Friday 21 December 2007

Parsifal, Royal Opera, 21 December 2007

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Gurnemanz – Sir John Tomlinson
Kundry – Petra Lang
Amfortas – Falk Struckmann
Parsifal – Christopher Ventris
Titurel – Gwynne Howell
Klingsor – Sir Willard White
First Knight – Nikola Matišic
Second Knight – Krysztof Szumanski
Esquires – Ji-Min Park, Harriet Williams, Haoyin Xue, Rebecca de Pont Davies
Flowermaidens – Pumeza Matshikza, Elizabeth Cragg, Malin Christensson, Ana James, Kishani Jayasinghe, Anita Watson

Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

Klaus Michael Grüber (director)
Ellen Hammer (revival director)
Vera Dobroschke and Giles Aillaud (designers)

Bernard Haitink’s return to Covent Garden was always going to be special. This, after all, was the man who saved the orchestra from New Labour’s attempts to disband it, and therefore saved the company as we know it. No one present at the Royal Albert Hall’s concert performances of the Ring will ever forget those performances or Haitink’s well-timed intervention when he asked the public for help. During his time at the Royal Opera, Haitink excelled in a wide range of repertoire, from Mozart to Tippett, but it is for his conducting of Wagner above all others that he will be remembered. We were fortunate indeed, then, that he chose to make his return with Parsifal – or, indeed, that he chose to make his return at all, given his understandable feelings concerning the political manœuvring at the Royal Opera House.

I am delighted to report that however high our expectations may have been, Haitink amply fulfilled them. Just occasionally, I had wondered whether I had been romanticising his tenure; if anything, I realised that I had underestimated what we have lost. Whilst I have been most fortunate to hear some very fine Wagner conducting in the theatre, including performances by Barenboim, Rattle, and Thielemann, this Parsifal confirmed once again why Haitink must rank as the greatest living Wagner conductor. He has the ability not only to hear Parsifal as one great span, but to convey this organically to the audience as if it were the easiest thing in the world. This is the directional hearing of music in the distance that Furtwängler termed Fernhören. It works at a more microscopic level too. Never do I recall hearing the Prelude to Act I evolving so seamlessly into the opening bars of that act proper. Yet variation within overarching unity in no way loses out. The ‘break’ came, as it should, yet so rarely does, when, after morning prayer, Gurnemanz instructs the squires to rise and to attend to Amfortas’s bath. Perhaps more impressive still was the opening of the second act. Haitink pulled off – seemingly effortlessly – the trick of introducing the contrast of a new world, that of Klingsor and a ‘different’ Kundry – whilst relating it to what had gone before. There was drive, fury even, but never brashness, and the melos resumed almost as if the interval had never occurred. A true sign of greatness, moreover, in Wagner conducting is economy with climaxes, an economy shared with the composer himself. There are few things worse than the climax-every-other-bar, deaf-and-blind-to-structure conducting of a Solti; Haitink could not be further removed from this.

I also noticed how careful Haitink was to delineate the very particular sound world of Parsifal. The music sounded truly ‘lit from behind’, in Debussy’s celebrated formulation and in many sense also sounded closer to Pelléas than I can recall hearing before. It would come as no surprise to anybody that this most ‘unshowy’ of operas is one in which Haitink has excelled, and the sense of more than one might initially realise bubbling beneath the surface is common to both. Wagner’s art of transition is all the more powerful for its magic being only just perceptible. This is not to say that there is no muscle, no rhythmic impetus, far from it, but the development is never four-square. It is all too easy to underline motifs in the Ring; here it would be truly deadly, since their meaning and status within the whole is all the more malleable. The long line and the slow burn are everything – and they certainly were in this performance.

Haitink was royally served by his old orchestra, whose joy in having a seasoned Wagnerian back at its helm was palpable. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House does not have the great ‘German’ sound of, say, the state orchestras of Berlin or Dresden, nor the magical sweetness of Vienna, yet this perhaps enabled it more readily to sound closer to Debussy. The strings were silky smooth, at times almost Karajanesque, albeit without the Austrian conductor’s occasional – and sometimes more than occasional – chrome plating. They exhibited a wonderful ability to play softly yet with richness of tone, and when the great climaxes came, the swell was beautifully rounded. The brass section was equally impressive, not least those crucial liturgical trombones. Not even under Karajan or Knappertsbusch, moreover, have I heard the dramatic role of the kettledrums so perfectly realised: punctuating, inciting, remarking. The end of the second act was a case in point, recalling what had gone before but also looking forward from this ‘drama’ to the return of ‘liturgy’ in the final act.

John Tomlinson, fresh from his triumph as Wotan, proved every bit as memorable as Gurnemanz. The old man’s narrations were crystal clear and ineffably moving through the depth of their experience: experience belonging to the character, the actor-singer, the orchestra and conductor, and of course to Wagner. The agony of Monsalvat, the community in crisis, was here personified in the stoic Gurnemanz as much as the wounded Amfortas, without ever tending towards facile hysteria. Falk Struckmann, almost incredibly making his Covent Garden debut, was a noble Amfortas, agonised but far from the Nietzschean caricature. Since there are more difficult Heldentenor roles than that of Parsifal, it is easy to underestimate the achievement of a well-sung, well-acted Parsifal, but this was what Christopher Ventris presented, within the confines of the production (on which more below). To begin with, the character seemed a little nondescript, but I soon realised that there was development at work, a development that the work if not the production ascribes to grace. It was quite right that the Parsifal of the third act should be more heroic than that of the callow, ignorant youth of the first. As Kundry, Petra Lang performed a similar service. There have been more searingly dramatic portrayals of this most extraordinary of Wagnerian roles, but there was no cause for complaint and much cause for rejoicing in this deeply musical assumption. Her acting skills, such as could be deployed, were very much of a piece with her singing. And Willard White, another deep-voiced musical knight, treated us to an excellent Klingsor, secure of line and full-bodied of tone. As Kundry appreciates early on, Klingsor is malevolent yet so utterly vulnerable; both qualities were dialectically apparent in White’s reading. The choral singing was well handled too, not just in its musical qualities but in its layered positioning, aptly suggesting the spatial qualities of a great basilica. There was admittedly something of a trade-off between atmosphere and verbal comprehensibility, but this should not be exaggerated.

It pains me then to say this but, as I have already implied, the production helped no one. It seemed a waste of time when the Royal Opera bought it in for Simon Rattle. If anything, the revival director (and previously ‘associate director’), Ellen Hammer appeared to have made things worse. And for the Royal Opera to have failed to have come up with its own production the second time around was insulting to the performers and to the audience. If absolutely necessary, another production on loan would have been preferable: pretty much any other production on loan. The first act was bearable, with one reasonably striking image – that echoing Leonardo’s Last Supper, albeit to no particular dramatic effect. For some reason the Grail was a smallish piece of rock. To describe the direction of the second act as amateurish would be charitable. Quite apart from the garish designs, Personenregie was almost entirely absent: the characters were casually and unforgivably abandoned by the direction. Poor Kundry had to spend most of the time standing in the same position of the stage, not even looking at Parsifal and merely singing to the audience: a quasi-concert performance without any of the real thing’s virtues. Nor did this appear to be saying anything about the characters’ separation, alienation, etc., etc. Herbert Wernicke’s Covent Garden Tristan made a point of doing so and worked very well, at a fascinating level of colour-symbolic abstraction. Klaus Michael Grüber and his team from the Berlin Schaubühne merely seemed to have no idea whatsoever what to do. As for the third act, the banality of the strange spotlit moving rock during the Transformation Music pretty much summed it up.

It would be in vain to pretend that this did not matter at all. Wagner’s theatrical vision is all-encompassing; his work deserves nothing less than the best in every department. Yet somehow, despite the hapless stage direction, the greatness of Haitink’s musical direction shone through. This was never more the case than in the transcendence of the closing bars, which reached a perfection such as I do not ever recall hearing before in Parsifal, not even in the awe-inspiring Zen of late Karajan. Schopenhauer’s Will seemed finally to have been pacified, which would have been achievement enough in more propitious circumstances. Inevitability and wholesale transformation were as one. Wagner conducting does not, indeed could not, get better than this.