Saturday, April 13, 2013


PARSIFAL    New Production 
Opera Cologne
11 April 2013
Plus: Short Takes @ The Met
March 2013
© Sam H. Shirakawa 

Musikalische Leitung Markus Stenz / Inszenierung Carlus Padrissa (La Fura dels Baus) / Bühne Roland Olbeter / Kostüme Chu Uroz / Licht Andreas Grüter / Dramaturgie Georg Kehren & Tanja Fasching / Chorleitung Andrew Ollivant 

Amfortas: Samuel Youn 
Titurel: Young Doo Park 
Gurnemanz: Matti Salminen 
Parsifal: Marco Jentzsch 
Klingsor: Samuel Youn 
Kundry: Silvia Hablowetz 
1. Gralsritter: Martin Koch 2. Gralsritter: Lucas Singer 1. Knappe: Aoife Miskelly 2. Knappe: Marta Wryk 3. Knappe: Jeongki Cho 4. Knappe: Juraj Hollý 
1. Blumenmädchen I. Gruppe: Gloria Rehm 2. Blumenmädchen I. Gruppe: Erika Simons 3. Blumenmädchen I. Gruppe: Marta Wryk 1. Blumenmädchen II. Gruppe: Claudia Rohrbach 2. Blumenmädchen II. Gruppe: Aoife Miskelly 3. Blumenmädchen II. Gruppe: Adriana Bastidas Gamboa
Stimme aus der Höhe: Adriana Bastidas Gamboa 

Chor der Oper Köln & Extra Chor  
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln 
Marco Jentzsch, Markus Stentz, Silvia Hablowetz, Matti Salminen, Samuel Youn 

Toward the end of an intermission chat with a professional acquaintance and her husband at Opera Cologne’s new production of Parsifal, I asked her to name her favorite Wagner opera.  Musing briefly, she replied, “I think.. most of all Tristan.  And Götterdämmerung too.”

Before I had a chance to challenge her choices, it was time to go our separate ways and return to our seats.

I can understand why she likes Tristan and 
Götterdämmerung more than Parsifal.  They both tell gripping existential stories, and they're loaded with sex, drugs and killer music.  Parsifal is also existential and laden with sex (or the antsy lack of it), pain killers and a god-sent score, but it is no emotional pot-boiler.  Its potency depends a lot on your innermost capacity to go with the flow, for it is a bundle of maddening contradictions, while seeming to be stringently transparent.

And there’s the rub for every contemporary producer trying his/her hand at this operatic sword-in-the-stone.

Carlus Padrissa  (Photo: Mariinsky Theater)
Carlus Padrissa,
 founder of the Catalonian theater company La Fura dels Baustakes on the challenge from the get-go in his staging for Opera Cologne.  As soon as the unisoni of the woodwinds emerge from the pit, we are slammed with the soundless sight of a grisly race-car smash-up.  Behind the scrim on which the crash and its aftermath are shown, four supine mannequins rise and fall gently through space.   It’s a sight-sound oxymoron whose contradiction presumably serves to induce compassion for the survivors of the victims. 

Ayrton Senna (1960-1994)    (Photo: Getty)
But what if you don’t know that, In fact, we are witnessing the hideous death of Ayrton Senna during the 14th Gran Premio di San Marino in 1994 at Imola, Italy?  What if you don’t know who Ayrton Senna was and maybe couldn’t care less?  What if you DO know, that malfeasance presumably played no role in Senna’s fatal collision, while the violence that Parsifal commits against a swan and a woman he has no recollection of ever meeting is redolent with aggression?  Padrissa’s conceit is clever indeed, and, as the grandmother of a childhood friend might say: very sehr

But it doesn’t work.

If, however, you can get past this miscalculated inspiration and transcend the zippered-out projections of random quotes from Wagner’s friend-foe Friedrich Nietzsche, you may find that the net-net effect of Padrissa’s multi-media Parsifal smacks pleasantly of operatic rave.

Central to keeping Padrissa's tenuous concept as cohesive as possible is designer Roland Olbeter’s massive ogive structure that dominates the stage during most of the performance.  It breaks apart into four slices and re-assembles as needed: now enclosing the pantry at Montsalvat where Gurnemanz kneads bread, later contouring the Grail Chapel, later still limning fragments of the Magic Garden.  The slices turn, protrude and recede, sometimes for no special reason, but they’re fun to watch, especially when they're accompanied by snazzy graphic animations and Andreas Grüter's monster jelly, fishnet holographic and roaring rorschach lighting effects. But the pyro-techno interpolations are a sensuous blast mainly and maybe only because... 

Matti Salminen

The singers are not to be outdone.  At the center of the estimable ensemble making its way through the lumières de folie stands that Wonder of Nature Matti Salminen as Gurnemanz.  He is showing some signs of aging -- he wears specs -- but his voice is in exemplary estate, and his powers of expression continue maturing.  Despite an occasional lapse in support in the upper register, Salminen is the North Star of eloquent basso vocalism. 
Silvia Hablowetz, Samuel Youn
Samuel Youn took on both Amfortas and Klingsor and succeeded admirably as both.  At this stage of his burgeoning career, he is better at bringing a livid Klingsor to life than parsing out the feverish agony of Amfortas.  Still, he’s proving himself a frontrunner among Wagner baritones.

Silvia Hablowetz started off shrill and shrewish in the first act but warmed up in the following act, purveying a surprising, schoolgirlish Kundry.  She is billed as mezzo-soprano but her Lolita-like sound in the Seduction Scene was persuasively lyric:  Lucia on downers.  Her portrayal, though, is not yet finished.  She needs to work on the frantic desperation that bristles throughout the measures beginning with “So war es mein Kuss!”  As delivered on 11 April, this section was bereft of the creepy sensation that Kundry is playing the only card left in her harlot’s deck of hookery.

Marco Jentzsch
Marco Jentzsch in the eponymous part rendered his best portrayal I’ve heard him give thus far, though he might exploit his towering height to better effect at his first entrance. He looks like he’s offering no resistance, as the squires bring him to Amfortas after he kills the swan.  But his achievement in embodying Parsifal’s metaphorphosis from savage teen into sovereign majesty is all the more astonishing, given his hilarious LED-lighted costume in the third act, designed by Chu Oroz, which makes him look like a wireless mobile carousel.  But maybe I'm the square in this circle; is Parsifal supposed to look like a smart phone display? 

Photo: Forster

In pursuing some aggressively brisk tempi, Markus Stentz also produced stretches of glowing playing from the Gürzenich Orchester.  The brass section, though, was having noticeable lip issues at this performance. The augmented chorus under Andrew Ollivant's direction remained remarkably in synch, even though its members were scattered throughout the house in the Grail scenes.

This was, I’m pretty sure, my 48th live Parsifal.  There is only one performance left in this series.  I’d like to see this production again, despite its gaffes.

Now for a couple of short takes.  I recently attended several performances at the Metropolitan Opera:

The revelations were threefold; the conducting of Asher Fisch: lucid, superbly paced; Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal: gorgeously sung, subtly characterized;  Michaela Mertens’ Kundry: big-voiced and exciting with a magnetic stage presence.

DON CARLO 13 March
The Muses were there but with arms folded.  Solid performances from a top-drawer cast led by Lorin Maazel, drawing competence but little inspiration from Barbara Fritoli, Ramon Vargas, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Ferruccio Furlanetto (Philip) and Eric Halverson.  Anna Smirnova’s Eboli was the dazzling exception: sadly, she appeared to be blazing in a vacuum.

Diana Damrau’s role debut as Violetta was an unqualified success but fell short of an indisputable triumph.  She sings the part as well as anybody can these days, but her first act was marred by some overly energetic gestures that contradicted Violetta’s declining state of health.  Nonetheless, her vocal acrobatics in “Sempre libra...” were as thrilling as they were effortless.  Surprisingly, though, she was at her heartbreaking finest in the last act. 

Had I never heard Placido Domingo before, I’d say he was miscast as Germont.  But having heard him countless times in his former incarnation as a tenor, I couldn’t free myself of wishing that he’d sing Giorgio’s two big arias at least an octave higher.

Albanian-born Saimir Pirgu realized Alfredo effectively as a gigolo with a hi-five high C.  I look forward to hearing more from him, providing he abjures tackling parts whose weight his voice may be unable to bear.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin is a conductor to be reckoned with.  He found subtleties in the score I’ve never heard before.

OTELLO  20 March 2013
If you could tune out Jose Cura and Thomas Hampson during their whickering attempts at declamation, this performance of Otello was admirable.  Krassimira Stoyanova was in superb form as Desdemona.  Alain Altinoglu’s ear for the broad sonic picture served to produce an epic reading of Verdi’s masterpiece.  Elijah Moshinsky’s production is an eye-popper.

FAUST   28 March 2013
I worry about the future of opera, when a Faust of such superior quality goes begging for an audience.  Even the scalpers were giving away tickets.  Piotr Beczala, Marina Poplavskaya, John Relyea were all in Golden Age form under Alain Altinoglu’s assured direction.  The Met Orchestra is the Maybach of orchestras.

Photos (unless otherwise noted) & Post-Production:  Sam H. Shirakawa

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