Sunday, 15 April 2012

Parsifal redeems Thielemann and Wiener Philharmoniker

Wiener Staatsoper, 08/04/2012

Falk Struckmann | Amfortas
Kwangchul Youn | Gurnemanz
Simon O`Neill | Parsifal
Angela Denoke | Kundry
Andreas Hörl | Titurel
Wolfgang Bankl | Klingsor
Stephanie Houtzeel, Juliette Mars, Norbert Ernst, Peter Jelosits | Esquires
Benedikt Kobel | First Grail Knight
Janusz Monarcha | Second Grail Knight
Ileana Tonca, Christina Carvin, Stephanie Houtzeel, Anita Hartig, Alexandra Reinprecht, Zoryana Kushpler | Flowermaidens
Juliette Mars | Voice from Above

Christian Thielemann | Conductor
Christine Mielitz | Director

Forget the spotty cast and Christine Mielitz’s tawdry mess of a production – the one wondrous wounding spear at the Wiener Staatsoper’s Parsifal last Sunday night was wielded by one Christian Thielemann, who led an Ereignis im Graben night to remember and puzzle over.

In this month’s Prolog Thielemann cheekily commented that the Wiener Philharmoniker knows Parsifal well, but ‘it doesn’t do any harm to renew one’s acquaintance with the score,’ which I think is his way of telling us that he got the rehearsals he wanted (in contrast to the Ring that sucked), though he’s evidently been doing some rethinking of his own. Of course he recorded the opera with the same forces in 2004, but this performance built considerably on that achievement, taking it from a Furtwängler-Knappertsbusch hybrid with some magical touches to that communal state which this most Montsalvatian of orchestras seldom permits: unfaltering unity of expression between conductor and pit. All of what my Ring-going companion dubbed ‘Thielemannerisms’ – the rising portentously from his hunched sitting position, the right hand swimming to the bottom of the goldfish bowl, the occasional remnant of his Furtwänglerian puppet on a string act – got a responsive and beguiling musical result.

To prove that we were still hearing the real Wiener Philharmoniker there were some glaring slips in the Vorspiel, but what followed amounted to one of the most flawless evenings of playing I’ve heard at the Staatsoper. Thielemann was asking for – and getting – more from the orchestra in each act, and though we didn’t hear the score exhaled in one giant breath, Act II gave us pointillist colouring bordering on Klangfarbenmelodie, eventually regressing to the fragrant allure of pure Wagnérisme as the phantasmagoria of the garden took hold (though never luridly so), while III from Parsifal’s return had grandeur and intensity but also more than a trace of the open-endedness of Götterdämmerung. I have scoured modern and historical recordings of Parsifal and come up empty-handed for a Segnung Dresden amen as scintillating as Thielemann’s: here was back-of-the-neck-goosebumps magnificence, and yet by rights it should have collapsed under the weight of its own contradiction – inevitability was undercut by fragility, and the way it was stretched out carried a suggestion of emptiness. ‘Geleiten wir im bergenden Schrein’ was stripped of its usual sclerosis, complicating the idea of regeneration, and the ending was nothing short of inscrutable. I can only speculate that Thielemann spent his last vacation with Versuch über Wagner. In any case his reputation as today’s pre-eminent Wagner conductor survived the house conditions (this time: different musicians on Dienst for all three performances) unscathed.

Falk Struckmann was showing a lot of vocal wear and while Tuomas Pursio’s Amfortas in Leipzig the other week sounded in such ruddy health that any restorative Heilmittel would be quite redundant, the role is surely better sung like that rather than rasped. Simon O’Neill was a fresh-sounding Parsifal, though why a house of the Staatsoper’s alleged reputation would hire a singer who is ostensibly not a Heldentenor, well... The many things we can draw a veil over would include a feeble ‘Nur eine Waffe taugt’, which is sung from upstage in this production, though on this occasion ‘might a band-aid do?’ would not be unkind. Kwangchul Youn offered a robustly sung, well-enunciated Gurnemanz but cut a stolid character on stage, and while he cannot be blamed be blamed for the stupidity of the production, getting ‘wisest of elders’ from ‘random guy dressed as fencing instructor’ isn’t easy. Angela Denoke is this production’s original Kundry and as such didn’t shed any light on the direction except to show us that Mielitz’s intention was, as suspected, to have the character abused ad nauseam. She might have asserted herself more in Act II, at least as far as the singing was concerned; for the rest of the performance I have only the rather damning faint praise that her ‘Dienen’ was very good. Not her best night. The strongest singing came from Wolfgang Bankl’s Klingsor, who stood out a lot more than last year. The flowermaidens were all in good voice and the chorus matched what was going on in the pit for quality of sound and musical intelligence.

Image credit: Astrid Ackermann

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