Friday, July 1, 2011

Parsifal in Zurich: Interesting and Guth

Parsifal, Opernhaus Zürich, June 29 2011

Claus Guth ..... director
Daniele Gatti ..... conductor

Matti Salminen ..... Gurnemanz
Stuart Skelton ..... Parisfal
Thomas Hampson ..... Amfortas
Yvonne Naeff ..... Kundry
Pavel Daniluk ..... Titurel
Egils Silins ..... Klingsor
Eva Liebau, Teresa Sedlmair, Katharina Peetz,
Sen Guo, Viktorija Stanelyté, Irène Friedli ..... Blumenmädchen

Zurich Opera Chorus and Orchestra

I woke up yesterday morning with somewhat mixed feelings about the new production of Parsifal at the Opernhaus Zurich that I saw the night before. Let's focus on what was (very) good.

Claus Guth judiciously avoided a too introspective take on Parsifal: after the superb productions by Warlikowski,  Bieito, and more recently Castellucci and von Peter, there was little space left for one more introspective interpretation right now. Guth instead attacked the problem more rationally, and somewhat deconstructively, but ultimately the result is a passionate interpretation with depth and clarity. A heavy religious connotation of Parsifal is [almost entirely!] evacuated in this production. Also --please correct me if I am wrong!-- I believe this is the only production of Parsifal in which Titurel appears on the stage and plays a very important role in the story development.


During the prelude we see Titurel sitting at the dinner table with his two sons, Amfortas and Klingsor (and Kundry as a servant standing near them). After showing more attention (affection) to Amfortas, Klingsor gets angry, leaves the table and his family.

Years later, we are at Montsalvat that in this production is actually a sanatorium hosting mentally traumatized soldiers who returned from the battle-fields of the war they'd lost: it is a picture of Germany after WW1 -- defeated, ideologically depressed, and politically disoriented.

Gurnemanz is a priest --a hospital chapelain-- fully aware that the religion alone cannot cure the patients, i.e. it cannot be the only basis for rebuilding the society. For a fresh start they need more, an inspiring political (messianic) character, someone who could motivate/cure depressed people. Audacity by which Parsifal killed the swan attracted Gurnemanz's attention, and he wanted to believe Parsifal was the one who can rescue the patients -- be a new leader, a ray of hope.

Titurel is a too dominant fatherly figure. He is a rich and well respected but is too old to be a leader -- he represents the old order in the society that ultimately failed. He sees a new leader in his son Amfortas, the quality that our Amfortas unfortunately does not have. Worse, Amfortas hates the role  tailored for him but has no guts to oppose his father. And so oppressed and frustrated, he suffers more than the other patients of the sanatorium.

Titurel is down waiting for his son to do what he's supposed to; his son Amfortas suffers upstairs but is too weak (Parsifal --also upstairs-- is an observer)

When invited to give a service to the gathered patients, Amfortas refuses at first, but after his father showed up to convince him, he gives up  and alows the nurses to take some of his blood for the ceremony: yes, his blood [he suffers that much!] which is then mixed with holy water in the chalice, to be equally divided into potions distributed to all the patients who --gathered around an old gramophone-- waited for a nurse to bring the 'cure' [on a medical trolley]. During the preparation and the ceremony itself, Parsifal is wandering around, carefully observes everything, but with a distant curiosity of someone who does not understand much of what he's seeing, and so he never tries to make an extra step and participate actively in the ceremony. Gurnemanz will soon understand he was wrong about Parsifal and will chase him away.

Act-2 is where I mostly disagree with what I've read about this production in the press. In Act-2 we see the same sanatorium but during the night. Klingsor is just another side of Amfortas. In fact it starts with Kundry sitting on the chair where Titurel was sitting before, and in the room in which we'd seen Amfortas suffering during the first Act is now Klingsor standing with a spear in his hand.

Klingsor is who Amfortas dreams to be: determined and courageous to stand against his father and live the life he wants. Kundry obviously knows both faces of Amfortas but she is a woman living in a world dominated by men: submissive women of the beginning if 20th century whose role was to serve and satisfy men. She --like other nurses--  participates in the orgies directed by Klingsor and tries to seduce Parsifal. The moment Parsifal refuses her, she is surprised but at the same time realizes that she does not have to be a passive object of men's sexual and other desires. Parsifal, on the other hand, had his first sexual experience and understood a deeper reason for Amfortas' distress [sexual frustration, Klingsor is castrated], he gains new courage and determination to impose himself as a leader. For that, one of the keys is the spear from Klingsor... which will later also mean the death of Titurel.

In Act-3, we are back --years later-- to the same sanatorium. Sanatorium is now shabbier than before and even Gurnemanz seems to have abandoned hope for redemption. There comes Parsifal dragging the spear. He toughened up during his long journey and now is almost rude to Kundry when she washes his feet. That was a big awakening for her too and she sees her redemption elsewhere -- when everyone is busy fascinated by the new Parsifal, she  seizes the opportunity, packs her stuff and leaves the sanatorium: all that insanity was made by men and she  feels she's strong to live free, on her own terms!

Titurel died and the rich members of the society came to the service which coincides with the 2nd grail scene. Since Parsifal came with new courage, power, charisma that the Klingsor's spear gave him, and recounts what he'd seen on his long journey, the fascinated people/patients start to follow him.

To become de facto leader he puts on a uniform, steps in military boots and -this time- takes an active role in the grail scene: he stands on the gallery, takes the posture of a charismatic leader that the rich people --who came to the funeral but celebrate the grail too-- salute as a new savior.
Amfortas instead recognizes in Parsifal his true savior, leaves the room and a coffin of his dead father, and looks totally relieved. He then calmly sits on a bench next to Klingsor and touches him only once -- Amfortas is finally in peace with himself.

As you can see, everything in this fascinating interpretation happens on 2 or 3 levels, without relying on heavy religious  themes and I believe it suits very well our times even if it is anchored to Germany/Europe between the two world wars.

Scenically it is organized on a revolving stage, with rooms upstairs. That makes the show very busy -- sometimes even too busy for Parsifal. Like in any Guth collaboration with Christian Schmidt, here too you find the large stairs connecting a spacious room downstairs, with doors leading to the more intimate space upstairs. The third compartment of this revolving stage is a large room where the patients gather for the service, with a vast gallery on which Parsifal will show up in uniform in the end of the show. Occasionally you get an impression that the stage turns around too much; as if they were afraid people would get bored watching the same scene and actors in it. Sometimes it is fine to balance things out and bring more dynamics generated by actors and not the stage revolving accessories. Having said that, I loved everything about the stage, the story telling and acting.

Now, what pleased me less is the musical quality of the show. You should know that the auditorium of the Zurich Opera is even smaller than the one at Opéra Comique in Paris, and I believe that could be a reason why orchestra [obviously truncated to fit the pit] misses some of the grand sounds. Furthermore, I somehow felt as if they did not rehears enough. I love Gatti and I *absolutely loved* his reading of Parsifal in Bayreuth, but here I was just picking on too much imprecision which in a small auditorium such as this one easily transforms the rich sound into noise. In addition, the brass were constantly too loud.

When Gatti appeared for Act-2 he even raked a few boos. Instead of waiting till they stop he immediately gave the signal to the orchestra and they started with an awkward intro to Act-2. Only after a couple of minutes they somehow self-tuned and starting from that point the things sounded better. In the end, all in all, it was good but not great -- if I may say so.

Salminen, Skelton, Silins, Naef, Hampson and Daniluk

As for the singers, in this small theater the vocal volume is never a problem (even Cecilia Bartoli sings in operas in Zurich). Egils Silins sounds very good there. This was the first time I listened to Stuart Skelton live. In Zurich he sounds very good, but I wonder how he copes in larger auditoria. Yvonne Naef is good as Kundry, but the winner to me was Thomas Hampson who brings a wonderful acting  to his vocally impeccably Amfortas, tuned for the Guth's show. His voice is rich and powerful, and healthy. Matti Salminen is one of the all time greats, but I am not so convinced Gurnemanz is the role he can sing as good as he used to. Maybe he didn't warm up properly and his first act was definitely underwhelming. In Act-3 he had some good moments, but altogether we remember Matti in a far better vocal shape.

So all in all, I very much enjoyed the show for its intelligent interpretation. Musically,  I thought the shows both in Basel and in Brussels were a notch better.

Some of my curtain call pics:

Thomas Hampson (Amfortas) and Pavel Daniluk (Titurel)

Egils Silins (Klingsor) and Yvonne Naef (Kundry)

Matti Salminen (Gurnemanz) - after jokingly congratulating the prompter ;)

Stuart Skelton (Parsifal)

Daniele Gatti

This premiere is a part of the Zurich Opera Festival that is a Zurich response to the famous Munich Opera Festival. Apart from this Parsifal which was premiered on June 26, next week  they will unveil another new production --  Il Re Pastore by Mozart with Rolando Villazon in the cast and William Christie in the pit.

Here is a 17 min long film about this production that includes interviews with Gatti, Guth and Skelton:


  1. Interesting take on the production.

    A couple of things as to the singers. I heard Skelton as the Drum major at the Met and while I don't think he had his best day in terms of tone he projected very well (quite a bit better than RDS for example). He was generally excellent here.

    Salminen was also terrific last week. He is not in his prime but on his good days remains a vocally impressive and compelling performer.

  2. Hi Marcillac. Skelton to me sounded a bit like Torsten Kerl, but listening to someone for the first time singing at the Zurich opera is certainly misleading. I hope to get to listen to him soon in some larger venue.

    Salminen is a legend, and with that in mind you go to listen to him singing. But 70 is not 50 and you could feel that his authority is not anymore what it used to be. He obviously remains a terrific singer anyway.

    Tom Hampson is really great.