The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and its musical director, Jonathan Nott, have offered today excerpts of Wagner’s Parsifal paired with Alban Berg’s Three Pieces from the Lyrische Suite as opening item. I have seen the Tokyo Symphony play Wagner at the New National Theatre a couple of times and I confess I was not very enthusiastic about this. Although there was some finely focused pianissimo in Berg’s highly atmospheric pieces, the final impression was of lack of variety and clarity. It is not fair to compare it to Claudio Abbado’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, but, well, it has confirmed my impression.
Although the orchestra did fare better in a strange composite of Parsifal’s Prelude, plus the long Kundry/Parsifal scene in act II (without the flower maidens and Klingsor) and – most anticlimactically – further into the Karfreitagzauber after a series of shortcuts, the impression of lack of expansion persisted: one could feel as if listening to a radio recording with compressed range. Jonathan Nott’s didactical conducting adding very little sense of drama to the proceedings: slow tempi, his beat quite a tempo, reduced sense of continuity (the pauses in the overture sounding like interruptions rather than breathing points), very little nuance but everything made very clear (a recessed string section’s “positive collateral effect?”).
If the concert had any interest it is related to the very unusual appearance of Alexandrina Pendatchanska (why “Alex Penda”?!) as Kundry. Last time I checked a Kundry who also sings Rossini… this was… not Maria Callas… Agnes Baltsa has done it after that… and maybe Doris Soffel*. Anyway, once she had sung Salome, Pendatchanska must have started to wonder if there were more ahead in terms of German repertoire for her. Hers is a very particular voice – in her first appearances, it had a squally, piercing quality that made it a bit difficult to appreciate her flexibility and long range. Then she had put herself under the guidance of René Jacobs, who led her through Handel, Haydn and Mozart towards a more relaxed vocal production, legato and an ampler tonal palette. And now she found her way back into Romantic repertoire.
First of all, it would be unfair to call this her “final product” in terms of Wagnerian singing, but rather an early experiment made in safe conditions (a concert performance of a single scene in a non-German speaking country). One could see a certain anxiety, a concern in not losing sight of the score and some uneasiness in terms of interpretation until the very difficult end, when – not really curiously – one could finally see that she was finally “doing her thing”. All of this is perfectly understandable: this is no small challenge. First, although she can produce very forceful high and low notes, her voice is not of Wagnerian proportions. And one can clearly hear that when she is in the middle register, where there are no special effects to be played. Second, although she clearly knows the text, her German is still a bit artificial, “i” sounds like “ee”, “e” too often sounds like the one in “get” and “ch” still needs considerable work. Also, sometimes the wrong syllable is too heavily accented, especially when she resorts to chest voice to get to the end of a low-lying phrase (in Verdi, this usually works, because he probably had in mind that his singers would do something like that). Third, there is still a sense that she is trying to do it correctly, as if she had listened to Waltraud Meier’s recording one hundred times to get it right.
All this considered, this was still very fascinating for anyone interested in voice, technique and national styles. Ms. Penda could teach a lesson in breath control to many Wagnerian singers. She takes legato very seriously and would not adopt the usual pause between verb and object to gain an extra breath. For instance, phrases like “wann dann ihr Arm dich wütend umschlang” or “So war es mein Kuss, der welt-hellsichtig dich machte?” were sung in a single breath without any hint of constriction or strain by the end of them. Also, some of her most exciting high notes were sang without forcing or pushing, but span freely and roundly. One might argue that some effect of emphasis in key words were lost in this kind of approach. I wouldn’t disagree, but I would rather hear someone who chooses to do that rather than someone who cannot do it otherwise. And it’s easier to learn German than breath support technique. And there is the matter of style – while the use of portamento (such as in “Fern – fern – ist meine Heeeeimat”) is interesting, historically correct (although this has been forgotten by most Wagnerian singers of our days), I still have to think before I say something about low register in full chest resonance Italian-style. The first time I saw Eva Randová in the video from Bayreuth, this had called my attention, but Alex Penda goes a little bit further. While it produces a thrilling effect in “Ein Sünder sinkt mir in die Arme”, it sounds rather odd in “des Trostes Süsse labte nie auch dein Herz”. I don’t have an “in conclusion” for this paragraph. If she really wants to be a Wagner singer (and I don’t see an Elsa or Elisabeth in her), this means tackling roles like Kundry and Ortrud (maybe Senta could be interesting), which require complete mastery of the text (and therefore a more spontaneous pronunciation of German). Moreover, although proper acquaintance of Wagnerian tradition would help a bit (for instance: her last utterance would be easier and more effective with a lighter “ge…” followed by quick and precise ‘…Leit” rather than emphasis in both syllables and the last one hold a bit longer than written), the most important thing is finding her own truth in this music. One could get a glimpse of that just before that moment from”Hilfe! Herbei!”. There I could see the Alex Penda I’ve seen as Handel’s Agrippina: the fiery temper, the flashing presence, the amazing energy, that old-style glamour in tackling very large intervals with this “the low note was great, but the high not was amazing, wasn’t it?”-attitude. As my 10 readers have seen, she got me to write three paragraphs just about her!
Christian Elsner will get one paragraph only. I have already seen his complete Parsifal in Berlin (and also his Siegmund). Back in 2011, I had found his tonal quality appropriate for the role of Parsifal, but his approach to high notes too Mozartian for the circumstances, while today he did not give me this impression. His attitude to passaggio seemed improved and his high notes larger and darker than before. It still lacks some brightness and he has to work hard to pierce through. After a while, he sounded tired. In any case, his was a sensitive and often musicianly performance.
* Well, Christa Ludwig too, but she herself would not put her Rossini as a staple in her repertoire. It also comes to my mind that Renata Scotto once sang Kundry, but I wouldn’t call her a usual visitor to the master of Pesaro either.