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S & H International Opera Review

Richard Wagner, Parsifal (Concert performance at the Frankfurt Opera), soloists, Frankfurt Museumsorchester, Frankfurt Opera Chorus, Paolo Carignani (cond), Frankfurt, February 29, 2004 (SM)


Amfortas: Eike Wilm Schulte
Titurel: Magnus Baldvinsson
Gurnemanz: Matti Salminen
Parsifal: Stuart Skelton
Klingsor: Gerd Grochowski
Kundry: Nadja Michael


In days of tight budgets and dwindling public financing for the arts, it sometimes makes sense to do concert performances of operas. There are no directors, no stage sets, no lighting and no costumes to pay for. What restricted rehearsal time there is can focus solely on the music rather than what the singers have to do on stage. And the danger that something can go wrong on the night is greatly reduced - there's no tripping over, no missed entries and, of course, with the singers given the luxury of having the score in front of them, there are no flunked or forgotten words. For the audience, too, a concert performance come as something of a relief. They don't have to wrestle with a director's interpretation - obscure, bland, shocking or eye-opening - of the composer's work and they can surrender themselves totally to the music. There are drawbacks, too, of course.

In an opera as long as Parsifal, a concert performance can become something of a trial - there are no sets to distract the audience's attention from poor or ill-prepared singing, scrappy conducting and below-par playing. And if you don't know the plot and can't make out the words, five and a half hours of music can seem like an eternity. Also, if, as was the case in Frankfurt, big-name international singers are not flown in as consolation for the lack of staging, and young in-house ensemble members take the main parts for the very first time instead, the risks can seem very big.

Frankfurt, named Opera House of the Year last year by the influential German magazine Opernwelt, triumphantly overcame any such misgivings at the premiere of its new "non-staged" performance of Parsifal on February 29. Astonishingly, three of the main parts were role debuts Gerd Grochowski as Klingsor, Nadja Michael as Kundry and Stuart Skelton as Parsifal. Even Frankfurt's Generalmusikdirektor Paolo Carignani had never conducted a Parsifal before.

But you'd never have guessed it. Right from the opening bars of the Vorspiel, you sensed we were in for something magical. Carignani's Tristan last season made you sit up and listen. But his Parsifal is even better. Every line is clearly, beautifully shaped, not too slow or cloying with long, breathlessly sung phrases. The first act, nearly two hours long, went by almost without you noticing.

And Carignani, a Verdi specialist, is working wonders with his Frankfurt orchestra. The "Museumsorchester" can no longer be seen as the poor man's answer to the city's premier ensemble, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. Playing as warm, accurate and sensitive as this surely puts them in the top league of Germany's opera house orchestras.

But it was the singers who really made the evening. Gerd Grochowski, who is already attracting attention in Frankfurt in roles such as Kurwenal or the Geisterbote from Die Frau ohne Schatten, may have been a little too youthful as Klingsor, and not quite as evil as he needs to be. But his baritone is powerful and strong in the lower register and his intonation accurate and tone agreeable higher up. The role of Gurnemanz was also to have been taken by a member of Frankfurt's own ensemble, Gregory Frank. But he was ill and the great Finnish bass Matti Salminen jumped in at a day's notice.

Salminen's bass is rich and dark, resounding powerfully and beautifully around the house, near-perfect in every note and every word. Another top-league Wagnerian, Eike Wilm Schulte, sang Amfortas. He was not maybe as intense and moving as the broken king should be, but his heroic baritone was always pleasing and supple.

Supple, too, was Stuart Skelton's youthful Parsifal. His is not the ugly barking voice that so frequently passes as "Heldentenor" nowadays, but well-rounded and always secure in intonation, from a bronze-timbred lower register to a radiant, metallic upper register. Skelton first came to people's attention as Lohengrin and Erik during Daniel Barenboim's and Harry Kupfer's 10-opera Wagner marathon at the Staatsoper Berlin a couple of years ago. Thankfully, he is now a full-time ensemble member in Frankfurt where he has already sung Peter Grimes and the Kaiser in Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Most stunning of all was Nadja Michael as Kundry. Looking gorgeous in a simple black dress in the first and third acts, and a white dress in the second, the slender, athletic Michael has a voice to make your jaw drop right from her very first entry --and the looks to match. She scratched one or two notes, but that was probably nerves. And with a Kundry as gorgeous as this, it didn't really matter. The Flower Maidens, Grail Knights and Squires were all ably sung by members of the Frankfurt ensemble, even if they were not always easy to hear, seated behind the orchestra. The male members of the chorus were also seated on stage, while the female voices floated, very effectively, high up in the Gods.

Parsifal is to be given only three more times in its concert performance this season in Frankfurt. But apparently, a fully-staged version is on the cards for 2006. Let's hope they can find a director and stage designer to match the top-notch musical standards set this time round.

Simon Morgan




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