Thought-provoking Parsifal in Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Wagner, Parsifal Soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Zurich Opera / Mikko Franck (conductor) 23.3.2013 (JR)

Amfortas: Detlef Roth
Titurel: Pavel Daniluk
Gurnemanz: Jan-Hendrik Rootering
Parsifal: Stuart Skelton
Klingsor: Tobias Schabel
Kundry: Angela Denoke

Production Director: Klaus Guth
Set and costumes: Christian Schmidt
Lighting: Jürgen Hoffmann
Chorus Masters: Jürg Hämmerli and Ernst Raffelsberger
Video Design: Andi A. Müller

Copyright: Suzanne Schwiertz

This intelligently conceived Klaus Guth production, shared with Gran Teatro del Liceu Barcelona, is a revival and was premièred in the 2010/2011 season. It is neither set in Monsalvat nor in today’s times, but in 1914. Bayreuth banned all performances of Parsifal – outside Bayreuth itself – for 40 years and that time bar expired in 1914. There were then, naturally, a flood of performances and Zurich pipped all other houses to the post. There is a natural parallel between care-worn Knights of the Holy Grail and shell-shocked First World War soldiers and Act I is set in a sanatorium/hospital for the wounded and those traumatised in the trenches, The set is a huge revolving edifice with some rooms upstairs (revealing a case for the Holy Grail chalice and another for the Holy Spear), some downstairs, and the set revolves frequently and dreamily as the action moves on. That serves to hold the audience’s attention, as do occasional superimposed videos of a young man’s bare feet tramping through a meadow (Act 1), along a road (Act 2) and then in boots in snows (Act 3).

Act 2 attempts – not entirely successfully – to transform the hall and staircase of the sanatorium into Klingsor’s magic tower, with the aid of some red Chinese Lanterns. The costume designer relishes the chance to kit out the ladies in 1920 flapper dresses and we are into 1920s Berlin. Kundry has more than a passing resemblance to Marlene Dietrich. By Act 3 we have moved on another 10 years to the early 1930s and the seizure of power by the fascists, Parsifal himself donning a military cap and sash over his grey shirt as he stands below the illuminated Holy Grail.

Guth likens the transformation of Parsifal himself through the decades (from young fool to puberty to young man experiencing first love then realisation of life) to Germany’s trials and tribulations from the end of World War I to the roaring 20s, the Great Depression and Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the rise of Hitler in 1933. It is an intelligent conception and it works. Only once was I distracted watching wounded disabled soldiers returning from the trenches whilst Gurnemanz sings his glorious monologue in Act III (“Du siehst, das nicht so”).

Amfortas has his bloodied shirt removed for his bath, nurses extract some of his blood which his father Titurel then drinks and drops are also added to water for the Knights to drink – that gives you a flavour of this production.

Apparently one of Wagner’s early drafts of Parsifal conceived Amfortas and Klingsor as brothers, a concept which Guth uses, showing us during the Prelude to Act I the two “brothers” sitting at the table with their father Titurel. Titurel openly favours Amfortas and Klingsor breaks a glass in disgust and storms out; right at the end of the opera the two brothers are reconciled: Parsifal himself has by then become the new ruler.

Vocally, this is a strong cast. Stuart Skelton is now a seasoned Parsifal, ever strong in voice and a fine actor, particularly in his declamations as the end of Act II. Detlef Roth is Bayreuth’s Amfortas of choice and he more than equalled Thomas Hampson who sang the role in Zurich two years ago; Roth’s diction is also crystal clear. Pavel Daniluk looks too young for the role of Titurel and sings a mite too heartily.

Angela Denoke is a very fine Kundry, visually and vocally a delight, impressive from the outset, and was ecstatically received. At the close of the opera, she is depicted as the wandering (Jewish?) refugee complete with suitcase.

Tobias Schabel was a young debonair Klingsor and impressed greatly with his mellow fine bass, perhaps a little more menace in his acting might not have gone amiss. That leaves, for me, the one weakness in the cast, the Wagner veteran Jan-Hendrik Rootering as Gurnemanz, depicted as the sanatorium’s chaplain, but too impersonal in his acting. As in The Flying Dutchman earlier this season, his voice tends to dry and die out and lacks volume; even though the closed wooden set helped the voices project and resonate, he was frequently drowned out by the orchestra, Mikko Franck in the pit forgetting perhaps the small size of the Zurich opera-house. Otherwise Franck’s conducting was exemplary (with slightly faster tempi than those chosen by Gatti at the première) and the orchestra put on one of their best shows, as did the splendid male chorus. When the top-hatted funeral directors (at Amfortas’ funeral) turn round to “salute” their new leader, the chorus master comes on the balcony, almost next to Parsifal, to conduct them, looking like the head undertaker, and this is a distraction; a fault in the production but necessary it seems for grounds of ensemble.

It was, however, all in all, a Parsifal to savour.

John Rhodes