Jack Leo

Parsifal at Covent Garden

Members Finnish Wagner Society were lucky enough to see the opening of the new production of Parsifal at the Royal Opera House in London. By all accounts, this was on the musical triumphs of Covent Garden, and certainly one of the best Wagner experiences I have had. Most of the credit must go to the conductor, Sir Simon Rattle. Sir Simon has not conducted much opera, but when he has, it has always been an occasion, and Parsifal was no exception. Sir Simon's tempi were on the slow side, but he still managed to infuse the music with a continual dramatic momentum. At the same time, he was able to do this with a lightness of touch that gave the music a translucent, chamber music-like quality, and avoid the kind of teutonic heaviness some people mistake for profundity. The ROH orchestra played superbly, with incredible musicianship and precision. Also the chorus of the Royal opera outdid themselves. It in Bayreuth would it be possible to play Parsifal better, and that is solely due to the unique acoustics and atmosphere there.

I don't think the singing could be better anywhere else, either, at least not in present times. John Tomlinson is nearing the end of his career, but he still gave a powerful interpretation as Gurnemanz. His upper register now sounds dry and wobbly, but the lower registers of his warm bass are still in good shape. But it was his deeply humane portrayal of the old knight that made Tomlinson's performance memorable. His feeling for the text and music was natural and yet highly involving, and there wasn't a single second of boredom during his long narratives. Thomas Hampson grappled the role of Amfortas with the intelligence of a great Lieder singer, conveying the misery of the suffering King of the Grail. His handsome baritone rang out in all registers, but in the third act there was a hint of strain, implying that this role might be just slightly too heavy for him. Violetta Urmana was an outstanding Kundry, her singing sounding effortless in whole of the wide scale required by this role. She may not have made as erotic an impression as some of her notable predecessors in the second act, but then again the directing there wasn't of much help. Stig Andersen, the Parsifal, by now well known to the Finnish Wagner Society for his appearances in Helsinki and Copenhagen, gave the kind of performance on has come to expect from him: not vocally brilliant, but musically and dramatically sensitive. Particularly in the third act he gave a touchingly sung performance, but in the first two he didn't make as good an impression. But in these acts he was dressed in very unflattering green pyjamas, so perhaps that is no wonder. Willard White overcame the constraints of the production and gave an astonishingly powerful portrayal of Klingsor, and Alfred Reiner's sturdy bass impressed in the short role of Titurel.

The production, by Klaus Michael Grüber, had previously been seen in Madrid. Many were disappointed by it, especially when comparing it to the exceptional musical standard heard now at Covent Garden. It's true that Grüber's direction was very static, but it had some good points. The fairly naturalistic staging of the first and third acts was, in my opinion at least, quite pleasing, with the forest and partly snow-covered meadow aesthetically pleasing. The stage picture Grüber constructed for the second scene in act one was particularly striking, having been inspired by Leonardo's Last Supper, with Amfortas as the Christ figure and the knights of the grail his disciples. The grail here was some kind of rock, but for the final scene in the third act it had disappeared completely, leaving Parsifal standing down stage separated from the knights by a transparent curtain. The movement of the characters was kept to a minimum, and when they did move, it was in a sort of slow motion. Also, there was little contact between them. This served to heighten the ritualistic atmosphere of the piece, and if nothing else, certainly allowed the music room to breathe.

It was the second act that was most disappointing. Klingsors magical domain was suggested by light and colour effects in the first scene, and these were quite impressive, but unfortunately their effect was mitigated by a large shark hanging over the stage, which brought some laughs from the audience. For the second scene, the light effects disappeared, and what was left was a mostly empty stage with the flower maidens lying on the floor. I thought they were going to get up, but they didn't, staying down for their whole scene. The duet between Kundry and Parsifal lost much of its power due to the fact the characters were hardly allowed to interact. Klingsor's throwing the spear raised my pulse a bit, but the destruction of his domain was pretty pathetic, with only a couple of small styrofoam pillars falling down. What a pity the second act was subjected to this; had it been even somewhat better, this might have been a very acceptable staging.