A solid Parsifal at the Liceu with an outstanding René Pape as Gurnemanz

SpainSpain Wagner, Parsifal: Chorus and Symphony Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu  / Josep Pons (conductor). Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 7.6.2023. (JMI)

Nikolai Schukoff (Parsifal) and the Flower Maidens © A. Bofill

Director – Claus Guth
Sets and Costumes – Christian Schmidt
Lighting – Jürgen Hoffmann
Choreography – Volker Michl
Video – Andi A. Müller

Parsifal – Nikolai Schukoff
Kundry – Elena Pankratova
Gurnemanz – René Pape
Amfortas – Matthias Goerne
Klingsor – Evgeny Nikitin
Titurel – Paata Burchuladze

Parsifal, Richard Wagner’s final opera, is closely linked to the history of Barcelona’s Liceu. The opera was staged here on 13 December 1913, the first authorized performance outside of Bayreuth, and the Liceu premiere was followed in that season by no less than fourteen performances.

Barcelona has remained faithful to Wagner and Parsifal: this occasion is number 114 in the history of the house. Few theaters can offer such significant numbers, and certainly none in southern Europe. The work was last performed here in 2011 with two interesting vocal casts, but this year features just one cast and a reduced number of performances.

This is the Claus Guth production with Opernhaus Zurich from twelve years ago. There is a revolving stage, something that Guth is so fond of. The action is set in the years following the First World War, and takes place in a half-ruined mansion that has become a sanatorium for wounded soldiers. The Knights of the Grail have converted Montsalvat into a military hospital, with the wounded soldiers being cared for by a group of doctors and nurses who dole out the so-called medicine, which is really the food of the Grail.

In Act II, we are in the same castle, which now belongs to Klingsor, and the Flower Maidens are participants in a party set in the Roaring Twenties. In the final act, the Knights of the Grail, formally dressed for the occasion, bid farewell to Titurel’s corpse, while demanding Amfortas to perform the sacred office. If the opera begins with a silent scene, in which Titurel, Amfortas and Klingsor attend a dinner and discuss Klingsor’s departure, the opera ends with the reconciliation of Amfortas and Klingsor.

The costumes are particularly well-suited in the scene of Titurel’s burial. Lighting takes on a special importance, since the set changes have the light as the protagonist. Claus Guth’s stage direction is very careful, always respectful of the libretto and music, which means that he has studied the work in depth (not always the case with his colleagues). His contributions do not make any transgression of Wagner’s work, but rather bring an interesting personal vision to it. Altogether, it is a fine job.

The presence of Josep Pons, the theater’s current musical director, leading this great work did not raise many expectations for me, but his reading was clearly better than I had expected. Not everything worked at the same level: the prelude was too noisy and there were moments in Act I where the orchestra was too loud, especially in the brass section. But in the next two acts, I found Pons’s musical interpretation convincing. In fact, the Grail scene that closes Act I already had more emotion than the rest of that act. There were strong performances by the Liceu Symphony Orchestra and the Liceu Chorus.

Parsifal was played by tenor Nikolai Schukoff, who gave a good performance, better than I anticipated. It was not an exceptional interpretation, but it worked well. His voice has a certain appeal, and the volume is sufficient although not excessive.

Soprano Elena Pankratova sang the role of Kundry and did nicely, though I did find her too metallic in her highest register.

René Pape (Gurnemanz) © A. Bofill

The best singing of the night came from bass René Pape, who was an extraordinary Gurnemanz, as he always has been. He is the Wagnerian bass par excellence of recent years, and it is always a pleasure to listen to him. It is not surprising that he will be opening the new season at La Scala in the role of Phillip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo.

Amfortas was baritone Matthias Goerne who was announced before the curtain went up as being somewhat indisposed. Maybe for that reason it explains why – despite a correct performance – he has been better on other occasions. Baritone Evgeny Nikitin was the evil Klingsor, and he was terrific, convincing in both vocal and stage terms. News had reached me that he was not as strong vocally as before, but he seemed excellent, despite some tighter high notes. Titurel was the once-great bass Paata Burchuladze, who still has a strong voice. It was a pleasure to see him back on stage.

José M. Irurzun 

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