Thursday 31 July 2008

Stefan Herheim, Daniele Gatti Bayreuth 2008 Parsifal: A very slow journey through Germany´s recent past (UPDATED WITH REVIEWS)

Katharina and Wolfgang Wagner at the Parsifal premiere.
Parsifal. Bayreuth Festival July 25th 2008. Director: Stefan Herheim. Cast: Christopher Ventris (Parsifal), Mihoko Fujimura (Kundry), Kwangchul Youn (Gurnemanz), Detlef Roth (Amfortas), Diogenes Randes (Titurel), Thomas Jesatko (Klingsor). Conductor: Daniele Gatti.

Though nothing beats a live review (any readers actually present at this premiere are most welcome to comment), I suppose the below post combining my impressions from the live radio transmission including a description of the staging accompanied by plenty of the photographs surprisingly posted on the Bayreuth Festival webpage, gives a crude impression of what to expect.

As I have not actually seen the staging (yet, I hope), I obviously may not offer an actual opinion on it (though it does seem mighty interesting...).

The audio part, however I will offer a brief opinion on:
First of all, I found Daniele Gatti rather superb: A slow interpretation, but with a grand scope and only occasionally did the tension drop. Furthermore he applied some unconventional and very rapid shift of tempi, which however worked rather well. Some of it was notoriously slow though, such as the end of the 3rd act transformation music with the slowest chords I have ever heard...
The word Italianate comes to mind, but seems rather too obvious. Of recent Bayreuth Parsifal conductors he seems closest to James Levine.

However, none of the singers were exceptional, ranging from Kwangchul Youn´s generally wobbly and inexpressive Gurnemanz (though he vastly improved in the third act), Detlef Roth´s equally shaky Amfortas to Mihoko Fujimura´s beautiful, but very smallvoiced, placid and inexpressive Kundry sung in Mozart-style. Mihoko Fujimura honestly should not be singing this repertoire as she would be stunning in Mozart. Clearly, the best singer was Christopher Ventris with a fine, dark-voiced and espressive Parsifal, though slightly under pressure in the top. The flower-maidens hopefully sounded better live than on the radio...

Difficult to judge the level of applause from the radio, but clearly there was massive applause for Stefan Herheim and his teams´s solo curtain call, entirely unusual for a Bayreuth premiere..



New York Times -
"Most startling was to hear straight-faced, seasoned Bayreuth fans during intermission express surprise at the sight of Wehrmacht soldiers and Nazi banners during Act II, recalling old days at the festival. It all seemed so inevitable."
Associated Press - "a welcome assault on the senses"
Agence-France Presse - "a learned and scholarly exploration of the history of "Parsifal" itself..[Daniele Gatti] gave one of the slowest-ever readings of Wagner's longest opera, stretching the score out to four hours and 40 minutes"
Financial Times - "The performance works on so many levels that you emerge challenged and stimulated: Bayreuth at its best."
Corriere della Sera - "the Wagnerian rites were seduced by Daniele Gatti"
International Herald Tribune - "A Parsifal that revels in its novelty"
Der Standard - "Angela Merkel gave the director red roses" (!)
Le Figaro - "A politically correct Parsifal"

A reasonable selection of the German reviews:

Der Westen - "a historical-political, but also fragile and emotional evening"
Schwäbischen Zeitung - it looks like they left after the first act...
Süddeutsche Zeitung - "In Stefan Herheim´s staging, the stage technicians work more than anyone else, pushing the singers into the background"
Die Welt - "convincing throughout"
Abendzeitung - "superficial storytelling with no time for individual characterisations"
Tagesspiegel - "Stefan Herheim destroys the Bunker-mentality of the Bayreuth Festival"

Frankfurter Allgemeine - "At this point, with young directors such as Stefan Herheim in Bayreuth, it is about time that the Festival officially comes to term with it´s own past. Winifried Wagners diaries must not necessarily be released immediately. A small inscription on the sculptures in the Festival Park would be a fine start"
Frankfurter Allgemeine - "A drama without the phi.osophical-dramatical aspects. Are you allowed to do that?" written by René Kollo
Der Spiegel - "a grandiose show"
Berliner Zeitung - "a moving production, of a kind not seen to often in Bayreuth lately"
Crescendo - "finally an evening to remember in Bayreuth"
Merkur-Online - "five hours too little for Stefan Herheim´s phenomenal journey"
Nord-Bayerische Kurier - the opinions of the VIP premiere guests..
Nord-Bayerische Kurier - "the Grail is a globus"

A 16-pages supplement to Kurier with all sorts of information about this Parsifal (in German) here.

A short video clip from the performance may be seen here.

A photo-gallery here.
Stefan Herheim´s concept in brief: A time travel through the history of Germany, from the unification (1871) to the wirtschaftwunder (economic miracle of West Germany after 1948). A historical and political Parsifal.
Heike Scheele is the set designer. In an intermission interview, Daniele Gatti explained how they had worked very closely together during rehearsals, how Stefan Herheim knew the entire score and had a very musical approach to the work (he originally trained as a cellist).

The following description of the staging are based on reports from Bayern 4 Klassik Radio (where the reviewer was quite enthusiastic) illustrated with photos from the Bayreuth Festival website.

Act 1:
Herzeleide´s death is played out during the prelude. Then we are inside as well as in the garden of Villa Wahnfried (here serving as the Castle of Monsalvat) just after the unification of Germany (1871). The setting is that of dream-theater - a mix of reality and phantasy with a surrealistic air to it. Kundry ís a dark bird of the night. Parsifal´s alter-ego is a child, emerging from the swan, if I understand it correctly. The Grail Knights in the end were soldiers marching towards the first world war.

In theory, audiences in Bayreuth do not applaude after Act 1. However, both this and last year they did.



Act 2
- Klingsor´s Castle is a lazaret. Klingsor appears a Lucifer with black wings, apparently neither man or woman. The flower-girls initially are nurses tending the wounded soldiers, transforming into seductive 1920 showgirls. Kundry appears a Marlene Dietrich look-a-like. When Parsifal rejects her, we suddenly are in the Third Reich, with Klingsor as a Göring- look-alike. Parsifal´s defeat of Klingsor is a victory over the Third Reich, with mighty Nazi banners as well as marching Nazi soldiers falling lifeless to the floor as Parsifal points his spear at them.

The flower maidens as nurses:

Act 3: Set immediately after the end of World War 2 in the ruins of Villa Wahnfried, where Gurnemanz is asleep in the garden. Water springs from the well when the black-clad Parsifal touches it with the spear. In the transformation scene the light goes on in the entire auditorium and the audience sees themselves reflected in giant mirrors onstage in front of the the Bundestag (German Parliament) in the 1950´s in front of which the opera ends. Kundry is, as always, alive..

Stefan Herheim during rehearsals:


Unknown said...

You're fast! I actually liked the singers more than you did, Mihoko Fujimura is a GOOD Kundry, I liked her also in Vienna. All Kundrys don't have to be the bitter angry spinster :-). That said I've already got tickets for Parsifal in Berlin in March, never seen die Meier as Kundry.
But tonight Gatti was the star, and perhaps Herheim, I never heard of a recent Bayreuth premiere where there was no boohs for the director.
We will see,I'll be there for the 6th performance, August 16.

Anonymous said...

My expectations (will be seeing it 6 August) are greater after hearing the radio broadcast. I liked Youn, but the flower maidens are probably the worst ever presented in a major opera house. I couldn't believe what I heard. The singers must probably be judged after seeing the performance, I guess the chamber style singing is a part of the whole project. The cheering for Herheim&co was sensational. I was expecting buhs lifting the roof. Bayreuth is changing, and I like it.

mostly opera... said...

Mihoko Fujimura is a GOOD Kundry, I liked her also in Vienna. All Kundrys don't have to be the bitter angry spinster :-)

I saw her Kundry in Vienna too and have seen her several times as Brangäne and Waltraute as well. I just don´t think she has the voice for this, although it is very beautiful. She does not cut through the orchestra at all - she didn´t with Thielemann in Vienna either..

"That said I've already got tickets for Parsifal in Berlin in March"

So have I, for both performances.

"I never heard of a recent Bayreuth premiere where there was no boohs for the director"

Exactly, and that is rather worrying, since it usually means that the staging is boring. However, there were scattered boohs after both the first and second act, so there is still room for optimism...

"We will see,I'll be there for the 6th performance, August 16."

IF I succeed in getting a ticket, it will be for this performance as well...

mostly opera... said...

"Bayreuth is changing, and I like it."

What really needs to change is the quality of the singers, which is still below the quality of the surrounding houses such as Munich, Berlin and Vienna.

The Parsifal performances of past seasons in both Berlin and Vienna were of a vastly higher musical quality than this one.

Admittedly, this is not easy to change, but if Bayreuth does not manage to hire at least some of the top Wagnerian singers of today, the appeal of the place will slowly disappear except for the most hard-core Wagnerians.

I almost cried in disappointment over both the Meistersinger and the Bayreuth Ring last year (not Thielemann, but the singers..)

Anonymous said...

Hello There. (first time poster here, great blog!)
I agree completely to what "mostly opera" says : "if Bayreuth does not manage to hire at least some of the top Wagnerian singers of today, the appeal of the place will slowly disappear except for the most hard-core Wagnerians." Actually, i even find you guys quite nice in your comments. Judging from the radio broadcast, Gatti may seemed ok (some of his choices i really liked, others i hated. Italianate seems like a good definition), but the orchestra itself was less than perfect on many occasions. Woodwinds in particular were not at their best yesterday, often even poor or non-existant in their expression (but maybe it's the recording). That said, it seems to me incredible that the Bayreuth orchestra is now not better than any other big opera house orchestra. The legend is fading maybe. It is changing into a brand. Bayreuth plays in the Emirates. People applaude after 1rst act. Times change. For the good? I don't think so.
Also, frankly, Fujimura was bad as Kundry. Just that. And very weak too. Kwangchul Youn did a good job I think, but he can't be consider a superior wagnerian singer. Luckily Ventris as great.
As for the Flower Maidens : a disaster, pure and simple. I don't know how the audience can accept it and make a triumph to the performance. Maybe because it's so difficult to get a ticket to Bayreuth than when you're there, you really really want to like what you see and hear. Or maybe it's just that the people who have access today to Bayreuth don't have any idea about what they listen.
Musically it was really a very plain performance. It's Bayreuth we're talking about.

Anonymous said...

Bayreuth has always been teamwork and not star productions. This I hope will continue. You guys must remember all the great singers that this festival has "created". It is unlikely that they will return, many of them having worked their ass off in the Bayreuth holiday heat for 10-20 years. That
the appeal of the place will slowly disappear if they don't get more stars is quite absurd. That said, who wouldn't love experiencing some of the great stars return to the Festival? :-) Often stars are _created_ in Bayreuth, they don't go there to sing. They want money and diva conditions, not the Werkstatt working conditions. Many stars choose to stay away, many just don't fit in at the Bayreuth Festival. Bayreuth needs idealistic artists IMHO. It is no catastrophe that Munich and Vienna have a higher standard vocally. It will certainly not lead to the downfall of this Festival. Yesterday's Parsifal premiere showed that Bayreuth produces living music theatre. But with a new management I am sure that we will see some of the greater stars the next years.

mostly opera... said... '

I simply do not agree with you, though I understand the point you are making.

Of course, the Festival is not going down no matter the quality, since there will always be Wagnerians around to support it. But it will end up as a museum with little contemporary relevance. But that, in my opinion, is besides the point.

The Bayreuth Festival should aim at producing the best Wagner theater in the world, be a leader in the field. I am sure they have that aim. They just do not produce it for the moment. Bayreuth does not need idealistic artists. Bayreuth needs the best artists and the major challenge for the Festival is how to attract them.

There are plenty of top Wagnerian singers of today who have not "worked their ass off for 10-20 years here", though as recently as 10 years ago, pretty much all the best were there.

This year we have Christian Thielemann and Eva-Maria Westbroek, who both are top-notch. The rest are more or less mediocre.

I actually DO think it is a problem that several German houses have vastly better productions of Wagner than they have in Bayreuth.

Why go to the Bayreuth Parsifal when you know that in 7 months time, probably the best Parsifal in the world will play in Berlin for as little as 20 Euro featuring Daniel Barenboim, Waltraud Meier and René Pape? It is not just better than yesterdays performance (and I am only talking about the musical side, as I cannot comment on Herheim´s staging), it is VASTLY better.

The incitament to go to Bayreuth, in my opinion should be to experience music theater of the highest quality and not to relive the nostalgia of the past. That way Bayreuth will end up a Richard Wagner museum with no contemporary relevance.

That said, I welcome the initiatives taken to open up the Festival, as you do. I am just curious if they eventually will lead to the required quality lift.

mostly opera... said...

anonymous: Interesting points about the orchestra.

I don´t know if you heard the intermission interviews on Bayern 4 with one of the string players. He said, that in the string section, the players could just take a couple of weeks off during rehearsals and be replaced by others, whereas the brass players pretty much had to hang around for the entire summer.

Now - even with top musicians: When you meet only once a year and half of the orchestra changes between rehearsals, I am honestly surprised that the quality has remained this high for so long. But no wonder that orchestras such as Barenboim´s Staatskapelle are superior at the moment.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the broadcast although, like you, I found the music as conducted by Gatti in places a little slow for my taste. But then, I was in the audience for the first performance of the 2000 Festival when Eschenbach was conducting, and that one was s-l-o-w! Herheim has found an interesting concept, although I do not usually care much for concepts in opera production. I suppose that we must be grateful for anything from Bayreuth these days that does not feature decomposing rabbits. -- Sparafucile

Unknown said...

A disappointing experience, to say the least, I don't think I will be going back any time soon. Baden-Baden, as well as Rattle's efforts at Aix seem the better choice for summer Wagner.
I was doubly disappointed with Fujimura's Kundry since I was forwarded this clip of a unknown Kundry 3 days prior to attending the premiere. I have never heard the like.

Parsifal said...

I have just listened to Act 1 of Parsifal. WOW! The Orchestra 10/10, and Gatti is amazing!!!

B.G. Pedersen said...

Not to interrupt your discussion .. I just thought it would be easier to simply go ask. Hope you don't mind. Which recording of "Norma" is the best?

mostly opera... said...

Bo - I have several giant holes in my operatic knowledge: One of them is bel canto, which I simply do not care for and know nothing about.
In short: I don´t know. But if I was "forced" to say something, I´d suggest going with Maria Callas. Now which of Maria Callas´ recordings to chose is the next question, and that I REALLY don´t know, not even under pressure...

Parsifal said...

The 1955 Live at La Scala Norma with Callas and Del Monaco! Mind you, not the Rome 1955, it's the Milan 1955. And it's live. With good sound, but if you d rather have a studio recording, there 're 2 Callas recordings for EMI but try also the Caballe recording.

B.G. Pedersen said...


mostly opera... said...

Sparafucile - I actually rather liked that decomposing rabbit...

Unknown said...

I despised Herheim's Forza in Berlin--it was edgy in the worst sense of the word, although some of it worked despite itself--but this seems interesting, although I am of the school which appreciates it when directors are more content to let Parsifal Act I be its slow-paced twistily narrative self and not feel the need to overload it with images and frenetic stage action.

Anonymous said...

I have just finished to listen to the recording of this new Parsifal production.

I have never heard during the last years the Bayreuth orchestra playing like that. Simply wonderfull!!!!
Gatti was excellent, precise and moving until tears... he reminded me more the conducting of Kubelik than Levin.

Bye Marc

curzon said...

I actually loved the production and, in the theatre at least all the singers worked. I had forgotten quite how wonderful the accoustics are. Ventris was thrilling but all the others were good.
The second night (Tristan) was notable for the singers (especially Theorin who sounded absolutely thrilling)but the production was hideous and perverse in the extreme. Also, after the gorgeous lighting in Parsifal it was depressing to encounter another production which was lit in working lights and fluorescents. Horrible.

jfl said...

Fuji's Kundry in Vienna was very, very pleasing, indeed. But her Bayreuth performance (at least last Wednesday - last day of the Festival) was rather bad. High notes were preceded little anticipatory pauses, a short prayer, and followed by an approximation of the correct note in a shrillness that I did not hear in Vienna at all.

Gatti's conducting was unbearably slow at times... I didn't feel the tension well kept, at all. It was the very opposite of Italianate (at least my understanding of it as far as Wagner is concerned: Kraus, Boulez, even Sawallisch would more fit that description) -- it was like a mockery of Kna's reading. Didn't sense much mystery, either - but individual voices and strings were easily picked out and very clear.

The singing was well below average -- but strangely the pale Youn Gurnemanz was bravoed rather heavily. (Then again, the Bayreuth audience that day struck me as completely indiscriminate [unlike Vienna or Munich or even Salzburg] willing to stand up for any shit.)

The direction was not unlike Warlikowski's Paris Parsifal. Interesting ideas - some blatant, some obscure. Making it almost worth it was the last picture: Holding a mirror (literally) up to the entire audience -- "We've come this far, now it is up to you". Cheesy, but touching.

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