Thirteen Years On Gergiev Returns with a Masterful Parsifal

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Parsifal: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Opera, Valery Gergiev (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 3.4.2012. (JPr)

Was it really 1999 when I left a school meeting in Southend, Essex, and raced to the Royal Albert Hall in record time – not much over one hour as I recall – with some to spare to allow for parking and to get to my seat for Gergiev and his musicians and singers – then still ‘trading’ under their old Kirov Opera name – in a performance of Wagner’s Parsifal. Where does the time go? Though the Kirov had had a wonderful past, it was at the time a down-at-heel opera company in a country that was economically unstable. Under the tireless leadership of Valery Gergiev the elements of the company – opera, ballet or orchestra – seemed at the time to be forever touring the West to make their work known and – most importantly – garner financial backing for what they were doing back home. All this seems to have worked out well with exciting developments for the historic Mariinsky Theatre (as the Kirov is now known) with a new concert hall already finished and the building of a further venue underway. How much this is due to Gergiev’s worldwide fundraising activities or to home-grown Russian oligarchs is not clear but it all seems to have worked out splendidly.

The Mariinsky Opera’s current short Easter tour visiting Cardiff, London and ending in Birmingham is under the auspices of the Mariinsky Trust and sponsored by BP. After Parsifal and Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in Wales, it was Wagner and the Verdi Requiem at the Barbican with a third performance of Parsifal in Birmingham to follow. This company’s recent attempt at the Ring in this country was reported not to have been up to the company’s best standards – and thankfully I missed that – so it was pleasing to see the Mariinsky Opera redeem their Wagner reputation with this performance.

In 1999 – despite evidence of more rehearsal time needed – the orchestra played well, the chorus sang out powerfully but it was some of the soloists who spoilt the performance somewhat for me. I remember too much Russian-colouring to the voices that detracted from the sound world I believe Wagner wanted us to experience, The famous Russian baritone Sergei Leiferkus may be more familiar to readers and – although he was not involved in that concert – it is his similar metallic Slavic sound that I never found convincing in the Italian or German repertoire. By 2012 – and through the singers’ greater experience of Western ‘vocal traditions’ – it appears this has been coached out of them and so this Parsifal performance was all the better for that.

Throwing a spanner into the modern debate about the meaning of Parsifal is the assertion I have just read from Kaspar Holten, the new director of opera at Covent Garden, that he cannot direct the opera because he is not a ‘believer’. So is the self-castrating Klingsor not a Jew now and just an evil sorcerer? If so Wagner’s final work can be reclaimed as a mixture of Christian symbolism, Buddhist philosophy and medieval myth rather than – on the evidence of very slim textual evidence – at best, something worthy of Freudian interpretation or at worst, a treatise on ‘racial cleansing’. Who is redeemed at the end of the work always causes concern and I quite liked Christopher Cook’s programme note that it might be ‘…nature itself’. Regenerated by the tears of the singers at the beginning of Act III in the so-called Good Friday Music’, I recalled a performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony in the very same hall two days before, and because of the nature of that performance under Semyon Bychkov I began to think more concretely that there is a close connection between that symphony and this Wagner opera. This is not the place to elaborate on that but for those who know their Parsifal just consider two of Mahler’s original descriptions for certain movements: ‘What the flowers of the meadow tell me’ and ‘What the morning bells tell me (the angels)’.

At its simplest it is the Grail with Christ’s blood and the Spear that pierced his side that are the relics the plot hinges on; brotherhood, sexual desires and chastity bring together the wise Gurnemanz, the wounded king Amfortas, his enemy Klingsor, femme fatale Kundry, and the naive Parsifal, each of whom have their own demons to conquer. With Wagner in concert the audience is able to concentrate more fully on the words and music as we are spared the concern of unravelling the whims of the latest Wunderkind stage director.

The orchestra itself was surprisingly small for such a large work but totally in keeping with the acoustics of the Barbican Hall that Gergiev knows so well from his work with the London Symphony Orchestra. The soloists sang from either end of the platform, the chorus of about 50 onstage sang strongly and the singers off-stage, including the Tiffin Boys’ Choir, projected effectively from higher up in the hall. I noticed few fluffs from an orchestra that played with great commitment and there was a velvety tone from the strings, a polished sound from the woodwind and some warm burnished brass. Gergiev, with his hands all aquiver, brought us a well-prepared, fluent reading of the score that never lingered and had a glowing mystical ambiance from first to last note. Overall this was the best performance I have been to where he has been the conductor.

I am used to John Tomlinson’s grizzled Gurnemanz in comparison with whom someone like Yury Vorobiev singing with such vocal assurance and authority is likely to make the character seem younger than usual. He sang with clear diction and reassuring German pronunciation that was typical of all his principal colleagues. Evgeny Nikitin – Bayreuth’s new Dutchman – did not seem enfeebled in any way and certainly not vocally and this made his Amfortas sound like Wotan, another of his Wagnerian roles. The venerable Mariinsky singer, Nikolay Putilin, was a rather forthright one-dimensional Klingsor. Larisa Gogolevskaya as Kundry was a survivor from Gergiev’s 1999 Royal Albert Hall Parsifal and her matronly appearance failed to make her as alluring as the six excellent Flowermaidens in haute couture the Mariinsky ensemble fielded. She sang relentlessly out to the audience and generally ignored her Parsifal only turning towards him at the time of the Act II ‘kiss’. If anything, hers was the nearest to the more old-school Russian-sounding voice and although she inhabited her character’s exasperation well, the intervening years have not help her retain the range that Wagner demands of her. Also letting the side down a little was Avgust Amonov’s reasonably lyrical but introverted and score-bound Parsifal: unfortunately he exuded all the charisma of a financial advisor.

I appreciate it was a concert performance, but Parsifal should not vacate the stage when he has finished singing in Act I and leave Gurnemanz alone with an just an empty chair to dismiss from the Grail Temple at the end. Also what did Kundry in Act III have better to do than give the others something to sing at during their important moments? Her absence from the stage also meant ‘Dienen, dienen’ became disembodied words emanating probably from someone in the Mariinsky Chorus. Finally as I know essays have been written about the ‘bells’ that are required in this work, here the ones played on a synthesizer were, for me, better than most.

Jim Pritchard