Seen and Heard International, April 8, 2013
Simon Thompson
Wagner: Parsifal, Wiener Staatsoper, 4. April 2013
Vienna’s Parsifal Runs Far Ahead of the Pack
Parsifal has become a fairly regular fixture in Vienna at Easter time and this year I was lucky enough to catch the last of 2013′s three performances. The main draw was Jonas Kaufmann’s assumption of the title role, his third after Zurich and last month’s production at the Met, which you may have seen in the cinema. More of him later.

Before we get onto the music, a few words about Christine Mielitz’s production which, sadly, I found distracting and visually confused. The opening draws attention to the depraved condition of the knights, an insight showcased by Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s ENO production and recently followed by many. Mielitz sets the knights’ realm in what looks like a crumbling changing room; Amfortas takes his bath behind the sink and the knights themselves seem to have been reduced to the level of a mere fencing club – we see them practising their parries during Gurnemanz’s Act 1 narrative. Inexplicable features abound, though. The order seems to be involved in human sacrifice of some kind and, even more oddly, there is a suggestion that the spirits of the victims provide the disembodied voices for the Act 1 choruses. Klingsor is a cross between a Bond villain and a pimp, and his “garden” resembles a red-light brothel for most of Act 2. It’s all rather odd, though I enjoyed the bare emptiness of the final act, where the lack of clutter helped the story to unfold more naturally.

The music, on the other hand, was a cut above anything else I’ve heard in this work before. If you heard Kaufmann’s Parsifal from the Met then you won’t need me to praise the glories of his voice in this role, which suits him perfectly. Hs dark, burnished timbre is perfect for the character of the wounded healer, the hero who must suffer before he achieves his purpose. Kaufmann has just recovered from a bout of illness, and I got the impression that he was undersinging the part to help him to get through it; but if the voice lacked power then it suffered no lack of beauty or conviction. The naïveté of his interplay with the Flower Maidens was very winning, moderated into something approaching awe when he encounters Kundry. Then a palatable transformation comes over the voice at “Amfortas! Die Wunde!”, developing much greater resources of power. By the final act, and particularly the very final scene in the Grail Temple, his voice rings with authority in a way that I found thrilling and compelling: he goes on a vocal journey every bit as important as the hero’s spiritual journey, and we as an audience are all the richer for it.

This is far from being a one-man show, though. Evelyn Herlitzius is a brittle, electric Kundry, who always retains a hint of instability, even in her seduction scene, which is very beautiful. There is a hint of gravel in Tomasz Koniecczny’s voice which does not give much beauty to his portrayal of Amfortas, but he underlines the king’s agony all the more powerfully, and the drama of the final scene is extraordinary. Wolfgang Bankl is a fantastically malevolent Klingsor, embodying the role’s physical menace as well as his nasty energy. The anchor of the whole evening, though, was the extraordinary Gurnemanz of Kwangchul Youn, a truly awesome Wagner talent. His Gurnemanz manages to sound young while retaining immense reserves of authority and power, and his portrayal of the role rises to a magisterial climax with the anointing scene of Act 3, the most thrilling account of this key moment that I have ever heard.

Vienna can draw great singers, but what really sets apart an evening in this opera house is the quality of the regulars. Maybe it’s because I was so close to them, but the quality of the chorus blew me away. The ladies made a superb bunch of Flower Maidens, and the singing of the knights in the outer acts was extraordinary, redolent with the conviction of their calling in the first act and full of sinister malevolence in the third. It was the playing of the orchestra that really set the evening on fire, though. When you have the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit the results are sure to be special, and so it proved. This is musicianship that runs ahead of the pack. The brass have a magisterial quality that lends immense power to the climaxes of the grail scenes and the winds have a luminosity that fits the colours of Wagner’s final score perfectly. It’s hard to know where to start praising the strings, too. They shimmered with intensity in the Prelude and in the grail scenes, seeming to hang in mid-air unaided, but then attacked the prelude to Act 2 with demonic energy that seemed about to leap out of the pit. Act 3 was a marvel from start to finish, from the weary emptiness of the prelude, through the miraculous wash of string sound that accompanied the removal of Parsifal’s helmet, to the luminous beauty of the Good Friday Music, the unstoppable power of the transformation music and the unarguable resolution of the final pages. I’m sure I’ll see a better Parsifal before long, but if I ever hear another one as good as this then I’ll count myself a lucky man.

 back top