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Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Youn’

How much metalanguage there is  Philipp Stölzl’s 2012 production of Wagner’s Parsifal is a matter for discussion. The staging turns around the idea of the power of symbolism in two levels: first in what related to objects of worship as in the case of relics; second in the idea of recreation of religious episodes in the shape of mystery plays, more specifically tableaux vivants. The staging of passion of Christ is a very much alive tradition in many countries, and they tend to develop a mystique around themselves – who is going to play Christ this year, for instance? A famous TV actor? Back to our Parsifal, Stölzl’s makes clear that what you see is a representation – the rocky landscape where you see the crucifixion as witnessed by Kundry is clearly set in a large hall lit by cold lamps. At first, I was shocked by how kitsch everything looked – but then it is hard to tell if the concept is kitsch or if the “play within the play” was kitsch (i.e., made to look kitsch on purpose). In any case, the very concept of kitsch involves objects whose practical purpose and aesthetic concept are ill-matched.

As it is, the first act shows us a rocky landscape that confines the stage action downstage, making many scenes unnecessarily crowded or awkward. There is a castle in very poor perspective in the background. Costumes are in Life-of-Brian-style but for Parsifal, who wears a suit. Here time and space are indeed the same thing, for the Verwandlungsmusik accompanies no Verwandlung. Parsifal and Gurnemanz exit, a bunch of self-flogging guys show up and Parsifal, Gurnemanz, Amfortas and a very perky Titurel make their entrance to a ceremony involving Amfortas’s stigmata dripping blood over the crowd. During the many narrative passages, we are offered small tautological flash-black tableaux in top of either of the rocky formations.

Act II looks as if the director visited the Fundusverkauf in Behrenstraße to shop for old productions – the sets could have been borrowed from Götz Friedrich’s Elektra (as on DVD). So, Klingsor has an African-style outfit and is followed by a cult of zombie-likes Flowermaids. Kundry keeps her shabby dress from act I to the end of the opera. The scene itself is very conventional, but Parsifal doesn’t make the sign of the cross. He just kills Klingsor with the holy spear. The closing act shows us the ruined version of the rocky landscape with some people with Lacoste outfits who seem to be in some sort of religious pilgrimage. Among them, Gurnemanz too seems to have had a fashion makeover in Friedrichstraße. Kundry makes her appearance, the Lacoste people are a bit shocked, but the Gurnemanz-guy (what exactly he is to these people is not clear…) tells her that spring has already come (not really…). Parsifal shows up, the Lacoste people anoint him, while Kundry prefers not to join in. In the meanwhile, Amfortas is in his via crucis (literally), Kundry tries to be helpful this time and offers him water, but people keep flogging him. Parsifal shows up and, again!, kills some one with his spear. Actually, this time it was not his fault – Amfortas jumps into it. Everybody knees down and prays, while Kundry stays back and seem unconvinced.

At this point, you probably have guessed that I share Kundry’s disbelief. The concept is at the same time superficial and all over the place, the sets and costumes suggest rather  Night in the Museum than Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia (as the performance book seems to suggest) and the fact that religion is here taken in face value makes it almost a traditional production in disguise. A labored and unclear one.

When it comes to the musical aspects, this evening was quite successful. After a prelude where the violins could be a little bit more refulgent, Donald Runnicles settled for a no-nonsense performance, with ideally Wagnerian full but not overloud orchestral sound, forward-movement and clarity. Act II was particularly coherently conceived – the Parsifal/Kundry scene well-structured and intense. The cast had its ups and downs. Both soprano and tenor were clearly not in a good-voice day. I saw Violeta Urmana’s Kundry in a concert performance in Munich with James Levine back in 2004 and she was note-perfect then. This evening, even if she has showed a deepened understanding of the text and an engaged stage presence, her high register was unwieldy and harsh. By the end of act II, she was clearly tired. Stephen Gould and Parsifal are not a match made in heaven –  his voice and physique do not suggest any boyishness and he himself seemed detached throughout. Moreover, his high notes were tight and his phrasing a bit stiff. By the 3rd act, he seemed to have warmed and produced some beautiful turns of phrase. Replacing Thomas J Meyer in the last minute after singing Amfortas yesterday in Zürich, Detlef Roth still finds this role on the heavy side for his voice, but shows absolute commitment. Liang Li is an imposing-voiced Gurnemanz with very clear diction and some charisma. His bass is sometimes a bit grainy and there is not this irresistible sense of story-telling that the very great Gurnemanzes provide. But this is definitely a name to keep in mind (he would have been a forceful Hunding or Fafner, since we have been talking about that). Last but definitely not least, Samuel Youn’s powerful, cleanly-focused singing in the role of Klingsor is beyond any criticism. An exemplary performance.

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Hans Neuenfels would be disappointed to discover that, instead of feeling provoked by his staging of Wagner’s Lohengrin (as he says to fear in the program), the audience in Bayreuth would welcome it effusively. It is also true that the enthusiasm gave the impression of a statement: I wouldn’t say that everyone in the theater was delighted by what they have just seen, but it seems that it was important to show approval for a production of a clearly more professional level than that of those of Meistersinger and Tannhäuser performed in the previous days. I myself have seen more thought-provoking and more consistent Lohengrins than this one, but I too found it important to acknowledge that Neuenfels’s satisfies (or rather more than satisfies) the expected standard of quality expected from the Bayreuth Festival. Some may call it a bourgeois demand from a paying audience, I would call it the necessary requirement of talent in order to deal with the work of a great genius.

The first thing one notices about Bayreuth’s 2010 production of Lohengrin is its elegant, cold stage design: some sort of tomography lab aesthetics which are in the core of the concept here developed. Having to deal with a world where we are nothing but laboratory rats of a random, pointless experiment, we choose to believe in some sort of fiction – love, religion etc – to give it some sense of consequence and order. This consciousness – this understanding of nothingness and the choice of an imaginary sense to frame it – is what tells man from animal. Elsa produces a vision of a swan knight and provokes a collective religious experience that inspires people around her to a development into order through belief. But Lohengrin too indulges into the self-delusion of having found unconditional love in Elsa and agrees to abandon the glory of the knights of the Grail. Ortrud is some sort of skeptical soul who does not content with the shadows and would rather see objects themselves, even if this means disrupting any attempt of order. Her Erfahrt wie sich die Götter rächen has the effect of a pragmatic conclusion to an experiment: if you want to seek the ultimate truth, be ready to find chaos as an answer.

The question is how literal it is to portray the chorus in rat costumes in order to depict the concept above. I tend to believe that this was an easy choice – and I frankly dislike the little “mouse-comedy” numbers in orchestral interludes. Neuenfels could have suggested the “lab rat” impression in subtler ways, but he has a point that Lohengrin is some sort of fairy-tale, an aesthetic environment in which men and animal naturally interact. It is not the first staging either to show the evolutionary process set about by the arrival of Lohengrin. In Stefan Herheim’s Lindenoper production, Lohengrin leads the whole society to a Rousseaunian state-of-nature that would dissolve with the revelation that Lohengrin is nothing but a puppet; in Richard Jones’s Munich production, society organizes into some sort of Lohengrinic religion that endorses Elsa’s edificial project. Here, rats gradually become people as they embrace Lohengrin’s command. Curiously, if you abstract the rodent costumes, the production is quite coherent and well-conceived, in the sense that symbols are added to rather than replace the original storyline, making it richer by association and more fantastic by the unusual twist. In any case, the beauty of costumes and sets, the meticulous direction of actors and choristers, the mathematically calculated light-effects, the visually striking scenes – this all pleases the eyes in a way that even a nay-sayer would let himself be seduced by the approach.

It is also curious that the original reviews stressed Andris Nelsons’ conducting as impressive and revelatory. Maybe he was not inspired this evening, but I am at a loss of words to define my neutral impression. The orchestral sound didn’t persuade you either for richness or for clarity, but other than this there was nothing particularly bothering or pleasing going on. If I have to make an effort of finding a distinctive trait in him this evening, it would be his attention to his singers, particularly knowing how loud he could be in every moment (in what regards giving his cast enough time to breath in tricky moments, Nelsons wasn’t always very friendly though). The chorus sang heartily and acted keenly, but the otherworldly effect in passages such as Lohengrin’s first arrival was not really achieved.

Although I am surprised by Annette Dasch’s ability to spin jugendlich dramatisch top notes when you least expected it, her soprano remains limited in terms of volume and color in this repertoire. She has sense of style and sings sensitively, but one is constantly left wanted – especially in comparison with the more properly Wagnerian voices of her colleagues. I am not a fan of Petra Lang –  overmetallic and rasping are words that come to my mind – but her absolute control of dramatic top notes is really very impressive. Even if she failed in contrast, variety and subtlety, her Entweihte Götter (act II) and Fahr heim, du stolzer Helde (act III) correspond to everyone’s fantasy: she pierced through the loud orchestra with impressive power and security, often making very high notes even longer in admirable abandon. Lohengrin is Klaus Florian Vogt’s signature role, his uncanny boyish yet forcerful sound is the aural picture of the role and this alone makes for the occasional deficit in legato. Moreover, at moments, he is now even more sensitive and elegant in his high mezza voce than before. No wonder he received a standing ovation such as I have rarely witnessed in an opera house. Tómas Tómasson seems to have the right voice for Telramund, but evidently fell victim to a vocal glitch by the middle of act I that robbed him of any possibility of singing full out in his high register, being obliged therefore to resort to falsetto and transposition whenever he could. I know it is a difficult role, but it was rather insensitive of the Festival administration to let him carry on under those circumstances. Last but not least, Georg Zeppenfeld offered an immaculate performance as King Henry, as much as Samuel Youn was an exemplary Herald.

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