Posts Tagged ‘Wagner’s Parsifal’

The current production of Parsifal from the Bayreuther Festspiele is not new to me and I have written about it two years ago. Even if I see tiny adjustments to make it (marginally) more coherent, my opinion about it remains the same and I’ll refrain from adding any comments in what regards the staging.
The musical aspect of the performance, however, has novelties. First, we have a new conductor, Semyon Bychkov, who offered pretty much the opposite Hartmut Haenchen proposed last time. Now we are dealing with some sort of Klangkultur approach, in which rich, warm and transparent sonorities ooze in the auditorium. For a while, after an absence of two years in the green hill, this seemed a viable option for this score, but around the end of the act, one couldn’t help noticing the lack of pulse that would ruin the second act. Phrasing was so slack, accents were so flaccid that all notes seemed to be dragged into a black hole of pointlessness. I cannot really say if act 3 was indeed a bit better of if by then we had already abandoned all hope. Not everything was lost. There was a good cast and fabulous choral singing (as always in the festival).
Last time, I wrote that I would need to see Elena Pankratova as Kundry to say anything. Well, I can see she was not in good voice two years ago. Today, she sounded in good shape, provided some big acuti and her low register is warm and appealing. And yet I remain hesitant to join the high praise bestowed on her. First, although her Kundry is very properly sung, I don’t see true meaning behind her delivery of the text, but rather pencil markings on her score under the advice of a coach or a conductor. And this is not a role that works if the expression does not come from within. Second, I find her middle register in this role rather colorless, what is explainable by the fact that she is a not a mezzo soprano, but this takes me to “third”. Third, for a soprano, her dealing with the big high notes in the end of the second act is rather underwhelming. I have seen mezzos offer something more solid and with more impact there. I know, it is cruel to add a third item because of five minutes of music, but I was spoiled by Gwyneth Jones in Pierre Boulez’s recording. If there is a soprano, I want extra panache there. Even Marianne Schech – a quite bored-sounding Marschallin in Karl Böhm’s recording of Der Rosenkavalier – generates some thrill there. So I guess it’s reasonable to expect something similar of someone who sings Elektra.
Andreas Schager’s Parsifal is not a complex psychological impersonation, but if you believe that the keywords are “reiner Tor” than he is particularly convincing in his fresh-eyed and rather blunt take on the role. And he also emits some excitingly loud Spitzentöne whenever he feels like it. If I find Ryan McKinny’s Amfortas grainier and throatier than last time, Derek Welton’s Klingsor is perfectly consistent with what he offered two years ago. And there is Günther Groissböck’s Gurnemanz. Mr. Groissböck has been announced as Bayreuth’s next Wotan – and one could hear that in his voice today. I was always afraid that, in the next moment, he would call Loge to help him steal back the holy spear from Alberi… I mean, from Klingsor. I don’t mean that this very talented Austrian bass is not capable of singing Gurnemanz – he has the voice and the intelligence for it, but he has not found the spiritual disposition for the part yet. His heart and his mind are on Wotan – as he should. That role is closer to his personality and attitude and it is great that he will be able to try it in his prime. I can’t wait to hear it!

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For decades, a performance of a Wagner opera at the Met would mean that it would be conducted by the music director James Levine, whose credentials had been endorsed by 15 seasons in Bayreuth. Since decaying health and PR debacle put an end to his career, the New York opera house had its share of Italian maestros but finally has decided to look closer to home in its own new music director, Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Seguin. He is no newcomer in this repertoire, having conducted Lohengrin and Der fliegende Holländer in the Vienna State Opera, for example.

In the first bars of this evening’s performance I did think of my only Parsifal in Vienna (1999, Jun Märkl) in its clarity and cleanliness. Later on, the absence of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra and its refulgent string section would be missed. The Met Orchestra can produce Wagnerian orchestral sound, but not really within the limits of this lighter and more transparent sound picture, when it veers towards the colorless and poorly articulated. It is no wonder that the purely orchestral passages would be the highlights of this performance.

Blaming the orchestra (and the chorus, whose lack of purity is particularly problematic in this piece) would be oversimplifying matters. Mr. Nézet-Seguin is an extremely objective Wagnerian, in a way that would make Georg Solti sound like Hans Knappertsbusch in comparison. As long as his straight-to-the-matter approach was allied to a certain directness in what regards tempo, this proved to be a viable and valid approach, not dissimilar to Riccardo Muti’s Wagner performances at La Scala (dismissed by many as overfast and unambitious). The first scene with Amfortas, however, hinted at a problematic turn in his concept. There, the conductor tried something more traditionally Wagnerian, i.e., flexibility of beat in order to achieve a certain gravitas to the proceedings. Then, one started to feel an increasing number of full stops in the discourse. Without depth of sound and no real profoundness of meaning, pauses sounded like silence and rubato sounded like lingering.

Act 2 is the one that generally benefits from conductors who keep things moving on, but here Mr. Nézet-Seguin seemed conflicted between Reginald Goodall and Pierre Boulez. His shifting from overslow to overfast would make some specialists in baroque opera envious. When you have singers of legendary tonal variety, they can fill in the blanks of the orchestral playing. Knappertsbusch had Martha Mödl and Régine Crespin in Bayreuth. This was not always the case this evening. As usual, act 3 tends to inspire conductors to give their best and the final note was rather positive, if not truly illuminating.

I had seen Evelyn Herlitzius as Kundry in Tokyo and was a bit disappointed by the fact that she was caught short with the exposed acuti in the end of act 2. For this second encounter, I decided to hope that she would be in top form and flash Spitzentöne in the auditorium. I couldn’t be more off the mark. As a matter of fact, Ms. Herlitzius has never sung more subtly than she did this evening. She tried all kinds of softer dynamics and her intent to sing legato even involved the use of portamento. As she deals with the text adeptly, one felt drawn to her interpretation. The problem remains that, if her control of the passaggio was masterly, she still finds the dramatic high notes difficult, what is surprising for an experienced Brünnhilde. Sometimes, her voice sounded poorly focused, even if the squalliness was less pronounced than what one would expect.

Klaus Florian Vogt’s monochrome Parsifal is not the best fit to this performance. Whenever the conductor gave him time to produce a dramatic effect, one would just hear a note sung after the other with very little affection. Maybe I’ve grown too accustomed to James King’s recordings, but it all sounded reined in and lacking dynamic variety. It is true that the one color suggests innocence and youth, but this is a long opera and one needs a little bit more than that.

Peter Mattei’s tighly focused baritone is consistently pleasant to the ears and he phrases with the imagination and sensitivity of a Lieder singer. His Amfortas sounded particularly vulnerable and expressive. He would be tested when the writing demanded a little bit more power, and this was the only thing between him and complete success in this role. This was not a problem shared by Evgeny Nikitin, whose superpowerful bass-baritone finds no difficulty  in the role of Klingsor. Moreover, he seems to have fun in bad-guy roles. It is a pity that René Pape was not in his best voice. The way it grated whenever he tried mezza voce made me think he has the flu or something like that. He would sound more comfortable in act 3, but even then this does not compare to his usual standards in the role. In any case, this is still comparing him to himself.

I am not sure about François Girard’s 2013 production. It is indeed very creative in its low-cost quality and the way it explores powerful and simple symbols, but the red/black/white colors and the wet-baby-doll-contest Flower-maidens made me think of Las Vegas. Also, the male/female imbalance storyline has been – even if less clearly – more insightfully explored elsewhere.

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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 in the second act 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. 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), but I am not sure if this staging serves this idea as efficiently as it should. Also,  even if 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.

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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.

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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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Kwangchul Youn has established a reputation as a Wagner singer in Bayreuth and the most important opera houses around the world. He is particularly noted for his performances as Gurnemanz, a role he never sang before in his native South Korea until this week. As far as I understand, one of the reasons is that this was the Korean premiere of Wagner’s last masterpiece here.

For this performances, the Korea National Opera has ordered a new production by Philippe Arlaud, a director who worked with Christian Thielemann both in Berlin and in Bayreuth. Those used to Regietheater productions on the Green Hill would probably find this staging unchallenging in its straightforwardness – I would say that it was a sensible idea to focus on telling the story to an audience who is seeing the work for the first time. Also, it is refreshing that a stylized, minimalistic approach (rather than a traditional approach in a country where this tradition means very little) has been chosen. Act I shows one tree trunk surrounded by an iceberg borrowed from Caspar David Friedrich – a symbol for a social order whose propelling energy is gone (a red glowing grail being the only warm color on stage); act II has no sets, Klingsor’s world being just make-believe; act III predictably has the decayed version of  act I. As one can see, nothing new here, but one should not underestimate the the fact that the cast showed great conviction under the coherent guidance of a director who took the pains of sharing his visions with his singers in a way that also made sense for the audience.

Saying that Lothar Zagrosek opted for comfortable tempi that made it possible for his musicians to produce adequate results would be oversimplifying it. His orchestra played with enthusiasm and was able to fill the hall with sound when this was necessary. Brass was less accident-prone than I would have imagined and strings would sound pale only in fast or soft passages. What is important is that the right gravitas has been achieved – and singers could find the necessary time to let Wagner’s text and music “speak” for itself. You might be thinking that this is no guarantee of success for act II. Indeed, a while after the exit of the flower-maidens, things tended to get a bit pointless. Orchestral passages missed denser strings, act III having a couple of problematic moments.

Although Yvonne Naef has her taut/narrow moments, her Kundry is dramatically alert, tonally varied and seductive in a Crespin-esque way. In act III, her acting alone was effective as her singing. Christopher Ventris’s Parsifal is less gripping, and yet subtle and youthful-toned. Also, he sings with unfailing technique and musicianship. Gerard Kim (Amfortas) has an interesting voice – dark with a cutting edge – and he is the kind of singer who knows how to test his limits in a positive way. Moreover, he has a very expressive face. Antonio Yang (Klingsor) too has an intense stage presence.  His dark and forceful baritone very much at home in this repertoire. Kwangchul Youn does not need introduction in this part. He was also in superb voice and colored the text with the sure hand of a master.

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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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While the Fujiwara Opera Company is a rather conservative institution, Tokyo Nikikai Opera has showed the Japanese audience a rather adventurous repertoire on borrowing productions from some innovative opera houses in Europe while manning them with Japanese musicians. In its 60th anniversary season, it has programmed Claus Guth’s staging of Parsifal, as seen in Zurich and Barcelona.

Nobody can accuse Guth of inconsistency: the revolving stage, the rewriting the plot, the psychologization/trivialization of archetypal/mythological/symbolic figures and situations – they are all there. As told here, the story takes place right before WWII in a mansion turned into what seems to be a hospital for war-traumatized soldiers. Gurnemanz is the resident chaplain, a very much visible Titurel is the lord of the manor, whose two sons (?!) Amfortas and Klingsor cannot come to an understanding since their father began to display an obvious preference for the former. This preference means that: a) Amfortas is supposed to be the field hospital’s “king”; b) and that his privileges are basically being bullied by the medical staff and having the blood of his wound extracted by nurses and drank (in the grail) by his vampiric father, who shares the diluted version with the patients in a very choreographic ceremony in the “hospital”. Why Klingsor is envious of all that will remain a mystery. Brothers will eventually become chums again in the end, when Parsifal becomes some sort of military dictator and Kundry decides that she should hit the road and get a life after all.

Although the concept has many loose ends and is essentially contradictory (the “the redeemer has been redempt”-moral is here only an irony…), I do find interesting the idea that an institution bereft of its spiritual content (therefore, of its purpose) will still exist as self-parody, as the mechanical repetition of its sheer phisiology. Monsalvat’s purpose was to protect the holy grail and spear that together produce Christ’s blood in a miraculous and purifying rite. However, the king proved to be impure and failed to fulfill the institution’s purpose – he has lost the holy spear – but at this point the institution serves no longer its purpose but rather its own existence. A ceremony must be performed; if the miraculous blood cannot be produced, someone’s blood will have to do. The fact that it is the king’s  blood being an interesting image of how a legitimate political project eventually becomes a power machine. It is a pity that this interesting aspect went lost in incoherence (the whole Parsifal-as-military-dictator (guess who we’re talking about…) episode, silliness (Parsifal trying to “cure” the symptoms of the mentally disturbed patient in a Mel Brooks-approach) and sheer misfiring (Kundry’s seduction scene followed by some 15 clueless extras.

Conductor Taijirou Iimori is an experienced Wagnerian with an impressively organized musical mind. The first five minutes of the performance perfectly balanced and more transparent than any other performance of this opera in my experience. Eventually, the maestro would have to deal with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra’s limitations in tonal glamour and homogeneity and his soloists’ lack of experience and vocal amplitude. Iimori must be praised by his commitment to the actual performance rather than his own concept: as a result, the performance took place without major incidents, but unfortunately without major revelations. I have the impression that he is the kind of conductor who works rather from detail than from the big picture; I often missed an act-long guiding line that would link the intention of isolated moments that would fade into grey zones before tension had to be build up from scratch. I would like to hear him in more “authentic” Wagnerian circumstances.

At first, I did not know what to think of Yuka Hashizume’s Kundry. She is not a dramatic soprano, but she has the stamina and the piercing quality for the exposed acuti; she is not a mezzo soprano, but her low register is warm, rich and voluminous enough; she is not really a bête de scène with a flashing personality, but she has an interesting subtle presence and also interpretative imagination and the technique to make it happen in tonal and dynamic variety. Hashizume is a singer with a wide range of possibilities, and I have the impression that all this could be focused into something truly amazing in less experimental milieux. She has sung Senta and Sieglinde in Japan in similar enterprises – it would be interesting to hear her how she would react to the influence of someone like Daniel Barenboim in the Lindenoper.

Kei Fukui was the Nikikai Opera’s Walther in their Meistersinger, but he is more usually seen in recitals in which he has plenty of opportunity to sing arias like Nessun Dorma and E lucevan le stelle, hardly the kind of tenor one would find in a Wagnerian cast in Europe. One could tell from his Italianized German, explosive phrasing and the habit of treating declaratory lines in a rather free way. Although his voice is big enough for this role, having to emulate a heldentenor (especially in the rather emotional way he understands this task to be) made he force too often and after a while he sounded basically tired. He still had his high notes, though, and had a “reiner Tor” thing about him, even if in a very generic manner.

Hiroshi Kuroda’s baritone has a really curdled sound and the results were often rough. He is a committed actor and could produce the necessary intensity. Kazuhiro Kotetsu has the voice for Gurnemanz, knows the text and Wagnerian style. His singing has many unfocused patches, though, and the interpretation is still wooden. This is, of course, a very challenging role usually cast with acknowledged singers and Kuroda is rather the ensemble’s leading bass (actually, I find it quite remarkable that the Nikikai Opera could cast from ensemble, in a way that only opera houses in Germany would do). Ryouhei Izumi proved to understand everything about Klingsor but the proper technique to sing the role. One could see what he wanted to do – and that this could be interesting – but rawness was one could ultimately hear. Tetsuya Odagawa’s Titurel was too woolly for comfort, but the flower maidens were very well cast.

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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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The audiences in Berlin are almost uniquely spoiled – besides two major opera houses (and an adventurous third one), the city counts with a a couple of world-class orchestras. I have to understand that as the reason for the way Marek Janowski and his RSB Orchestra are usually overlooked. I particularly value Mr. Janowski for his complete recording of Wagner’s Ring with the Staatskapelle Dresden, a paragon of structural clarity if a bit short on drama (and a more natural recorded sound…). When I had the opportunity of asking him years ago what is his objective as a Wagnerian conductor, his answer was: “clarity, clarity, clarity!”. And he is still faithful to his creed, as he proved this evening.

Janowski and the RSB have launched a very ambitious project of performing all Wagner’s mature works (in the sense of “from Der fliegende Holländer on”) in concert with international casts. Unfortunately, I have missed the first installment, but couldn’t let the second one pass. And it has been certainly worth the detour. Although the RSB does not have the glamorous sound of the Berlin Philharmonic (it is particularly unvaried in color and maybe short in dynamics), it is an extremely capable Wagnerian orchestra, ready to give its conductor all it can do. And I suspect purely beautiful and big sounds are not what Janowski is looking for anyway. Although they might have been helpful in the Karfreitagszauber passage and other key moments, one would find more than compensation in a performance where one could feel as if reading the score. Really, everything Wagner wrote would come clearly and naturally to you in transparent orchestral sound, perfectly balanced and intelligently set together and consequent tempi that made phrasing sharp as blue-ray image. That said, life is never so simple – although I had the second act of my dreams this evening, the outer acts, clear and musical as they were, seem to cry for… overwhelmingly rich orchestral sound, even at the expense of some transparency. Especially in a concert performance. But then these acts depend very much on the casting for Gurnemanz.

That Franz-Josef Selig’s voice is outstandingly beautiful is no matter of dispute. Its voluminous velvetiness and the ductility that allows it touching soft tones made his Sarastro famous. One can feel a “but” coming and here it comes – since some time, his high register has been sounding tense and discolored unless he sings it piano. As it is, his fondness for low dynamics and his elegant phrasing makes his Gurnemanz convincingly benign and sensitive, but recently he sounds too often uncomfortable when required to sing full out in his high register. As a result, many Wagnerian climaxes hang fire – particularly in the Philharmonie, which is not the user-friendliest place for singers.

Christian Elsner’s lyric yet warm-toned tenor made Parsifal sound young as he should, but he is not really impetuous as an interpreter and his high notes lack the necessary brightness to pierce through when he has a big orchestra behind him. In any case, he sang elegantly and let Michelle DeYoung’s feline Kundry take center stage. I’ve seen this American mezzo-soprano a couple of times and have always found her good, but this evening she really wowed me. Other than bringing sexy back to Kundry with her fruity, rich voice that takes very easily to mezza voce, she masters as very few mezzos either live or in recordings the ability of producing big dramatic high notes. The closing of second act found her entirely in control – and that was something new for me in the theater. Moreover, she is an intelligent, charismatic performer who knows how to produce the thrill of the stage in a concert performance. In that sense, she was finely matched by Evgeny Nikitin’s intense Amfortas. There have been more varied performers of this role, but the Russian bass-baritone brings out the tormented side of this character quite vividly. In a couple of moments, he forced his high notes a bit, but even that worked out in his intense approach to the role. And it doesn’t hurt that his voice flashes out in the auditorium. The other Russian in the cast, Dimitry Ivaschenko, sang the part of Titurel and proved to have an unbelievably big voice. In particularly strong voice this evening, Eike Wilm Schulte was a venomous Klingsor. Small roles were cast from strength with the likes of Clemens Bieber and Tuomas Pursio, but it was the Rundfunkchor Berlin who got the biggest applause of the evening.

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