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In his new production of Wagner’s Parsifal for the New National Theatre, Harry Kupfer has decided to go beyond the Christian context of the work and draw parallels with Buddhism: he mentions the strife for knowledge through compassion as related to the quest for enlightenment with the communion with all things or the idea of Kundry expiating her fault through many reincarnations. Richard Wagner himself has read about Buddhism and it is indeed an interesting idea to bring this connection to the fore, especially when you are in Asia. That said, I wonder if the Japanese audience noticed any reference beyond the three extras dressed as Buddhist monks who help Parsifal to find his way back to Montsalvat. Other than this, the staging looks pretty much like a Kupfer staging as you would see in Germany. The single set shows a lightning-shaped walkway that, with the help of elevators and projections, transforms itself according to themes mainly related to the four elements. For the Gralshalle, screens with Gothic architectural stonework are used. It all looks a bit abstract almost as a digital-era version of an Adolphe Appia production, but for the final twist: Parsifal doesn’t replace Amfortas, but rather replaces the idea that there should be a Montsalvat. He wraps himself in an orange mantle and walks away with Kundry and Gurnemanz, while the Gralsritter look bemused by having to find their own way of finding enlightenment.

This is the second Parsifal I happen to hear under the baton of Tajirou Iimori. Last time I wrote that Mr. Iimori is an experienced Wagnerian who concentrates rather on detail. This impression was confirmed today, if you overlook the fact that strings in the Tokyo Philharmonic lack volume and are unclear in passagework. Although woodwind and brass instruments had pride of place and played with admirable clarity, the conductor managed to avoid a brassy, unsubtle orchestral sound. One could guess that the idea had a Furtwänglerian inspiration, but in order to achieve this one really needs a truly rich-toned string section and phrasing of real expressive power. As it was, every minute seemed to last twice its length, especially in the second act, when the proceedings seemed to go dangerously close to a halt. A cast of unusual subtlety could have benefited from the approach, but this was not always the case here, especially in the key role of Gurnemanz.

John Tomlinson is a veteran Wagnerian singer, with a voice of gigantic proportions, still attractively dark and cleanly projected, except at the top, when it sounds dry, unstable and effortful. His Wotan used to be energetic and incisive rather than noble and nuanced and it is quite admirable that he could create today a believable performance without the Lieder singing qualities usually associated to this difficult role. If this opera were La Forza del Destino, he would have Melitonized his Padre Guardiano: this Gurnemanz had a rather cheerful disposition, a rough-edged directness that made his dismissal of Parsifal in the end of act I quite “predictable”. In act III, his acknowledgment of Parsifal seems informed rather by a simple and good-hearted nature than by wisdom or spiritual awareness, what is new to me, but surprisingly effective. This blunter approach needed a more enveloping orchestral sound to produce the right effect, though. Egils Silins’s Amfortas too lacked a softer touch. His whole approach seemed to be 100% to 150%, what made his act I monologue an overkill from moment one. Also, his bass baritone has developed a wobble that made the whole experience even less appealing. A Titurel with a wayward sense of pitch did not help things.

If there was a singer who benefited from the circumstances, this was Evelyn Herlitzius. This very industrious singer with a powerful voice – yet not easy on the ear – kept you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end. First, her dramatic soprano is in excellent shape. Her lower notes were richly and warmly sung and she seemed decided to explore the very limits of her tonal palette, trying shades of mezza voce that I didn’t even know she could produce, delivering her text with crispy diction and sense of story-telling and darting her high notes with complete ease. I particularly cherish the fact that she waited until the end of act II to resort to her full powers, and this worked as an interesting theatrical effect. Her acting was also fully committed and effective. It is not the world’s most sensuous voice, but all in all hers was one of the most interesting Kundrys I have seen and heard in the theatre. Her Parsifal, Christian Frantz, is very clumsy in the acting department and, when a Heldentenor is really required, he can sound a bit tense and metallic. Yet he could often produce an impression of innocence and youth in an almost Mozartian sound and then shift to a René Kollo-like snarl in the next moment. Even if one can imagine this role more aptly cast, this German tenor offered some interesting possibilities in terms of interpretation. Robert Bork (Klingsor) was a firm-toned, unexaggerated Klingsor. One must praise the New National Theatre for a team of unusually sensuous-toned Blumenmädchen and for the very clean choral singing.

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