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Subject: Bayreuth 2008 Parsifal - evening (on NPR) full of enigmas with (or enhanced by?) new non-controversial production
From: David H Spence <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:David H Spence <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sat, 6 Dec 2008 03:33:51 -0500

text/plain (158 lines)

Any encounter with Wagner's Parsifal is one that is going to be enveloped in a 
little enigma,  The Herheim staged, Gatti led one as heard over NPR here last 
night from Bayreuth, served to us by Deutsche Welle Radio, certainly was no 

I came to it, having been discouraged from tuning to Meistersinger a year ago, 
given the kind of press it got for how things went musically.  This year's run of 
Meistersinger was filmed and is already released on dvd.  Though obvious that 
this Parsifal was greeted so enthusiastically, it would also benefit from a delay 
of a year to film/release it for/on dvd.

Daniele Gatti made his Bayreuth Festival debut with Parsifal, at the age of 46.
Tempos were reported to be on the excessively slow side, taking the musical 
length of the performance out to four hours and forty minutes.  I had reason 
to fear that whoever pointed this out was right, from the Prelude to Act One. 
At under fifteen minutes, it was not so conspicuously slow, as just a little 
lacking in shape and feeling a bit shallow in depth and color. For that reason 
alone, it and so much else seemed a little slower than it probably was. Gatti's 
cast being so lyric, the Italianate linearity of his approach to Wagner was 
understandable, but even with it so, one had to have sought a little more 
profile to it. 

Most effective was the Transformation Scene toward the end of Act One, and 
about the last three-fourths of Act Three.  The chorus, as led by Eberhard 
Friedrich, reminded of Bayreuth of past seasons, a little more than did the 
orchestral playing.  The majesty of the Transformation Scene was clearly 
evident, as also was a certain blossoming forth of lyrical passages, 
Gurnemanz's reference to Klingsor's garden in Act One worthy of note.

On the plus side, against how I had been warned, little of this Parsifal ever 
seemed at a true standstill.  Slowness for Gatti only seemed to mildly 
compensate for his groping at finding true shape to Parsifal's long paragraphs 
or as further reassuring us that he was finding his way as such for at least its 
second half.  By my watch, this Parsifal clocked in at four hours and 25 
minutes, the first act at five minutes shy of two hours (Act Two at slightly 
over 68 minutes and Act Three at slightly under eighty-two).  Not to mention 
Toscanini (and also the caveat that I did not get to hear every night of Gatti’s 
first run), Levine and Eschenbach (in his one year ever thus far to conduct at 
Bayreuth – the Wolfgang Wagner production of Parsifal in one of its last years 
before the autumnal return of Boulez to conduct a second new production of it 
there for him over span of nearly forty years, with Goetz Friedrich and 
Wolfgang inbetween) have both taken it more slowly than this, and both also 
before particularly Levine had entirely had found his way through it themselves 
to perhaps even close to full satisfaction.

Kwangchul Youn, in his largest assignment for Bayreuth thus far, led the cast 
as Gurnemanz.  When able to find comfortable placing of his voice, one found 
him nearly rich enough in timbre and depth to be certainly competitive in the 
part.  One could find him too unfailingly intelligent with the words and his 
German dction was impeccable. His sympathy with the character was never in 

However, in passagework, particularly in Act One, Youn would tend to lose 
comfortable vocal placement for chromaticism in his lines he seemed to have a 
little difficulty in hearing or placing, even in terms of intonation, quite 
correctly.  His voice is such that it has a light baritonal top, and during his two 
big monologues in Act One, he too easily lost legato. As a result, the quality of 
his singing took on the quality of parlando, compromising at times the nobility 
of some of Gurnemanz's lines.  With support from Gatti being a little in doubt, 
such passagework went a little for nought.  

Even including a few reminders of what held Youn back during Act One, he 
gave his lines in Act Three their requisite warmth and shape, and the 
hollowness of his voice at times in midrange also seemed to be less of an 
issue.  His attempt at lending that part of his voice more weight, especially 
during Act One, by placing things a bit far back had a tendency to introduce 
the hint of an intrusive beat in midrange.  Youn is an artist who has always 
shown significant promise, and has had some clear success in certainly less 
demanding repertoire than Gurnemanz, of which there is much.  There is time 
for him to grow into this part as well.

Christopher Ventris was the youthful sounding Parsifal, though already quite 
experienced in this part.  His assumption of the part, and one that does not go 
very high, is not particularly baritonal in depth, as one might expect from a 
Domingo, Vinay, Hopf, Windgassen, even Jerusalem, others, but instead of a 
still quite lyric tenor.  Though his lyricism with the part is very pleasing, the 
voice, as has been described to me, is not quite ravishingly beautiful.  The 
pain, anguish Parsifal must feel with especially the epiphanous discoveries this 
innocent fool makes during his lengthy Act Two encounter with Kundry 
sounded understated.  Gatti, in the prelude to Act Three to follow, made a 
comparably streamlined impression for this passage, on his own. Ventris 
interacted both  fluidly and attentively in dialogue with the Gurnemanz of 
Kwangchul Youn during Act Three. 

The Amfortas of Detlef Roth sounded most indicative of the werkstatt 
atmosphere of Bayreuth, at the culmination of sole leadership by Wolfgang 
Wagner for 42 years.  Roth was simply just too lacking in voice to be singing 
Amfortas at the festival.  There was little to show in the way of legato, and 
no matter how well he could show he understands the words to what he is 
singing, there was just simply not enough voice to quite carry everything 
forward well enough.  In a couple of passages, he resorted too to making up 
the lines, in terms of what pitches to sing.   The highly resonant voice of 
Diogenes Randes rolled forth effectively, though a bit overmiked, as Titurel. 
Thomas Jesatko was the effective, albeit lean voiced Klingsor, hardly such to 
erase memories of Gustav Neidlinger in the part.

Though, I admit, mildly stretched by Gatti's slowness, Mihoko Fujimura, as an 
insinuating, elusive, mysterious (even as guilt-ridden) Kundry was most 
effective.  She evinced a just somewhat light top, as expected for a soprano 
suited for one of the more lyric Wagner roles, but quite seamlessly connected 
with a plentifully rich enough lower middle to low register.  Her way with 
Kundry seemed so wisely uncertain of the very why of her plight as the 
sorceress and also of what her destiny must be.  It all came across as, and 
even I have good reason to suspect, independent of the new production, 
evidence of a very probing look into and grasp of thsi part, and played it so 
effectively a great foil to what should  be the even always further unknowing 
and groping Parsifal.  I am tempted to seek out what Regine Crespin's 
interpretation of Kundry must fifty years ago have been like, under Hans Kna, 
by comparison with what I heard last night.

I ultimately have to leave with it with those who actually had chance to see 
this Parsifal to render final judgment of what it was like, how it all came across 
visually and dramatically.  A tremendous sense of craft seemed to have gone 
into the lighting and management of visual perspectives, according to 
commentary I heard last night.  With, for instance Kundry during Act Two 
being transformed from putting on a Marlene Dietrich like appearance 
(somewhat disastrous as I saw for a dance four years and a half ahead of time 
of a Met in HD presentation this season) to that of the wife of Goebbels (of 
whom I do not remember taking any notice of photograph of what she must 
have been like), it seems that for one act this could have been quite an 
Amarcord of a Parsifal.  

Who out there might be able to disabuse me of such a notion like this?  I ask 
such a question, now at the very sunset of the lengthy Wolfgang led era at 
the festival, of such a production in its having found itself so very free of any 
controversy in the least.  We all know what the previous Parsifal at Bayreuth, 
under Boulez and Schligenschief had been like, with first season tenor Endrik 
Wottrich in that four years ago making it loudly well known of how much he 
disapproved of everything happening on stage.  Like numerous other 
controversial openings at Bayreuth, there were found ways of fixing at least 
some of what had gone wrong during a first year of even that production of 
Parsifal, as long or short as it lasted, at the festival.

Has - even the tele-tubbies Tannhauser of several seasons back comes to 
mind - Bayreuth softened up, lost its edge, for sake of the traditionalists, 
industry CEO's and other well-heeled, connected people who back the festival? 
As a festival yet again in transition, one perhaps even more than these people 
wants to hope that the place, the event each summer, and all the inner 
workings thereof will be able to keep its own soul, as opposed to transforming 
itself into an empty shell of itself. Concerning all this, the Parsifal I heard last 
night was just slightly less than reassuring enough.

David H Spence

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