Monday, November 24, 2008

Parsifal: Haitink's Triumphant Return!

When I had heard Bernard Haitink returned to the world of opera, in one of my favorite works, for release on DVD, there was no question I'd snatch it as soon as it was released, and so, I did.

Unfortunately, the affair is a mixed big, but the reward at the end is huge and, ultimately, worth it.

Musically, most of this Parsifal is exquisite. Haitink's utter control over the Zurich forces is nothing less than remarkable - the orchestral playing as good as it gets. His shaping of the music - particularly in the first and third acts, is often breathtaking, with that shimmering sound one always imagines but doesn't always get to hear.

There is almost a Mozartean quality to Hatink's Wagner - a lightness of touch in those sections that sometimes in other hands comes off simultaneously as dense and soft and just "supporting" when they are as important as breath itself. Several moments: Gurnemanz's lengthy monologues, Amfortas's great Act III solo and Parsifal's entrance into the third act grail ceremony are as beautiful as anything I've ever heard. Almost heartstopping really. I was a bit let down with the introduction music for Act II, Haitink makes it sound too clean and well scrubbed, when this is fierce, demonic music - as violent as anything Wagner ever penned and here it lacks that threatening quality I
always expect (and usually get, if sometimes sloppily so).

The singing is mostly top drawer. Pride of place goes to both Messrs. Ventris and Salminen for roles they have become almost exclusively identified with at this stage in the opera world. Salminen's great arias are dispatched with such gentle authority that one almost feels comforted by his gentle giant presence from whence pours that glorious, rich soulful sound. He's amazing. Ventris has a crisp, marvelously youthful sound that is perfect in this role, particularly his third act.

Yvonne Naef has problems at Kundry's highest range - most of those notes are either shrieked out unpleasantly, or barely touched and let go. It's a pity because the rest of her range is exquisite, singing with such emotional intensity and beauty - and her involvement with the role and stage presence is the best of the entire cast. If you don't mind a few misplaced screeches, her Kundry (in my opinion) is comparable to Meier (who seems to get all the Kundry gigs these days).

Vocally, Michael Volle is about as perfect an Amfortas as one could ever want. His big moment in the third act for me was possibly the highlight of the entire evening. He is simply marvelous.

The chorus is mindboggingly good; almost as though the angels in heaven had a day off and decided to spend it in Zurich. Seriously.

The problem comes with Hans Hollmann's production. It is one of those affairs that got me so rattled at the beginning that I had to turn it off to calm myself down because I couldn't hear the music anymore. I'm not proud of that statement as I think one of my few good qualities is to look past that which bothers me and try to take in the whole. I couldn't do it. It took three tries before I could watch the first act without clenching both teeth and fist.

The first and third act take place in a classroom in a boys' school. The enormity of the stage is almost bare, save for a couple of "desks" that rise and fall from the stage floor, and the now required, handful of awkwardly placed wooden chairs. The word "wasser" is projected in light on a scrim on the rear stage wall in enormous letters, then is repeated in smaller letters around the scrim. ???? Later "Blut" and other words will appear - (in act II "Blut" fills the entire rear wall in red theatre marquis lights).

The costumes by Dirk von Bodisco are the worst I can recall seeing. The "boys" all in gray trousers, matching double breasted vests and feminine shirts. Some of the older men (like Gurnemanz) all look like Captain von Trapp (as does Parsifal throughout the final act). Kundry is in a black power pantsuit, her short locks sporting a lengthier styled Channel pageboy.

Almost everyone is blind, and the great entrance of the Grail Knights following the transformation music (wherein Parsifal and Gurnemanz merely walk in place shifting from side to side in a terribly leaden pantomime of motion), finds the knights gingerly moving about the stage with blind men's canes and faces devoid of a single emotion. They also carry what looks to be dinner plate sized cheeseburgers (we later realize they're just giant bread rolls for the communion service to follow).

The Knights line up, showboy style, facing stage left, turning their faces to sing that glorious music to the audience. Awkward? You betcha. Oh, throughout the show, Amfortas is wheeled about on a large gurney, but standing up Hannibal Lecter style. He rises from the gurney to conduct the Grail ceremony. Then something happens and director Hollmann produces a scene of such exquisite beauty, the grail ceremony itself becoming one of the most beautiful images one can imagine for this scene. It is truly stunning and mighty in its power.

Act II finds the stage plunged in darkness, a giant pentagram and five tall candlesticks (which Klingsor later places at the points of the pentagram). There is a ladder and a giant mirrored disc (we can see Haitink in it at one point). Kundry is on the other side of the disk. Rolf Haunstein sounds fairly old and tired as Klingsor and Hollmann's actions for him almost define the word "cliche." As he sings, a number of figures are seen in at the rear of the stage, blind men stumbling along - with buckets on their heads? I think that's
what I saw.

The Flower Maidens are blind as well (and blindfolded to prove the point). Gotten up unattractively in metallic bustiers and long, shapeless black skirts, they do little before producing large plastic squares in over bright, flourescent primary colors that they wave about. A few of them drop theirs. Later Kundry (now in an unfortunate sequined black gown with an enormous inset of garrish sequined colors - red, green, blue - her hair now long and plum colored) picks up one of these colored squares and almost seems to be
reading the score from it. Parsifal takes it and stares at it in wonder and amazement, the idea being the non-colored side of these big squares is a mirror that reveals the past. Or something like that.

As Klingsor reappears to wound the lad with the spear, the spear - an enormous pipelike th ing slowly shoots from the rear stage wall high above Parsifal's head. He raises his hand and "pretends" to grasp it, though it's still a few feet above him. A big red tube clumsily descends from the flies and moves toward's Parsifal who stands beneath. Since there is no magic kingdom to cause to crumble, a rear scrim opens and we see the FlowerMaidens collapse to the floor. It's better with your eyes closed.

The final act looks as awful as the first, but ends just as spectacularly, moving me to tears. There is a mute young man in all three acts and we find him in Act III dragging the stiff lifeless body (with legs in the air) of one of the pages from the opening act. Mute Boy stares at the audience making horrified looks of terror and pain on his face. It's too, too much. Kundry, having been asleep for a year or so - unnoticed by Gurnemanz in his classroom, leaves and returns in a nun's habit. And on and on it goes. BUT then, Hollmann works theatrical magic and the simplicity of the final grail ceremony, is shattering, just perfect. And Haitink, Wagner and company match the stunning visual in
breathtaking fashion.

If you can put up with the stilted silliness of about two-thirds of this, the payoff is a spectacular one. I'm a little uncertain, but I almost feel this is one of those performances that might have been better released only in audio format as I can know there are people who will never make it to the end of this. I'm glad I did.

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