Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Parsifal, Royal Opera, 2 December 2013

Royal Opera House

Gurnemanz – René Pape
First Grail Knight – David Butt Philip
Second Grail Knight – Charbel Mattar
First Esquire – Dušica Bijelič
Second Esquire – Rachel Kelly
Third Esquire – Sipho Fubesi
Fourth Esquire – Luis Gomes
Kundry/Voice from Above – Angela Denoke
Amfortas – Gerald Finley
Parsifal – Simon O’Neill
Titurel – Robert Lloyd
Klingsor – Sir Willard White
Flowermaidens – Celine Byrne, Kiandra Howarth, Anna Patalong, Anna Devin, Ana James, Justina Gringyte

Stephen Langridge (director)
Alison Chitty (designs)
Paul Pyant (lighting)
Dan O’Neill (movement)
Thomas Bergmann, Willem Brasche (video designs)
Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Yet again, I am afraid, the Royal Opera House seems to have come up with a Wagner production for those who are not very interested in Wagner. Thunderous applause issued forth for Sir Antonio Pappano, when the best that one could say about his conducting was that it was a bit better than the appalling mess he had latterly made of, say, Götterdämmerung and Die Meistersinger. I am told, though I have yet to look at them, that newspaper critics have praised him to the skies; I wish I could say that that surprised me. There will be some writers who have a genuine alternative view on this matter, though I admit that in this case I find it difficult to understand how, but many of our opera critics seem not to know their Knappertsbusch from their Kempe, still less their Karajan from their Boulez. Members of the audience are perfectly entitled, of course, to attend a performance with as little or as much knowledge as they please, but the whole business of criticism is on very dodgy ground indeed when one doubts whether some opera writers can even read a score – let alone bother to do so.

I can only assume that in some sense, unless the first night performance were entirely different from the second, audience members and critics had confused some fine orchestral playing with the conductor’s sense of line, or rather lack thereof. There were even early signs, I admit, when it seemed as though Pappano might at last have learned to conduct Wagner. (Surely such an apprenticeship should have been served long before deigning to try one’s hand at Covent Garden, but anyway…) The First Act Prelude sounded both beautiful, sometimes luminously so, and possessed of a decent sense of direction, even if it were far from unclear that Wagner’s transcendental meaning(s) had been grasped. Yet soon we were back in the bad old arena of stopping and starting, underlining a motif and failing to grasp how it might be part of the composer’s fabled ‘art of transition’, let alone fit into a complex, dynamic, quasi-symphonic web. Has Pappano ever so much as read, let alone understood, Wagner’s words in Über die Anwendung der Musik auf das Drama?

To be an artwork as music, the new form of dramatic music must possess the unity of the symphonic movement; this it attains by spreading itself over the whole drama, in the most intimate cohesion therewith … This unity centres upon a web of basic themes, which contrast, complete, re-shape, divorce, and intertwine with one another as in a symphonic movement; yet here, the requirements of the dramatic action dictate the laws of separation and combination.

Somehow I doubt it – and that is even before one considers the complex role played by Wagner’s poem in all of this. As I said, there were passages in which, on a basic level, continuity was maintained, and there was some very fine orchestral playing too considered in isolation, but nothing in Wagner should be considered in isolation. That is the problem – and of course the ultimate opportunity. This was Wagner conducting devoid of any understanding of what makes Wagner Wagner – and we can be pluralist in that, of course. Yet such pluralism does not, or certainly should not, extend to having Wagner reduced to a slightly Teutonic Verdi. One can only weep when thinking that the last time Parsifal was staged at Covent Garden, it was conducted with unassuming greatness by Bernard Haitink. Sadly it seems that Haitink is destined never to return; in which case, might we not have someone else, if only occasionally, to do Wagner’s works a modicum of justice? Barenboim? Thielemann? Gatti? What might pass muster in a provincial house ought not to have any place on a world stage, a house once presided over by Haitink, by Sir Colin Davis.

Let us move on, without enthusiasm, to the production. ‘Stephen Langridge’s production emphasises the timeless and universal nature of the Parsifal story,’ claimed the cast list’s ‘quick guide to Parsifal’. I am not at all sure what that is supposed to mean, the drama of Parsifal lying in an epic theological struggle between time and eternity. But even if we could somehow accept that claim – very odd or unspeakably trite; most likely, both – it was not at all clear how Langridge’s production does anything of the sort. It certainly seems  to retreat from the mythological, from the questioning, to a weird unspecific specificity, which gave incoherent answers where answers were the last thing that was required. We appear to be in a world, not unlike that of Simon McBurney’s dreadful ENO Magic Flute, over which a quasi-Scientologist cult rules; yet that potential menace is undermined by a weird obsession with hospital care. I had thought a friend who attended the first night was being facetious when he asked whether the production had been intending a comment on British sanctification of the NHS; now I am not so sure. Much of the action takes place in something resembling the strange ‘Sex Box’ of Channel 4’s recent risible television programme. (I wonder indeed whether it were the worst television programme I have ever seen: four ‘couples’ have sex in a box in front of a studio audience, though unseen by that audience, after which they briskly emerge – they are not allotted much time – to answer, or rather not really to answer, questions put to them by Mariella Frostrup and some alleged experts. Parody seemed to be absent but who knows?) The box has a bed, on which scenes from Gurnemanz’s narration – Kundry’s decidedly unerotic ‘seduction’ of Amfortas, Klingsor’s self-castration – are depicted, since we are clearly unable to listen to Gurnemanz for ourselves and imagine, still less to play with past and present, with different modes of perception and understanding, as Wagner would have us try. Amfortas’s hospital ‘care’ also takes place there.

For some reason, the Grail is replaced by a little boy, whose side is pierced, echoing Amfortas’s own wounding, and presumably as some sort of Christ-like reference. Indeed, when we reencounter this ‘Grail’ in the third act, the boy has grown into a nubile young man, still in his underpants, still ready to be pierced, though that does not happen and instead he simply retreats inside his box. The way Titurel and some of the knights touch the boy’s wound suggests paedophilia, but that does not seem to be carried through, so maybe it is just another unfortunate misjudgement. Parsifal has arrived dressed like a vagrant, with more than a touch of the Jimmy Savile about him, so again: who knows? Frankly, who cares? There is, moreover, no castle to be destroyed, no sign of the Cross, etc. Instead, presumably as an Œdipal allusion, Parsifal is blinded, though just when an interesting idea might have manifested itself, its effect is blunted by the banal restitution of Parsifal’s sight at the end. Needless to say, the NHS works its wonders, Amfortas and Kundry walking off  together

Alas, Parsifal, as sung by Simon O’Neill, sometimes even sounded a little like Jimmy Savile too. There were better moments, especially during the third act, but too much was crude, undifferentiated, and most of all vocally unpleasant, redolent, as is this singer’s wont, of a misapplied pneumatic drill. His acting was little better, though seemingly by default, since there was little difference form the first two acts, he did a passable imitation of a blind man in the third. Why can the Royal Opera not at last engage Jonas Kaufmann in German repertoire, rather than waste him on largely trivial Italianate works? Or what about Christopher Ventris, or Stuart Skelton? The rest of the cast – and here were the only real candidates for redemption – were much better. Top of the class was René Pape’s Gurnemanz: authoritative, suave,  and so securely founded in Wagner’s alchemic combination of words and music that one could forgive a great deal – just so long as he was on stage. Likewise Gerald Finley’s wonderful Amfortas, for whom dramatic commitment was of course a greater task. This was the first time I had heard Finley in Wagner; I certainly hope that it will not be the last. Angela Denoke's Kundry was again a committed assumption; many of the notes she reached, but a good few she did not. Why she appeared in the third act as she had in the second, rather than as the creature seen in the first, I cannot imagine. Unfortunately, Willard White as Klingsor and Robert Lloyd as Titurel both suggested that they would be well advised to retire from vocal performance. The male chorus improved significantly in the third act, having lacked focus in the first. Whether it were a matter of the female chorus’s placing offstage or something else, its words were entirely inaudible. I hope that having Kundry sing the part of the Voice from Above was a matter of cost-cutting rather than a ‘dramatic’ decision; in the latter respect, it made no sense at all.

Only last year, I saw Stefan Herheim’s Bayreuth Parsifal for the last time. It did not receive its finest musical performance, Daniele Gatti having been replaced by Philippe Jordan, who was little better – if at all – than Pappano. Moreover, the cast had been better in previous years too. Yet the dramatic integrity, the intellectual commitment, above all the sheer musicality of Herheim’s staging once again won out. Here I struggled and failed to find a single case of the director engaging with Wagner’s score. Haitink managed, more or less single-handedly, to salvage something from the meaningless triviality of the previous, at least equally dreadful production. But it needs someone of that stature; we seem fated endlessly to be denied such redemption.


Sparafucile said...

Thank you for the interesting review, with which I am about 75% in agreement. Pappano does lack a sense of line -- there is too much stop-start in his Wagner conducting -- but at least he kept the band from drowning the singers; unlike the dreadful Bychkov in 'Tristan' at the Proms recently.

Concerning the singers, on the opening night I was satisfied with Willard White although he has already passed his "best before" date; Robert Lloyd (once a fine Gurnemanz, now in a 2nd career as Titurel) was too strong on his first entry and faded out before his last. Papé and Finley were excellent, as you say. I had many reservations about Denoke: probably miscast and badly directed (the Personregie was not good overall): Kundry should not be static in the first act. There was too little change in her Kundry from act to act, and the voice has to be voluptuous rather than anorexic in act 2. Denoke should listen to Martha Mödl with Kna (as I am doing right now), or Christa Ludwig with Karajan. The production I found tolerable except for the understated end of the second act; as you note, there was no castle, and the garden flowers refused to wilt, making a nonsense of Parsifal's line "Ich sah sie welken..." in act 3.

Susi said...

Thankfully someone who really hears and listens...unlike the prevailing sentiment amongst UK major newspaper reviewers!

One more point to add to your extensive review of the production: I find Gurnemanz's feeble stuttering around in Act 3 an shining example of bad "Personenregie". Don't directors ever READ the text, even if they cannot read the music?! Come on! Gurnemanz is a dignified Knight of the Holy Grail...not some senile, demented old begger! And to do this to the BEST SINGER in the cast, Rene Pape...

Rameau said...

I didn't see this Parsifal, and your opinion is very interesting on many points, but I can't help finding what you say about the critics quite embarrassing. So, basically, what you say is that critics who liked Pappano are morons (or sold to the enemy).
Well, one may think the same about a critic who would have praised Gatti, for instance - I do think he is an awful Wagner conductor (his Meistersinger this summer!!!), and you cite him as a competent Wagner conductor. So what's the point in throwing such anathemes?

Sparafucile, Denoke IS a fantastic and very competent Kundry. Maybe she wasn't that good in London, because of Pappano or something else, but she has sung the role quite often (I saw her in Munich, it was fantastic). She clearly doesn't sing it like Mödl or Ludwig, but there are many ways to do it, it's very sad when opera lovers eulogize musicians from the past to belittle those from today...

Mark Berry said...

Rameau, I am sorry that you feel embarrassed, but am not quite sure what to do about that! If you had read more carefully what I said, you would see that I did not make that claim; indeed, I wrote, 'There will be some writers who have a genuine alternative view on this matter, though I admit that in this case I find it difficult to understand how.' For at the very least if someone has shown himself time and time again - indeed on every single occasion I have heard him conduct Wagner - to be incapable of maintaining the musical line, there would seem to be something more than a little awry. I'm afraid that, in my experience, there are quite a few critics whose qualifications are somewhat obscure, just as there are quite a few of distinction. I cannot understand the tendency to ascribe weight to, or indeed to take seriously, the utterances of someone because he, or occasionally she, happens to have known the right people in order to have been given a job on a certain newspaper, rather than because (s)he has knowledge and understanding that are worthy of respect.

We shall have to agree to differ over Daniele Gatti. I heard him conduct Die Meistersinger in Salzburg, and indeed wrote about it at the time (on the August section of my blog here). I did not consider it to be his finest hour, by any means, but it was certainly far more impressive than some performances I have heard. We may also of course have heard different performances; some musicians can vary greatly from night to night.

Sparafucile said...

For Susi: some directors can and do read the text; Herheim reads the music too! I'm not sure what Langridge has read or how much he has understood. 'Parsifal' is not a work that can be grasped overnight. François Girard said that he had worked on 'Parsifal' for 5 years before his staging reached the Met.
Concerning Gurnemanz, please note what Wagner wrote in 1865 about act 3: "Gurnemans (sic), under such circumstances rapidly aged and become almost a childish old man, has retired to the sacred spring at the edge of the forest, there to die a hermit." Wagner clearly intended a reversal of the first act, in which Parsifal was foolish and Gurnemanz the wise man. In the third act, Parsifal has become wise through pity and Gurnemanz has become almost senile, his utterances increasingly incoherent as the scene progresses. As I see it :-)

Sparafucile said...

Rameau, I can believe that Denoke can be better, and I suspect that her insecure delivery last week in London was the result of first night nerves. The Personenregie was not good and Langridge has made the fatal mistake of ignoring the stage directions that describe how Kundry is to act. Of current singers, compare for example Katarina Dalayman in the same rôle; much more convincing, in all 3 acts, in my experience.

Unknown said...

NOTE: I did not see this onstage - I only heard the bdcst - so don't hold me responsible for overlooking any stunning dramatic hand movements or enthralling highregie stares on display at ROH. What you note Boulezian rings quite true to what I heard - the only exception being the ugly voiced Denoke, who in the second act, where her tone hopefully would be seductive, sounded particularly bad. Sorry, but I lack appreciation for aging 'singing' actresses - particularly those projecting engaging teutonic personalities - accompanied by hollow, colorless tones, whether they make the notes or not (and she faked the crucial climax of Act 2).
- I have a question: did the stage director try to incorporate the singers' vocal defects as part & parcel of their interpretative Personregie? Or was it the conductor slowing the tempii down at the vocally difficult (also dramatically decisive) moments of the score for those compromised by it's demands? The spontaneity level dropped noticeably at these moments, as if suddenly the channel changed and I was thrust into a Noh performance. It is an interesting way of performing the work (particularly for an audience seeing it for the first time, as you note) - but too many times anticipatory excitement turned into unfulfilled expectations. Whatever the reasoning behind this, new audiences did seem to enjoy & understand these performance and that is much more important than the kvetching of an old fuddy-duddy like me. As everyone notes, Finley & Pape were 1st rate.

Curtis Rogers said...

I very much agree with Mark about virtually all aspects of this production (I saw the performance on 15th December), particularly Pappano's uninspired conducting. Even from the opening unison melody (so pregnant with meaning and emotion) it was a rather linear and bland interpretation without much tension at all. The best that could be said is that there was, at times, a sort of stoical resolve, which would have been passable in certain passages of Elgar for instance, but was far from an adequate vision of this extraordinary score.

'Unknown' makes a perceptive point in his/her comment of 15th December by asking whether 'the conductor slow[ed] the tempi down at the vocally difficult (also dramatically decisive) moments of the score for those compromised by its demands'. I felt that there was a perverse relaxation of momentum, as though dropping a gear or two, at three of the most arresting moments in Act Two: where Kundry addresses Parsifal by name after he has rebuffed the Flower Maidens; Kundry's 'Grausamer! Fühlst du im Herzen’ after Parsifal has just rejected her (Wagner actually directs Kundry to sing ‘with utmost passion’); and Kundry’s startling ‘lachte’ a little after. It did indeed seem as though the music was navigated charily to avoid showing up any vocal flaws. I like Dunja Vejzovic’s wild performance in Karajan’s later version in these instances. The transfer of the spear from Klingsor to Parsifal was, dramatically, a non-event too – I don’t think I’d have noticed Parsifal’s blinding had Mark not mentioned it in the review.

Disappointing too was the lack of mystery or metaphysics in this production. To cite two instances: the awful, pally way in which the Knights shook hands and slapped each other on the backs after the love feast, as though they were concluding a business lunch. And Parsifal’s vagrant appearance, with braces over a rough old vest, made him look like Rab C. Nesbitt (the bandage even drew a comparison with the latter’s headband). The work’s ‘timeless and universal nature’ in this production eluded me too.

Sparafucile said...

I agree with Curtis and Unknown only up to a point, concerning the tempo variations. Although sometimes overdone by Pappano in places, some of them were not entirely wrong. For example, there is a rallentando marked in the score at "Ha! dieser Kuss!", that is, 8 bars before "Grausamer!". Before "und - lachte...", however, the instruction is to speed up (etwas beschleunigend)!! Although it is a weak defence of Pappano, I can offer that I have heard much, much worse. The Bayreuth Festival 2000 performances (of which I can only speak of the first night from direct experience), conducted by Eschenbach, were so slow that the Gurnemanz quit the production, and his tempo changes were highly exaggerated; in particular I objected to the conductor slamming on the brakes a few bars before "Ich sah das Kind". Pappano was, if not without fault, at least better than Eschenbach. I thought that his tempi were pretty much right; midway between the lugubrious Levine (or Goodall) and speedy Boulez.

David said...

Wasn't it a repulsive evening? I have tried to persuade those determined to attend the livescreening tonight to buy the Zurich DVD conducted by Haitink - simple, lucid (in more senses than one) images to complement natural conducting. And I've heard good things about the Met production by a serious Frenchman (forget his name, not come across it before) who takes the grail ceremony seriously and spiritually, to judge from stills.

Useless to try and argue Pappano's long-term shortcomings with those who insist on the beauty of the moment. There were lovely sounds, but it never joined up at all. Nor will it, ever: the idiom just doesn't seem to be in this otherwise excellent conductor's blood.