Thursday, May 05, 2011

Easter Longings

We had a lovely dinner with our friend Sam Shirakawa a couple of weeks ago, but now he is back in Germany and reports upon his exploits over Easter weekend in Cologne, Duisberg and Hamburg:

 Wagner : Parsifal
 22 April

 Wagner : Fliegende Holländer
 23 April

 Wagner : Parsifal
 25 April

Wagner - Parsifal | Cologne | 22 April

When I told a friend that I was attending Parsifal twice over the long Easter weekend, he warned me -- not entirely in jest -- that too much of Wagner’s final stage work is unhealthy. There are, of course, those who believe that Wagner in any quantity presents a health hazard.

I became acutely aware of his comment, as I was listening to a concert performance of the work on Good Friday in Cologne. Parsifal is redolent with illness: Amfortas is in unspeakable pain, the community is suffering. The music longs for regeneration. Ultimately, redemption rules, but getting there takes more than five hours. Indeed, experiencing Parsifal can prove transformative, providing you have patience.

It also helps to hear artists who are up to their tasks. Which was thankfully the case at the Kölner Philharmonie, where a powerhouse cast sounded in excellent form. Most of the names are familiar: Robert Holl (Gurnemanz), Franz Grundheber (Amfortas), Evelyn Herlitzius (Kundry), and (are you ready for this?) Franz Mazura (Titurel). None of them brought new insights into their respective roles, but who cares? To hear these artists, who have grown into their roles without traces of wear and wobble was nothing less than thrilling. Age need not wither.

There was fresh blood too. Marco Jentzsch has a middle-weight voice, somewhat reminiscent of Sandor Konya and Charles Kullman, whose clarity and natural musicality reveals an appealing Parsifal. Samuel Youn keeps growing musically and at an astonishing pace, but he still has some work to do in articulating Klingsor’s menacing cynicism.

Crisp pacing and translucent textures characterized Markus Stenz’ reading. The Gürzenich Orchestra was in superb form, and Andrew Ollivant drew supernal sounds from the multiple choirs placed in various parts of the amphitheater-shaped auditorium.

Wagner - Parsifal | Hamburg | 25 April 

The Hamburg Oper on Easter Monday had the full monty -- or nearly. Robert Wilson’s production was furnished with sets and costumes (Frida Parmeggianni), minus the Grail Chalice, spear and tell-tale kiss. But he made it all work with lots of stylized gestures and hypnotic lighting effects. Wilson’s dream-like style is particularly suited to Parsifal. And he had a brand-name cast at his disposal, which was fully attuned to his ideas: Wolfgang Koch (Amfortas), Diogenes Randes (Titurel), Kwangchul Youn (Gurnemanz), Antonio Yang (Klingsor), Michaela Schuster (Kundry), and certainly not least Klaus Florian Vogt in the eponymous role.

Michaela Schuster was perhaps the most remarkable in this ensemble; she navigated the treacherous ups and downs on the staff with no perceptible effort. But her Kundry seemed oddly too well-adjusted -- more Klingsor’s willing tool than a tortured harlot, who tries to seduce Parsifal against her will.

Of Klaus Florian Vogt there is little to add to what I’ve said about him in the past. He has detractors among his growing legion of admirers. His Parsifal is about as anti-Melchior as you can get: its lyrcism is well-nigh androgynous. But it has size and warmth and brightens under pressure. His phrasing is invariably telling. His stage presence has an aura. Unlike some of his better known peers, he seems in no hurry to lumber his voice with loads of heavy roles.

Some unusual textures emerged from the pit at this performance -- quite unlike I have ever heard at a live performance of Parsifal. Could the fact that Simone Young is a woman have had something to do with it?

Speaking of conductors, you’ll find an extraordinary moment in a new film documentary by Vadim Jendreyko about the making of a recent production of Parsifal in Stuttgart titled Die singende Stadt. In it, stage director Calixto
Bieito tells conductor Manfred Honeck to pep up the tempo. The look on Honeck’s face as Calixo lectures him is worth the price of admission. When stage directors tell conductors what to do, you know in which direction opera is heading.

Wagner - Der Fliegende Holländer | Duisburg | 23 April

Sandwiched between the two Parsifals, I slipped into a performance of Der fliegende Holländer in Duisberg. The opera is the first (1843) of Wagner‘s “major” works and its premiere in Dresden was not as successful as Rienzi. Hearing this early Dutchman virtually side by side with Wagner’s final work was instructive: so vast is the musical development, that you would hardly believe the same composer created them both. If Wagner had died following the premiere of Dutchman at the age of 30, the opera would still be a landmark.

Seeing the Deutsche Oper am Rhein’s production by the late Adolf Dresen was also a mini-revelation. Real ships, women weaving at real looms, period-looking costumes. The evening was a throwback to times long past. The cast also seemed from another age: Tomasz Konieczny as a towering Dutchman, Jan-Hendrik Rootering in solid form as Daland, Corby Welch an intense Erik and Manuela Uhl, striking and incandescent, as Senta.

Uhl is chalking up one success after another. She recently added Chrysothemis to her arsenal of outsize roles in Baden-Baden and Munich under Christian Thielemann. Is the Met in the cards?

John Barry Steane, music critic and musicologist, born 12 April 1928; died 17 March 2011
Now a word about the loss of a great teacher. John Steane was a school master, whose specialty was Elizabethan literature. But his great love was opera, or more exactly, singing. He made it his task to convey that affection to the interested layman, but you don’t have to be musically in the know to appreciate him. His writings are gems of prose: concise, witty and thought-provoking. Above all, his articles and books are infectious; they make you eager to listen to the singers he surveys. The Grand Tradition explained a long miraculous moment in the history of singing while never appearing to explain it. It reads like an irresistible novel. Regretfully, I never met the man, and I never took the time to write him to ask what voice he utterly detested. Those who knew him say he was an English gentleman to the core and probably had no hate list -- at least, to which he would admit.

Now that he's departed, we are left with re-reading him, somewhat like replaying favorite records with the expectation of finding something surprising each time.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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