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Seen and Heard International Opera Review


WAGNER, Parsifal: Vienna State Opera, Vienna, 19.4.2006 (JPr)

Vienna State Opera recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of its reopening after the Second World War, and this was my 30th anniversary of going there. I was in Vienna for two productions new to me, Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde. At the Vienna State Opera the best way to judge what the producer originally intended would be to see the first run of the performances. By this, the seventeenth Parsifal of a staging first seen in 2004, it becomes a little diluted.

This production, opening on 8 April 2004 (with designs by Stefan Mayer) and directed by Christine Mielitz, by April 2006 probably made less of its original ideas. Often there will be no technical rehearsal and new singers are often only given the vaguest instructions, particularly if the original director is unavailable, or no visual record of the performances exists. Singers, if there for a short time, may even wear the costumes they bring with them.

During the Prelude, there is a drop curtain of a romantic painting of a siege and Act I opens in a changing room or washroom in a derelict building. Gurnemanz’s men in white body armour practice fencing moves and pose with thrusting swords. Kundry arrives dressed in a black burkha; Amfortas appears to bathe in a shower room shut off from the fencing class by a portable screen around which he overhears Gurnemanz’s Narration. The inner wall is backlit and becomes transparent with two bloodied handprints before Parsifal arrives and throws his crossbow off stage. During the Transformation Scene a topless woman emerges from below stage (Kundry?). The set becomes a meeting hall and a papal figure is seen behind what seems to be a transparent Turin Shroud. Titurel is brought on stage encouraging his son to celebrate Mass on what seems to be the cloth of the Last Supper – or is it the shroud itself?

Act II is typical of Wagner set production these days – Klingsor is at a console against video imagery of marching banners. He is in a gold lamé jacket and red shirt and is in the bald tubby shape of Wolfgang Bankl. His tubbiness is soon even more on show when off comes the shirt and jacket. Klingsor is shown on video, as is Kundry when she is manhandled by his lab-coated assistants to be dressed ready for Parsifal’s arrival. It is a brave, often bare-breasted, performance by Angela Denoke. She is the ‘original’ Kundry in this production and gives us a positive link to Christine Mielitz’s original direction. The flowermaidens strip to their underwear and tackle Parsifal on the settee, binding him in red ribbon. A shimmering curtain has descended and in a red glow Kundry, first as a lady in red and then in white, sets about seducing Parsifal. She does seem to succeed in ‘making a man’ of ‘der reine Tor’ (pure fool) before the true climax of ‘Amfortas, die Wunde!’ (Amfortas, the wound!).

Klingsor brandishes the spear (a white neon tube), the stage darkens and there is a reasonably efficient arrival of the ‘spear’ into Parsifal’s hands. To pictures on screen of weapons of mass destruction Klingsor’s world is vanquished.

Act III has a cyclorama of a bleak rusty-coloured landscape, like the surface of Mars. Gurnemanz seems much as before but Kundry arrives in the pyjama-like clothes of a religious penitent and bleached-blond. Later she strips to vest, slacks and boots. Parsifal arrives after much roaming around the back of the stage; soon it is revealed he is wounded in the left arm. ‘Karfreitagszauber’, the Good Friday Music, is heralded by green light and a bank of 80 lights shining into the theatre. During the final transformation scene the grail knights shamble on with Titurel’s coffin, lank-haired and shabbily-dressed, many with goggles (because they have not seen the light recently, no doubt?). The shrouded Titurel tumbles out of the coffin into which Amfortas wishes to crawl. Dragging Kundry, Parsifal brings on the spear to redeem and unite her and Amfortas. He brings hope to the distressed brotherhood as he demands the grail removed from the golden casket it has been carried around in.

The replacement for the announced Parsifal was Burkhard Fritz making his house debut. His was an essentially light-voiced tenor with a lyrical rather than heroic tone but he may also have misjudged the size of the house – one that is always difficult to sing in. He was hard to hear when at the back of the stage, very musical sounding at the front and can be forgiven everything for the beautifully floated ‘offnet den Schrein!’ (open the shrine!). This heralded the closing lines and the sound of the boys, youths and knights joining in for ‘Erlösung dem Erlöser!’ (The Redeemer redeemed) finishing the opera with a limited degree of exaltation missing from the rather earthbound choral singing at the end of Act I where the boys and youths rose from below the stage.

Matti Salminen’s Gurnemanz was stoic and avuncular, with a Lieder-like delicacy to his bass voice as he painted in words and music - ‘die heut’ mit heil’gem Tau beträufet Flur und Au’ (Today with holy dew the flowery mead is bedecked). All singers would be somewhat diminished by such a compelling presence such as that of the great Finn but Franz Grundheber’s Amfortas, Ain Auger’s Titurel and Wolfgang Bankl’s Klingsor were more than capable of meeting this challenge and were part of an ensemble of splendid vocal performances.

I have already praised the German soprano Angela Denoke for her whole-hearted (and bare-fronted) Kundry; it was particularly compelling under the full glare of the Act II video camera close-ups. Good as she was, her voice lacked the heft for the risk-taking that can make this character so hypnotic in some other singer’s throats.

All the singers naturally have to battle with the exceptional musicians of the orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper. They want to be heard. Certainly the veteran Austrian Wagnerian Peter Schneider conducted a finely paced account of an opera for which Donald Runnicles had been originally listed. Schneider never disappoints; there is light and shade, with Wagner’s markings scrupulously followed. But, one wants to be transported just a little out of one’s self into some other ‘time’ and ‘space’ in this music, if not by the staging, then by the music, but this did not happen on this occasion.

Jim Pritchard

Picture ©Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Axel Zeininger



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