Monday, April 18, 2016

Sunday at the Opera - Vienna's "Parsifal" - Opera Platform

     Parsifal is an opera that I have grown to love over the years.  The music is amazingly and achingly beautiful.  The plot is complex and a bit odd.  One the one hand it utilizes so much Christian symbolism that you might think it is Wagner returning to his Christian roots, but no.  There is little, in my view, that reflects orthodox Christianity in this libretto.  The Good Friday liturgies in acts 1 and 3 are frankly unrecognizable to any of us who actually celebrate the Triduum.  To look at this as a Christian work one would have to see the Pelagianism which is embedded in the libretto. But Parsifal does not reflect or derive from Christian theology, it is more reflective of Buddhism I think.  I am no expert on Buddhism, but I have deep respect for the faith. What I know is that at the heart of Buddhism is the journey towards self-awareness and completeness.  A part of this journey is self-denial.  All of this is embedded in Parsifal.  When seen in this light I think it makes more sense, and I experience it as a much more profound reflection of the struggle of life's journey.
     Another problem with this opera is that for reasons I do not completely understand stage directors within the last 30 years or so always want to emphasize the broken down and even apocalyptic dimension (which I think is not there actually - there is nothing apocalyptic about this opera!)  My very first Parsifal was at Lyric Opera in Chicago over 10 years ago.  It was sung beautifully, but the setting was depressing.  It was the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.  It was very tiresome. Within such a setting even the Buddhist themes are subverted. I absolutely loved the new Met production and I found the Berlin production to be also outstanding, though it focused on some other things as well. This Vienna production I think is somewhere in the middle.  It is not awful, but it is not great.  It is however perplexing. One wonders exactly what this stage director is trying to convey.  And it is a mixed bag.  I found act 2, for example, very effective.  Act 3 was ok, but not all that great.  And act 1 was totally confusing.  For example, exactly what is the point of making all of the residents of Montsalvat into members of a fencing club?  I just did not understand why everyone was dressed for fencing, had the swords and practiced their fencing throughout act 1.  And then it is dropped for acts 2 and 3.  And was that a human sacrifice with the shirtless boy?  Why?  And if not, what was it all about with the boy and the knife? And why is Montsalvat so run down?  Is it really necessary?  In general the production is just bland and nonsensical.  It is not worth watching for the production, frankly - IMHO.

     But the singing is another story.  This Vienna Parsifal is beautifully sung and (mostly) beautifully played.  Violeta Urmana is stunning as Kundry, one of the best I have ever experienced.  And Michael Volle sings Amfortas with such beauty and phrasing that it brought tears to my eyes at time. Stephen Gould is a good Parsifal and Falk Struckmann does a nice job as Gurnemanz, though he doesn't really have the gravitas in his voice that I have come to expect in this role.  Still he is a fine singer and musician and a good actor. Boaz Daniel also does an excellent job as Klingsor and brings a vocal beauty to this role that is sometimes missing.  He is also quite the dapper Kingsor!  The orchestra was mostly good.  As usual the Vienna Philharmonic is a mixed bag.  Interspersed with moments of great beauty, like the act 1 prelude and the Good Friday Spell music (beautiful oboe solo) we then had to put up with the usual false attacks in the winds and kacks from the horns.  One expects better of this orchestra.

     If you are anxious to see a variety of different Parsifal's it is worth watching and musically it is over all very fine.  The production however leaves much to be desired.

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