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S & H Opera Review

Wagner: Parsifal, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, cond. Sir Simon Rattle, December 2001 (BK)


Of the many exciting new productions at Covent Garden this season, Simon Rattle’s Parsifal, remarkably his first Wagnerian production at the House, indeed his first performance there for over a decade, was perhaps the most eagerly anticipated of the year, and was reflected in the scrum for last minute tickets. Was it, however, likely to be as good as the Proms concert performance of the Netherlands Opera staging of this supreme Wagnerian masterpiece a year ago, conducted by the same maestro, or, indeed, his original production in Rotterdam some time before that? Well, yes and no. There can be no adequate replacement for a good, staged setting of such a seminal opera as this, however expensive it maybe to put on in these straitened times of ours: and yet the immense expectation for this Covent Garden Parsifal was only realised in part, after the staggering Proms achievement of a year ago.

These opening reservations should not detract from the fact that here was a conductor on top form, directing a work in which he totally believes. Rattle inspired both his orchestra, and indeed his singers, to new heights of excellence; the orchestra sounded more like their colleagues in Vienna, than the common or garden pit bands that we are often used to. The sheen of the string line was quite remarkable, while the brass were wholly secure, from first note to last. I have never heard the ‘Vorspiel’ played with such ethereal rapture, and the Motet of the Sacrament, that of the Grail (or the ‘Dresden Amen’), and finally the Motet of Faith - all were intoned solemnly by the tutti brass. One can only wait, in scarcely concealed impatience, for Rattle’s ‘Ring’ Cycle (scheduled for Aix). But it will be a foolish record company that does not take the opportunity to set down Rattle’s remarkable Parsifal in the near future, which must rank with Karajan’s legendary 1980 reading, amongst the greatest of the last fifty years.

The cast were a mixed blessing, I’m afraid: this is not to say that, overall, the line-up was anything other than stellar, but there were some singers who acquitted themselves better than others, and when comparison is made with previous Parsifal performances, then the Covent Garden cast do suffer somewhat. Both John Tomlinson and Thomas Hampson were outstanding as Gurnemanz and Amfortas. Some criticism, from various quarters, have dismissed Tomlinson, a fine actor, as having been left with nothing to do but sing out his part, while the American was reduced to ‘pulling faces straight out of a Mary Pickford film’. This is a little unfair, since the basis of the opera is essentially static, with only the occasional descent into cataclysmic excess. Hampson’s portrayal of the Sick King was, in fact, quite superb, bringing out the physical and mental agonies he must undergo, until a hero might be found to restore his health and reunite the Grail and the Lance. I had not seen Hampson on stage before, but his performance has left me wanting to seek out further examples of his art. In the second act, Williard W. White was excellent as the sorcerer Klingsor, evil magician personified, as he tries to exercise control over the errant Kundry: it was just a shame that by the final curtain, White had already upped sticks and left the building.

The major difference, surely, between the second and third acts must be the inner conflict within Kundry herself, between the Repentent and the Seducer, and with Violeta Urmana, I think that a little was lost in her portrayal of the fallen woman. According to the stage directions she appears at the beginning of Act II dressed, not as a wild horsewoman, dishevelled and in loathsome drapes, but as a beautiful temptress, clad in oriental finery. Yet Urmana turned up in precisely the same, rather anonymous, outfit that she had worn in Act I. I know that the finances at Covent Garden are in a parlous state, but surely somebody could have forked out the money for a change of costume for the poor girl (compare this with Cosi fan Tutte at the House a few weeks ago, when the young lovers needed no further invitation to appear in a new outfit, especially if it was designed by Giorgio Armani). In fact she appeared desperate to avoid getting her new frock dirty and the writhing around that we were so looking forward to in Act I just did not happen. Ms Urmana has a decent delivery, but I failed to detect very much in the way of acting ability on the basis of this performance. Once again, compare Petra Lang’s wonderful acting at the concert version of Parsifal last year: with Ms Lang, one can hear the battle raging in her soul, between good and evil, between Christianity and Paganism, and Ms Urmana was ordinary by comparison.

Again, Stig Andersen was a tenor I had not previously seen on stage: he had, as I remember, played Siegfried in the Royal Opera trip to the Albert Hall a couple of years ago in the complete ‘Ring’ cycle, where reviews had been decidedly mixed. Andersen’s is an interesting voice, but once again, his acting ability let him down, and far too often he was rooted to the spot, like a latter day Pavarotti, rather than risking any foolhardy attempts at dramatic involvement. The comparison with Poul Elming, in last year’s concert performance, does him no favours at all.

The minor roles were taken by the usual Covent Garden stalwarts, and there was not a weak link in their armour: Susan Gritton and Leah-Marian Jones were suitably enticing as the Flower Maidens, and Geraldine McGreevy, making her Royal Opera debut, was especially fine. The production was predictably abominable, with Klaus Michael Gruber winning the dubious honour of uniting the whole House against his ridiculous notions: but then anyone who sat (or indeed stood) through sixteen hours of Wagner, in Haitink’s ‘Ring’ Cycle for Covent Garden a few years ago, with that nasty, cheap and misogynist ‘interpretation’ by Richard Jones, will be well nigh immune to anything that such ‘modernist’ artists can throw at us. To illustrate the point: can anyone tell me the reasoning behind the shark hanging from the rafters in the second act, in Klingsor’s Magic Garden, for I should love to know: it is all just a little fishy for my taste.

Simon Rattle’s achievement in this most supreme of Wagnerian masterpieces cannot be doubted: one may carp and criticise about incidental matters of the cast needing to act as well as sing, and remembering all too well the Rotterdam Opera visit to the Proms last year: indeed, one wag suggested that Parsifal at Covent Garden was a concert performance in costume, while the Albert Hall was the other way around: but I could not be so cruel. This was, afterall, a fairly wonderful evening in Bow Lane.

Ben Killeen

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