mistake. Here Klingsor is some sort of goofy schoolmaster in a school for girls. The sets were identical to act I, but now they were full white. As Kundry seems to be some sort of counsellor, I could not help thinking of Sabina Spielrein’s Dyetski Dom, the methods of which have been accused of stimulating the premature sexuality of children. In the beginning of her long scene with Parsifal, Kundry’s “professional”  approach and Parsifal’s insight about his mother angrily interrupting his first sexual encounter with a girl seemed to confirm this interesting psychoanalitic view. Wagner’s text serves the purpose: Kundry directs Parsifal into self-discovery until the kiss. Although Spielrein’s own experience involved a romantic affair with her psychoanalist (i.e., Carl Jung), the comparison started to fall apart then. Parsifal sleeps over and only in the morning has the epiphany about Amfortas. From that point on, Kundry contents herself to behave like a rejected lover. If I still wanted to defend the Spielrein-angle, both she and Kundry have been “diagnosed” with hysteria. But to say the truth, by then even this point of view seemed uncomfortable and artificial.

This takes me to my own “epyphany” in act III. As in every production of Parsifal, act III shows a decayed version of the sets of act I until the moment when Parsifal shows Kundry the toy knight involved in his traumatic episode with his mother, while Kundry shows him a doll just like the ones the girl in the white school had. It is true that the male/female symbolism of the grail and the spear are in the core of this libretto, but the toys here gave it a whole new level of understanding. The main theme of this staging actually is the destruction of innocence by the establishment of prohibitions. The whole purpose of the grail knights was to achieve purity (i.e., innocence) by following a set of rules and vows. From that point on, a line had been drawn between guilty and innocent ones. Then there is Klingsor, who cannot fit into either side and decides to act out innocence. His white school is the theatre of innocence, the illusion of innocence. That is why he is more childish than the girls around him – he has to be more innocent than innocence itself. This is what Parsifal realizes – that there was no guilt in Amfortas. As much as the young Parsifal was accused of depravity by following a natural inclination, Amfortas was tainted by his encounter with Kundry. And we can infer that he had very little notion of what was going on there until he was charged with sinful behavior. Therefore, the moment when Parsifal say “sei heil – entsündigt und entsühnt!” is more than rhetorics. Innocence is not the aim, it is the starting point. One has to BE innocent to achieve enlightenment: everything is permitted to the innocent. He or she needs no rule, because everything is redeemed by innocence. That is why the redeemer is redeemed – the simple conviction of innocence makes everything permissible. The very institution of the grail knights makes redemption impossible: it just creates guilty ones.

All that said, the closing scene could be somewhat testing. When we see Kundry and Amfortas openly kissing, we understand why she had to seduce Parsifal: to regain her own innocence, which she seemed to have found when she was confronted with Amfortas’ innocence. But that is the moment Gurnemanz stabs her to death (she does not die “naturally” here as it is described by the libretto). The fact probably is that Kundry has to die. Although she truly wants to be innocent again, her very nature is to seduce. If she is not a seductress, than she is nothing. As she herself probably knew from her desire of “peace” and “rest” , death is her path to innocence, the state in which she can do no harm. Is this a sound analysis? Probably not, but then the staging is so overambitious and unclear and all over the place that one is allowed his or her share of misunderstanding. Although I very much like the idea that institution is doomed to destroy what it was supposed to protect and that the idea of purity could be interpreted as some sort of empowerment (instead of the usual negative agenda almost inevitably associated in the context of the Wagner family and the pre-war Bayreuth festival), I am not sure if this staging serves this idea as efficiently as it should. Also, although Tcherniakov usually offers scrumptious scenery and costumes to make powerful visual statements, I find this staging rather tame and uneventful in this department.

The sense of emptiness was actually highlighted by Daniel Barenboim’s idiosincratic conducting. After a prelude of unusual structural clarity, the performance seemed to collapse under its own ponderousness. Although one could see that the aim was achieving a Furtwänglerian timelessness in which every note would sound to produce its complete sense, one would feel instead the blanks between these notes. Only an impatiently built Verwandlungsmusik suggested some sense of unity. Act II sounded particularly disjoint and lacking building tension, an impression made more evident by the conductor’s keeping his dynamic range under leash to help his leading lady. In any case, the Staatskapelle Berlin’s consistent beauty of sound offered some compensation.

Anna Larsson’s incursion in soprano repertoire is an undeniable sign of courage. She must have nerves of steel to keep producing high notes in every dynamic range so consistently in spite of the very obvious effort. The problem remains that – although she can keep a sense of line even when things turn out really unfavorably to her – intonation could be hazardous, the tonal quality was often very breathy and colorless. In any case, it is a voice of unusual warmth, and that prevented her from producing ugly sounds. If there were some exceptional theatrical intelligence and charisma à la Waltraud Meier, she could have got away with it. As it was, this was rather an experiment of discutable success. The same cannot be said of her Parsifal. It is true that Andreas Schager is not a stage animal, but he showed himself fully engaged in fulfilling some very strange directorial choices. And his singing was just exceptional. He phrases with unusual clarity, musicianship and variety and also produced consistently youthful, bright and firm sounds that projected forcefully into the auditorium. This was Wagnerian singing of very high standards. His scenes with René Pape’s masterly Gurnemanz were the apex of this performance. The German bass was at his best, pouring forth exquisite, voluminous sounds in all registers and also featured the textual intelligence of a Lieder singer. It is curious that the first Gurnemanz I have ever seen live, Matthias Hölle, was this evening’s Titurel, his voice still big and dark. Stage directors seem to have an increasing fancy in undressing the baritone in the role of Amfortas and it seems that the amount of skin shown is directly proportional to the level of miscasting. This evening, the throatiness and graininess were another evidence of that rule. Finally, Tomas Tomasson was a firm-toned, rather metallic Klingsor, very much at ease with the director’s curious choices for this role.

If there is a director who knows a thing or two about Alcina, this is Christof Loy. He has staged it three times in his career – and this is the second time I see him stage this favorite among Handel’s operas (at least, it is my favorite…). The first time, in Munich, I have praised the fact that he resisted the temptation of abusing comedy touches to get away with a long opera full of arie da capo. Then, he – and his prima donna Anja Harteros – was able to make the last act the dramatic culmination of the opera:  Alcina had fought even when she had no more weapons to fight with and lost it in the end: even the gods were deaf to her prayers.

His 2014 production for the Opernhaus Zürich starts with a powerful concept – Alcina’s magic powers are the magic of theatre. On stage, she can be and do everything and Ruggiero is under the spell of the diva. I was anticipating the last act – the run of performances is over, but Alcina the actress cannot let the character go and is unable to see reality from fantasy in her relationship to her leading man, whose hometown sweetheart comes to rescue him in the last moment from a star system that make people into beasts. But no, Loy has decided to make the opposite of what he did at the Bayerische Staatsoper: act III degenerates in buffoonry, Ruggero has a boyband choreography for his aria di bravura, Bradamante stripteases before a very much willing Melisso and Alcina embraces telenovela with a pistol gun and high heels. When she says that heaven had turned against her, it is just tantrum – she does get yet another second chance. While I cannot blame the director for disappointing my own private expectations, I did feel shortchanged to see the theatrical climax of the opera staged as undramatically as it has been (add to it an audience that behaved as if following laughing cues*). In any case, the first two acts were more than worth the detour in their keen Personenregie, exquisite sets and costumes not to mention brilliant solutions for the  challenging reprises of the A section in da capo arias.

At first, I had the impression that conductor Giovanni Antonini too was not interested in expression and drama. The orchestra phrased drily in the sinfonia and seemed a bit unwillling to move forward with abandon. Later in act II, in which all singers were at their most congenial, the maestro was able to provide some richness of sound and flexibility of tempo to illustrate the changes of mood in the text. As a matter of fact, Antonini would offer many natural and effective ideas to boost contrast in the B section of arias. It is also praiseworthy that he would not press the “fast and faster”  button for his choice of tempi. As a result, Bradamante could produce clean fioriture in her arie di furia, and Oronte was able to find the right pathos in Un momento di contento. In any case, the example of exhilarating tempo in Stà nell’Ircana also proved his was a safe choice, given the messy results there (I am not speaking of wayward valveless French hornes, as this seems to be the rule with historically informed orchestras in opera houses).

My eight or nine readers probably know by now that I am not truly a fan of Cecilia Bartoli, but in the title role and in the modestly sized auditorium of the Opernhaus Zürich, she left little to be desired. Although her voice still rattles uncomfortably and projects poorly in outspoken moments, the part focuses rather in expression of softer affetti and in tonal coloring, something she does as poignantly as Billlie Holiday used to in her jazz balads. Both Sì, son quella and Ah, mio cor were tackled with emotional generosity and dramatic imagination. If Ma quando tornerai proved to be a tour de force in the unusual rhythmic accuracy in the difficult coloratura, Ombre pallide was a bit all over the place. Curiously, Ms. Bartoli lacked concentration in Mi restano le lagrime, an aria that can otherwise prove to be very intense, as one could hear in the Munich staging with Anja Harteros.

Her Morgana, Julie Fuchs, is more of a lyric soprano than the leggiero one usually finds in this role. Although she dealt with the fioriture and high notes commendably, she would often sound in her element dealing with long legato phrasing and floating mezza voce. Maybe one day she will be singing the other soprano role in this opera. Varduhi Abrahamyan is rather a mezzo than a contralto and, although she manages the passaggio adeptly, one can hear that her voice truly blossoms from the middle register up. That said, she managed Bradamante’s difficult fioriture famously and also in warm and full tone. To make things better, she is a charismatic actress, an asset in a staging in which the character is made to be more ambiguous than it usually is (particularly in its response to Morgana’s seduction).

As much as in Aix-en Provence, Phillippe Jaroussky found Ruggiero’s arie di bravura on the low side and the heroic expression difficult to put across, but his singing of the act II arias was so exquisite and sensitive that one could forgive him anything. I doubt that there might be someone who sings Mi lusinga il dolce affetto as beautifuly as he does. I hope one day I will understand why the part of Oronte is never cast with a bright- and firm-toned tenor with some flesh in his high register, but at least Fabio Trümpy has long breath and easy mezza voce. He was spared È un folle, è un vile affetto (the role of Oberto and the ballet music too were cut this evening). Finally, Krzysztof Baczyk showed undeniable improvement in his rendition of Melisso’s aria since his performances in Aix.

* I know: today is New Year’s Eve and one would rather have a laugh than develop a depression over poor Alcina’s downfall…