Authentic Pretenses: Parsifal in Madrid

GermanyGermany R. Wagner, Parsifal: Soloists, Balthasar Neumann Ensemble and Chorus, Thomas Hengelbrock (conductor), Teatro Real, Madrid, 31.1.2013 (JMI)

Concert Version

Parsifal: Simon O’Neill
Kundry: Angela Denoke
Gurnemanz: Kwangchul Youn
Amfortas: Matthias Goerne
Klingsor: Johannes Martin Kränzle
Titurel: Victor von Halem

Kwangchul Youn in Teatro Real's concert version of Parsifal
Picture courtesy Teatro Real, © Javier del Real

The Teatro Real’s concert version of Parsifal was of particular interest because it was aimed at reproducing the sound which would have been heard at the premiere of the opera in Bayreuth, July 1882. The conductor Thomas Hengelbrock and his Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble, the orchestra he founded in 1995, have made a detailed study of the instruments used on that occasion, and has had many of today’s instruments rebuilt to bring them closer to their 19th century sound. At first glance, the result is less brilliant than what we are used to today, but the listener soon adjusts to the difference. That’s fair enough, but why this rationale applied only to the orchestra, not the chorus, which was left at a modern-nimble 40: 32 men and 8 women, compared to 135 at the 1882 premiere.

Hengelbrock has controversially conducted Tannhäuser at Bayreuth in 2011 (but was asked not to repeat the feat, which was subsequently handed to Christian Thielemann). On this occasion, the result was uncontroversially good, neat and alive, and with fast tempi. What kept if from being on par with some of the better interpretations I have heard was a perceived lack of inspiration and depth.

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R.Wagner, Parsifal,
R.Kubelik / BRSO
K.Moll, Y.Minton, J.King,
F.Mazura, B.Weikl, M.Salminen
Music & Arts

A version of Parsifal which lasts only 3 hours and 33 minutes is very fast, but speed—subjective or objective—is not the issue. Pierre Boulez’s Parsifal in Bayreuth in 2005 was just about as fast, but that was an unforgettable interpretation. Compare to that, Hengelbrock’s reading sounded superficial in the first act and it felt far longer than the 87 minutes it lasted. He was at his best in the last act, where emotion finally appeared, though not in large doses.

The performance of the orchestra was fine but not outstanding, while the chorus sounded weak and not nearly as good as the chorus of the Teatro Real. New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill was acceptable as Parsifal, with a voice well suited to the character, but an unattractive timbre. His singing was accurate, but didn’t well transport feelings.

German soprano Angela Denoke, who had to cancel her first night as Kundry, had not yet fully recovered, but her immense professionalism ensured a success. In the second act the voice was not at its very best at either end of the tessitura, but it was, as ever, a pleasure to attend a performance by this intense, expressive artist.

Korean bass Kwangchul Youn was a magnificent Gurnemanz, in fact, I don’t remember such a convincing Gurnemanz since hearing René Pape eight years ago. Youn’s voice has gained in volume and poise, and he was, as always, a great singer.Matthias Goerne’s Amfortas was not as vocally convincing. One of the great lieder singers of today, he has artistry to spare. But Goerne’s voice strikes me as unsuitable for a character like Amfortas. Johannes Martin Kränzle was well cast as Klingsor, and veteran Victor Von Halem was a resounding Titurel.

José Mª Irurzun