Vienna State Opera’s Parsifal: Vacuous Production but Strong Musical Performances

AustriaAustria Wagner, Parsifal: Soloists, Children of the Vienna State Opera Opera School, Chorus (chorus master: Martin Schebesta) and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera / Semyon Bychkov (conductor). Vienna State Opera, 5.4.2018. (MB)

Parsifal © Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

Amfortas – Jochen Schmeckenbecker
Gurnemanz – Kwangchul Youn
Parsifal – Christopher Ventris
Klingsor – Boaz Daniel
Kundry – Anja Kampe
Titurel – Ryan Speedo Green
Squires – Rachel Frenkel, Miriam Albano, Wolfram Igor Dentl, Peter Jelosits
First Knight of the Grail – Benedikt Köbel
Second Knight of the Grail – Marcus Pelz
Flowermaidens – Maria Nazarova, Lydia Rathkolb, Rachel Frenkel, Hila Fahima, Mariam Battistelli, Stephanie Houtzeel
Voice from Above – Zoryana Kushpler

Alvis Hermanis (director, set designs)
Kristīne Jurjāne (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)
Ineta Sipunova (video)
Silvia Platzek (assistant set designer)

Parsifal continues its strange career in the opera house, both its ‘home’, Bayreuth, and beyond – the ‘beyond’ Cosima Wagner haplessly, hilariously attempted to prevent with her Lex Parsifal. (Note to pious New York Wagnerians: next time you appeal to the Master’s alleged intentions, consider your house’s role in confounding them.) Wagner’s desire, as expressed to Ludwig II, to protect the work from ‘a common operatic career’ is understandable. Indeed, Pierre Boulez, a highly distinguished interpreter and critic of the work as well as compositional successor, understood this very well when he approvingly noted Wagner loathing a system in which ‘opera houses are … like cafés where … you can hear waiters calling out their orders: “One Carmen! And one Walküre! And one Rigoletto!”’ Bayreuth has veered from the very best, indeed the very greatest, in Stefan Herheim, to the very worst, with Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s festival of Islamophobia, bizarrely released on DVD whilst its predecessor languishes in the (virtual) vaults. I do not think I saw Vienna’s previous Parsifal, directed by Christine Mielitz; at any rate, I have no recollection of it. This first revival of Alvis Hermanis’s production had me wondering, however, whether it could have been any more vacuous

Hermanis would not be my choice to direct anything, whether for his avowed Islamophobia – how he must have cursed Laufenberg for getting there first – or for the limitations of his craft, such as it may be. His Salzburg Liebe der Danae combined the two to an uncommon degree. I am astonished any theatre or opera house would still enlist his services, following his storming out of Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre on account of its having extended a welcome to refugees. What we have here, at seemingly great expense, is a series of impressive designs – with which, to be fair, he is credited too – and very little that could really be considered a production at all. There is just enough – again, to be fair – to permit one’s mind to work, to posit connections between what one sees, essentially tableaux from Vienna 1900. Yet, whilst I am certainly in favour of us all having to do some mental lifting, I cannot, hand on heart, say that my psychoanalytical thoughts had their roots in what I saw, whereas they unquestionably have done in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s outstanding Berlin staging.

The conceit, if we may call it that, is that two Wagners, Richard and Otto, shared the same, well, surname. Therefore the action takes place at the ‘Wagner Spital’ – alias Otto’s Steinhof psychiatric hospital. I wondered whether there might be a nod to Nietzsche and/or Thomas Mann on Parsifal, here, but suspect myself, perhaps unusually, of undue charity. A model of the human brain grows larger, amidst some books on shelves: ‘Durch Mitleid wissend…’? There is a half-hearted attempt, which nevertheless made me think, at pschyoanalysis, Kundry on Klingsor’s couch, in the second act, although it quickly becomes unclear, rather than fruitfully ambiguous, who, if anyone, amongst the characters, is analysing whom. Bits of (Richard) Wagner’s poem are flashed up above the stage from time to time; having hired someone for video, it must, presumably, have been necessary to find something for her to do. (Not her fault in the slightest, I hasten to add.) As for the final scene, in which a few Vienna 1900 celebrities join the chorus, bedecked in the most absurd winged helmets you will ever have seen, even as devotees of ‘Against Modern Opera Productions’, I simply gave up. The stage direction itself might as well have been a wet Wednesday’s revival of Otto Schenk.

Fortunately, musical matters were considerably better. The orchestra sounded better than I have heard it in Wagner for some time. It will always play well for conductors it likes: I can therefore only presume that, quite rightly, it likes Semyon Bychkov. The seamlessness of Bychkov’s account showed that, once again, as in, say, his Lohengrin, his Tannhäuser, and his Tristan, he both discerns and can communicate the Wagner melos. Some passages were thrillingly dramatic, not least an overwhelming close to the second act. Others seemed, perhaps, to tread water a little, but that may just have been my difficulty in dissociating what I heard from what I saw. No one, however, could justly have been disappointed with what (s)he heard here, those hallowed Vienna strings not far from the top of their golden game.

However, rather to my surprise, I found Christopher Ventris slightly disappointing in the title role – certainly no match for his 2008 self for Herheim and Daniele Gatti. Ventris can still sing the role, often beautifully, but his stage presence seemed almost tired, whether compared with ten years ago in the same role or indeed with his Bayreuth Siegmund last summer. Perhaps he just needed stronger direction; one can certainly sympathise. Anja Kampe’s Kundry proved thrilling, increasingly so as time went on, her laughter at Christ erotically chilling. Kwangchul Youn’s Gurnemanz has gathered wisdom over the years; this may have been the finest I have heard from him, utterly at ease in the role, without taking a single note or word for granted. At times, I found Jochen Schmeckenbecker’s Amfortas a little underpowered, even monochrome, but again there was much to be savoured from his way with the text, both verbal and musical. Boaz Daniel’s Klingsor had one wishing, as so often with this role, that it were at least a little longer. Choral singing, from boys, men, and women alike was excellent: clear, transparent, and yet weighty, having my mind flit back to Wagner’s work in Dresden, whether on his own, strange Liebesmahl der Apostel, or Palestrina’s Stabat Mater (which he edited, less interestingly than one might have hoped). There was, then, redemption to be had, but in a strictly musical sense.

Mark Berry

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