Saturday, 7 March 2009

Berlin: Embarrassingly underprepared Domingo as Parsifal with Meier, Salminen and Barenboim

Parsifal. Berlin State Opera. March 6th 2009. Cast: Plácido Domingo (Parsifal), Waltraud Meier (Kundry), Matti Salminen (Gurnemanz), Christof Fischesser (Klingsor), Hanno Müller-Brachmann (Amfortas). Conductor: Daniel Barenboim. Further information here.

The Parsifal production of the Berlin State Opera is by film-maker Bernd Eichinger from 2005 and described in detail at my last visit two years ago. In brief, Eichinger sees Parsifal as a journey in time. Furthermore, he doesn´t really seem to know anything about directing opera, making Parsifal a display of filmic sets, leaving the singers free to create the characters. Which is why the appearance yesterday of three leads, all new to the production, didn´t really make any difference, despite a minimal rehearsing time.

As Parsifal, Plácido Domingo was notoriously underprepared, relying heavily on audible prompting, especially in the second act. Famous for his acting skills, he had no connection with the character at all, seemingly stretching himself to the maximum to get through it alive and pronounce the words at least partially correct. Has he ever been dramatically convincing as the innocent fool? I suspect not. But yesterday he was painfully unconvincing, almost downright terrible, I (as a staunch Domingo-Wagner fan) am very sorry to say. The tones, however, were beautiful and probably not to be heard better by anyone today in this part. In a concert performance he would have been stunning. However, is it really possible to watch a performance with no chemistry between Plácido Domingo and Waltraud Meier? I wouldn´t have thought so, but apparently it is.

Plácido Domingo has chosen to sing this role again in public. And hats off to him for not cancelling the performance in front of a sold-out house. But he should have been better prepared as this was far below his own standards.

Waltraud Meier was simply stunning as Kundry. Her magnetic stage presence and dramatic projections make me hope she can continue at least 1o years more with this part. That she may have choked on a couple of high notes I find entirely unimportant in the bigger picture, and furthermore the entire middle-lower register, occupying the majority of the part was as beautiful as ever.

The major draw-back to this evening, of course was René Pape´s cancellation and in my book I suspect these performances will go down as "the Berlin Parsifals René Pape didn´t sing". I would be lying if I said he wasn´t heavily missed.

That said, Matti Salminen was a rather smashing substitute. Salminen´s voice ages well and remains firm, entirely avoiding the vibrato marring the singing of colleagues such as John Tomlinson, Kurt Rydl and Samuel Ramey. Furthermore, he was in fine vocal shape and he is an intellingent singer, fully knowing that extended legato-lines and ringing top-notes (René Pape´s major strong points) are not his aces, converting some of these to sprech-gesang or cunning pianissimi letting Barenboim´s orchestra overshadow him (best example in the Gesegnet sei section, at which point I suspect he was down-right exhausted as well). Not unimportantly, Matti Salminen has the required stage authority and apart from he-who-was-not-here I don´t think a better Gurnemanz is around.

Hanno Müller-Brachmann is an Amfortas way above average with a warm, rounded, slightly lyrical approach. Also quite superb Christof Fischesser as Klingsor, though he was occasionally thrown off guard by Barenboim´s rugged tempi. Both on the highest international level.

Daniel Barenboim doesn´t really make things easy either. The orchestra hasn´t played Parsifal in two years and I strongly suspect he didn´t waste too much time rehearsing it either. On top, he applied some peculiar accentuations and rather rugged shift of tempi, not fully incorporated within all sections of the orchestra and which threw the singers off guard, contributing to the sense of unease prevailing in this performance. But he does get beneath the glittering beauty of a Thielemann Parsifal to the closest I can imagine to the core of the work.

However, the evening as a whole didn´t really take off. Still, a Parsifal vastly superior to the one in Bayreuth, but inferior to previous performances of the same production at this house.

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 4=average):

Plácido Domingo: 3
Waltraud Meier: 5
Matti Salminen: 5
Hanno Müller-Brachmann: 5
Christof Fischesser: 5

Daniel Barenboim: 5

Overall impression: 4

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, yesterday was just amazing performance. But I missed Rene Pape's voice and understanding of this role.
Jane

Anonymous said...

Attending yesterday's performance, I felt that Barenboim's (at times extremely slow) conducting, the magnificent Staatskapelle, and Waltraud Meier's almost unbearably powerful Kundry were the true highlights of an otherwise good, but not stunning performance.
Salminen was good overall (despite some signs of vocal strain, particularly in act III), but Domingo was downright terrible, I felt.
I few missed notes here and there are one thing and absolutely forgivable, but not knowing one's lines at all and thus making the teleprompter shout (!) throughout almost the entire act II is an outrage. I'm sorry to say that, but almost having to stop singing entirely during some parts of act III because of severe text gaps is simply embarrassing to me.

marcillac said...

See Mostly, that wasn't so bad.

Salminen really is still very good and while his Mark last year at the Met wasn't quite Pape's it was more than excellent. Having heard Pape in these parts previously one can enjoy the performance fully in his absence.

That said, the cancellations and his performance in the Faust premiere are troublesome. I do hope this is only a short term indisposition.

There is probably not much reason to worry. All singers get sick or have occasional vocal trouble. Domingo himself was having difficulties as long as 15 years ago and he is, as you report, still quite good vocally.

marcillac said...

Incidentally, respecting Domingo and Barenboim you really have to wander at the schedules they keep. It speaks to how extraordinary their memory and professionalism is that they don't embarass themselves more often.

What I can't understand is why they work as much as they do. They could both cut their work by 40% and still have schedules at least as difficult as those of the vast majority of singers and conductors. They certainly don't need the money and there is no reason for them to go out and make fools of themselves as Domingo appears to have done last night.

mostly opera... said...

marcillac - I was wondering the same thing. Especially with Plácido Domingo. Judged on the applause from the audience, quite a few people were glad to have him there (though a couple of boos were heard as well).

Based on video-clips from previous performances Domingo has always struck me as out of place as Parsifal. The almost barytonal range suits his voice fine though, but then, why not Lohengrin?

I remember a recent interview with Daniel Barenboim explaining how he considered many of his performances just like a walk in the park, no more stressful to him than staying at home.
Regarding this specific performance, I really do believe Gurnemanz is the key to Parsifal, and throwing in a new singer (no matter whom he is replacing) at short notice, who hasn´t sung the part with Barenboim for 10 years, if ever, clearly put Barenboim under stress as well and greatly contributed to the unease of the evening.

Hopefully, RP is saving up to deliver a smashing Wotan at the Met gala. Not that I care much about that gala, but I realize many of you do...

Beckmesser said...

Domingo certainly doesn't need the money, now he has been awarded that Birgit Nilsson prize !

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear that Plácido Domingo was in fine voice. That's important to me....you said it would have been "a stunning concert-performance" that's better than most of the very much younger tenors would have been able to deliver. His time to prepare was short enough and even he is a human being...and not one of the youngest one's. His German is surely weak, at least when he couldn't prepare himself well. He strongly wanted to sing Parsifal again and has proved that he still can do it... Great!!

Beckmesser said...

Anonymous wrote: "He strongly wanted to sing Parsifal again and has proved that he still can do it..."

Has he ???

I wasn't there, obviously, but Mostly's post as well as all the reactions tend to show, on the contrary, that, at least on that occasion, he most certainly could not !

Anonymous said...

Well, actually it wasn't like Domingo didn't have enough time to go well-prepared into these "Parsifal" performances. He had been scheduled since summer last year, if I remember correctly. That should somehow be enough time to get back into a role he had been singing rather frequently in the past.
Considering that and the fact that these two entirely sold-out performances were some really "big thing" here in Berlin (with people paying hundreds of Euros for privately sold tickets), I found Domingo - a man I have a lot of respect for and admire in many, many roles - utterly unprofessional, arrogant, and annoying.

richard said...

As we are booked for Monday's performance, let us hope that Domingo is doing some studying over the week-end!

By the way, has anyone heard who is taking over in London on Thursday at the Barbican - I booked on Wednesday morning before news of the Berlin cancelations broke early afternoon. Ho Hum

mostly opera... said...

Robert Holl, whom you will also be hearing Monday..

Anonymous said...

hmmm...I thought Domingo's singing was very fine indeed,certainly tonally but he did look too old for the part.Act2 was the best, Barenboim overdid the overture to Act1 completely failing to set the necessary mysterious otherworldlly pace (ala Knapperstbusch)and robbing Act 1 of much of its beauty.Rugged,driven tempos more suited to Tristan.But great singing and despite the faults a memorable evening.

Inter Glossa said...

I read this and remembered Domingo's incredibly honest comment when he recorded Tristan, "Do you think an Italian tenor can really be convincing in this role?" He is such a great musician, but I have heard him sing Parsifal and it was not on a par with his other work. I agree about Thielemann, I heard his Parsifal and his tempi were so right they were almost shocking.

I recently read Sibelius biography and discovered he regarded his first Parsifal experience at Bayreuth as foundational for his orchestral technique. For a listener the familiarity with this opera in all its dimensions is truly one of the aesthetic experiences of a lifetime.

mostly opera... said...

Actually I though Plácido Domingo was tremendously convincing as Tristan, among the best on record together with Jon Vickers. Obviously, as he also stated himself, he could never have performed the role live. Unfortunately..

Carol said...

Well, I attended tonight's performance (12.03) and was (still am) amazed. Even though Domingo seemed a little lost on stage, both musically and in acting, but, still, it was thrilling! I was moved all around Act II and III, espeacially due to Meier's stunning performance and Baremboim/Staatskapelle over inspired sound. A night to remember! I was glad I was lucky enough to be there.

Straussmonster said...

Pape has a more beautiful voice and better line, but Salminen is really a more interesting Gurnemanz, in terms of bringing out the various facets of the character.

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