Posts Tagged ‘Susan Maclean’

I have to confess: Stefan Herheim’s production of Wagner’s Parsifal was one of the toughest cookies I had to deal with. Although, on a purely aesthetic level, he had won me over with his exquisite and complex visual concept, he set my brain to work throughout the opera and for some hours after that. Then I have noticed that his take on the crucial historical/cultural/philosophical problem of institutionalization, in the sense of how a vision is transformed into social reality and how this process eventually taints it to the point where it needs to be restored by a daring plunge into the principle in its purest form, is something that links the plot of Parsifal, the story of Wagner’s work made concrete by the foundation of a Festival later to become a symbol of a perverse regime and of Germany itself, the land of poets and thinkers that, once transformed in a country, inexorably marched to this very regime. To understand this process is to understand Parsifal, Wagner and Germany; on intertwining these parallel stories, Herheim was faithful to the idea of the Festival: making Germany look at and think about itself in a constructive environment. Watching it for the second time proved to be a more powerful experience: once you understand what lies behind the sophisticated imagery, you feel freer to let yourself be drawn to it and find many layers of meaning that go even beyond Germany and reach the status of universality. It is indeed very sad that the Festival did not find it important to tape this most powerful of its recent productions.

It is also sad that a more suitable conductor than Daniele Gatti had not been found. If I have to say something positive about it, it would be the full-toned quality of the orchestral sound, more in keeping with the reputation of Bayreuth than what I’ve previously seen here this year. But that would be it. The performance is ponderous, spineless and lacking purpose. Reading what I wrote about his conducting last year, the results are unfortunately quite consistent. It is also sad that the whole cast is in poorer shape in comparison to 2010. Susan Maclean is still a most impressive Kundry, both in her understanding of the role and in her flashing dramatic mezzo soprano, but her voice sometimes lacked finish and the closing of act II tested her sorely this evening. The role of Amfortas has always been a stretch for Detlef Roth, but today he sounded rough and strained from moment one, while Thomas Jesatko’s Klingsor was more forceful last year. Alas, Kwangchul Youn too was not in his best voice this evening and couldn’t sound as varied and ductile as in 2010. Finally, Simon O’Neill has a nasal basic tonal quality and an unbecoming physique against him (especially in comparison to a vulnerable and convincing Christopher Ventris last time), but he was never less than engaged and could produce some very loud and secure top notes in his confrontation with Kundry in act II.


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Regietheater is a label too easily given to an alternative staging, but the truth is that it is not supposed to be some sort of liberating approach. On the contrary, the fact that the director’s reading of the work is what being staged means that the director has the greatest share of responsibility, i.e., the focal point of a staging is his reading of the play (and, in the case of opera, of the libretto plus his listening to the music). When one has the impression that director had not bothered to read the author, then this should not be called Regietheater, but simply misappropriation. Although I do not subscribe entirely to Stefan Herheim’s productions, I must concede that what one sees on stage is the result of the director’s thought-provoking personal effort to understand and relate to the works he is staging.

Herheim’s 2008 production of Parsifal for the Bayreuther Festspiele has become famous – or infamous, for some – for its historical approach to Wagner’s Bühnenweihfestspiel. Its symbolism may be too obscure for comfort, its quotations too wide-ranging and his overwrought directing style short of rococo, but it is impossible to deny the clear development of his concept, which does not collide with the story telling once you make out the complexities of his first act.

As here staged, the story begins in the days of Kaiser Wilhelm, where Germany is no longer a cultural entity but a newly formed country, the process of materialization of which probably involved the loss of its spiritual dimension. I won’t try to explain act I, for the ambivalence of almost all characters involve a double symbology: the tenor singing Parsifal and a boy in a mute role share the same costume; there is the invisible Titurel, but a really visible vampiric mother figure to the boy/Parsifal on her omnipresent deathbed on which one can see her giving birth to a mystical baby. She shares the same costume with Amfortas, whose crown of thorns might evoke Jesus Christ (although he clearly represents the established power, being himself the king). If one resists the temptation of framing every detail and rather surrender to the shattering effects of the beautiful and sophisticated sets equipped with every imaginable theatrical contraption and the detailed Personsregie, the closing tableau where a nation bereft of meaning and obsessed with formal purity goes to World War I hints at what is going to happen next.

Act II is the most sharply defined and more coherent in Herheim’s concept. WWI is over and moral dissolution is the keynote in the Weimar Republic. A transvestite Klingsor presides over a cabaret that doubles as a hospital (a quotation from John Huston’s Freud: The Secret Passion?) where Kundry first appears to Parsifal as Marlene Dietrich and then, after the young man’s insight about Amfortas, as the mother figure extremely reminiscent of Edith Clever in Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s movie. The seduction scene, witnessed by families persecuted by the regime, reaches its climax when Kundry’s threats are portrayed by the rise of red banners with swastikas and police violence against the extras. It is not Klingsor who throws the spear against Parsifal, but his boy-doppelgänger fully dressed in nazi uniform. Act III is more univocal in its meaning – the sets show a post-war scenario, the redeemed Kundry and the anointed Parsifal, for the first time, interact with the extras, now a group of women busy with reconstructing the destroyed city, by embracing and helping them. When they march into the Reichstag to release Amfortas from his duties, a mirror in the shape of the planet reflect the audience into the stage while a dove shines above it. I know, “world peace” exactly as in beauty pageants. Considering the negative agenda dealt with by Herheim, he probably thought it wise to end on a positive note.

Musically, the performance never actually took off. Daniele Gatti seemed to have his mind elsewhere (in Salzburg for Elektra?). Although the orchestra often produced exquisite sounds, act I was long beyond salvation and lacking depth; act II was structurally unclear and poorly developed – even when some animation was brought in (as in the flowermaiden scene) the results were mechanical and inorganic; and act III proved to be uneventful and lacking atmosphere, the magic in the good friday magic left to imagination. Susan Maclean was a powerful, warm-toned and intense Kundry. Her acting is also top class. Cristopher Ventris’s tenor is large enough if technically not hearty and percussive as a Heldentenor’s, but he took profit of his bright and round high register to produce a vulnerable, sensitive performance. Detlef Roth’s baritone is firm but really light-toned for Amfortas, often tested by the lower tessitura. On the other hand, Thomas Jesatko was a quite dark-toned Klingsor, forcefully sung. Kwangchul Youn may lack the sense of story-telling so important for Gurnemanz, but his diction is very clear, his voice is noble, large and rich.

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