Musical coherence and visual confusion: Parsifal at the Wiener Staatsoper

Wagner – Parsifal

Amfortas – Michael Volle
Gurnemanz – Falk Struckmann
Parsifal – Stephen Gould
Kundry – Violeta Urmana
Titurel – Ryan Speedo Green
Klingsor – Boaz Daniel
Erster Knappe – Ulrike Helzel
Zweiter Knappe – Ko Hyuna
Dritter Knappe – Joseph Dennis
Vierter Knappe – Peter Jelosits
Erster Gralsritter – Michael Roider
Zweiter Gralsritter – Hong Il
Blumenmädchen – Íride Martínez, Regine Hangler, Margaret Plummer, Annika
Gerhards, Ko Hyuna, Zoryana Kushpler
Simme von oben – Zoryana Kushpler

Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper / Ádám Fischer.
Stage director – Christine Mielitz

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna, Austria.  Wednesday, March 30th, 2016.

There are some evenings when musical values transcend all and tonight was very much one of them.  In common with last night’s Clemenza, tonight the Staatsoper forces were led by Ádám Fischer and he once again demonstrated his innate command of structure and his ability to communicate this to his forces.  Sadly, following Flimm’s intelligent and penetrating staging of Clemenza, tonight’s revivial of the 2004 production of Parsifal by Christine Mielitz was frankly a bit of a mess.  There were significant issues with the concept as well as its execution.

Violeta Urmana, Stephen Gould © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Violeta Urmana, Stephen Gould © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

What was notable about the musical side of the evening was that hours felt like minutes and minutes like seconds.  The evening sped by helped by Fischer’s ability to build the argument organically.  Sadly, the visual side was simply far too busy.  During the first act, there wasn’t a single moment of stillness with the grail knights dressed as fencers executing constant movements.  Unfortunately the way the movement was executed was less than unanimous, the result looking somewhat slack.  Where no movement was possible, the lighting became similarly hyperactive.  Characters addressed the front far more often than they addressed each other.  In the third act, as Parsifal arrives a bright backlight descends from the flies, is pointed at the audience and then promptly disappears for no apparent reason.  Yet, where Mielitz actually allowed her singers to carry the drama, as in the Act 2 scene between Kundry and Parsifal alone on stage, the narrative and the dramatic performances of the singers were able to come to life.

Stephen Gould © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Stephen Gould © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

There were some intriguing ideas but they seemed half-baked and not fully developed.  The grail knights were seen to be quite nasty, manhandling Kundry and killing children for their blood.  This was made particularly chilling as when the children sang ‘Nehmet hin meinen Leib, nehmet hin mein Blut, um unser Liebe willen’ they were revealed to being kept in a cellar.  Yet, this idea, like so many others in the show was taken up and then abandoned.  Similarly, Klingsor’s entrance was filmed by a hand-held camera and projected on the back of the stage and once again, quickly abandoned.  The sets for Klingsor’s realm and that of Montsalvat were very similar, perhaps suggesting that for Mielitz the nature of ‘evil’ isn’t quite as clear cut as Wagner makes it out to be.  The length of the opera meant that over a span of five hours, there was a significant number of ideas taken up and then abandoned.  One idea I thought was powerful was that a curtain descended on the presentation of the grail in Act 1 reinforcing the mystical aspect and putting us as spectators in Parsifal’s shoes as an uncomprehending outsider.

Violeta Urmana, Stephen Gould © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Violeta Urmana, Stephen Gould © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Musically, though, as I already mentioned, this was a very special evening indeed.  I have in the past found Stephen Gould’s voice to sound as if it sits somewhat under the note.  Tonight was different.  His tuning was impeccable from beginning to end.  The voice is large and rises from a baritonal bottom to a penetrating top.  He gave us some wonderfully floated soft singing and the vibrations were absolutely even throughout the evening.  The voice did become somewhat woolly at its loudest but tonight was the best thing I have heard Gould do.  He really was excellent.

Violeta Urmana © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Violeta Urmana © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Violeta Urmana was a commanding and magnetic Kundry, dominating the stage whenever she appeared.  Yes, the vibrations have loosened somewhat at the very top and yes, the voice doesn’t always spin up there, but her musicality, textual awareness and compelling acting really were exceptional.  That silky middle and beautiful legato are still very much present and she descends to a fabulously rich and resonant chest voice when required.  Her ‘ich sah das Kind’ was beautifully phrased, nicely floated and her ‘und lachte’ was absolutely terrifying, completely gripping and perfectly tuned.  Tonight, Urmana gave us something very special indeed.

Boaz Daniel, Violeta Urmana © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Boaz Daniel, Violeta Urmana © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

I was also especially impressed by Boaz Daniel as Klingsor.  The Israeli baritone started his career in the Staatsoper ensemble back in 1998.  The voice is in fabulous shape – what a pleasure it was to hear a Klingsor who didn’t bark but who truly sang the role.  The sound is rock solid but actually quite compact, fully carries throughout the theatre and is never forced.  Really impressive.  Falk Struckmann made so much of the text as Gurnemanz.  It’s a massive sing and he did tire towards the end missing a couple of the very highest notes.  That said, he inspired gratitude for his beautiful shading of the words and how through this shading he made the long monologues seem to last only for seconds.  Michael Volle sounded somewhat dry on top in the first act but rallied at the end giving an extremely powerful account of Amfortas’ music, the voice taking on a remarkable amplitude at the end.  He also had the pleasure of his wound being healed by a light sabre or so the spear appeared to be.

Michael Volle, Falck Struckmann © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Michael Volle, Falk Struckmann © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

The remainder of the cast really reflected the exceptional standards that the house maintains.  Ryan Speedo Green made a very positive impression as Titurel with a nice round tone, good resonance and a distinctive vibrato.  Zoryana Kushpler’s velvety mezzo rich, even and distinctive was a very luxurious Voice from Above.  The Flowermaidens displayed excellent blend and the chorus’ sound was extremely cultivated.  The noise made by the gentlemen was absolutely massive creating a truly overwhelming moment of their contributions to Act 1.

Falck Struckmann © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Falk Struckmann © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

As expected the sound of the house band was something very special.  It really is only in Vienna that one hears an orchestra like this and they played the room in the way they played their instruments, the auditorium seemingly living the music and resonating with it as much as the instruments in the pit and off stage.  The gossamer strings, those full and rich horns, the piquant oboes and especially the massive bell sounds really combined to make this a night to remember.  Yes there were a few moments of sour string tone, a few horn fluffs here and there, but ensemble and stage-pit coordination were excellent.  Ádám Fischer’s conducting fully brought all of these elements together.  Tempi felt organic to the extent that everything felt completely right – no awkward gear changes.  The way he opened the prelude, every single line voiced and interacting with each other, taken at a moderate tempo that flowed and developed almost imperceptibly was something very special.  He brought out the stillness yet also brought out the conflict and the strength in a way that reflected a total command of the work.

Stephen Gould © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Stephen Gould © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Musically, this was an exceptional evening in the theatre, one that more than did justice to this house’s reputation as one of the world’s preeminent lyric theatres.  The production was frankly a mess, it looked somewhat under-rehearsed, far too often tried to create visual interest when none was necessary and had far too many ideas that were taken up and not developed.  It was nonetheless superbly sung, magnificently played and gloriously conducted.  The sound of that orchestra and the gentlemen’s chorus at full tilt, the floor and the seats shaking with the sound is something that will stay with me for a very long time indeed.

You can watch this evening’s broadcast on demand courtesy of the Opera Platform.

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