Wagner: Parsifal

Christopher Ventris, Matti Salminen; Zurich Opera/Haitink (Deutsche Grammophon 073 4407)

23 August 2008 4 stars

ParsifalBernard Haitink's return to opera after a gap of several years was one of the most anticipated events of 2007. Despite a career that had seen him as Music Director of Glyndebourne and then Covent Garden for a period of over twenty years, he turned his back on the theatre after his departure from The Royal Opera in 2002, and in an interview given soon afterwards he claimed to have no plans to return.

Yet April 2007 saw him conduct Wagner's Parsifal in Zurich in a production captured on this DVD, and in December he led the same work at Covent Garden. The latter performance is memorable for the intensity Haitink brought to the orchestra and chorus during various peaks in the middle of the acts, and in particular the way in which the orchestral timbre filled the acoustic of the house in a way that, in all honesty, I haven't heard from any other conductor there since Haitink departed. On the downside, the reading of certain passages was on the slow side, especially the first-act Prelude, and in spite of an excellent cast, the production was execrable.

Most of this goes for the Zurich account, too, though the cast is not quite as good and the production is not quite as bad. The back of the DVD box has a paragraph praising Hans Hollmann's 1996 'austere, intelligent production' for its 'highly charged unfolding', but while Hans Hoffer's designs have a certain beauty about them, and the whole thing is more focussed and expressive than Klaus Michael Grüber's production at Covent Garden, I still find the staging far from satisfying. Parsifal is perhaps Wagner's most dense masterpiece, with layer upon layer of meaning, and with this piece more than perhaps any of his other music dramas we might safely say that nobody will ever get to the bottom of it. But I don't feel that stripping away nearly all meaning altogether is the way forward. The work needs an active director who can create a sense of mystery and atmosphere while letting the score and libretto unfold with a naturalistic air. Instead, Hollmann chooses to reduce the libretto to its bare essentials; the liner notes suggest that he feels that 'Wagner presents only possibilities' and that 'Parsifal can never be wholly fathomed by interpretation', but to me the opera is condensed into a mere story in his hands.

Act I is a simple classroom (complete with desks and canes) in which Gurnemanz teaches his pupils how to join the path of enlightenment, while Klingsor's magic kingdom consists of a circular mirror that later swings up to reveal the Flower Maidens, whose emergence is dramatic, but the effect is numbed as they do very little apart from carrying differently coloured squares around the stage; it's hardly imaginative or interesting stuff. Words such as 'Wasser' are projected onto the back wall as if one word can possibly explain or summarise the meaning of a complex Wagnerian scene, and elsewhere the action is so stylised – such as the breaking of bread and the sharing of the wine – that although one could happily sit back and admire Wagner's sublime musical surface, the possibility that the opera might be about something more is often overlooked. This of all operas should not be seen as a black and white affair, but Hollmann's concept too often reduces it to such terms.

As at Covent Garden, Christopher Ventris is a fine Parsifal, lyrical and committed, even if he doesn't quite have the heft of the greatest Heldentenors. Similarly, Yvonne Naef makes a huge impact as Kundry and is full of interpretative insight, but she is occasionally overwhelmed by the vocal demands and does not live up to the best in the role. Rolf Haunstein is an incredibly hammy Klingsor, especially compared to Willard White's fine account at Covent Garden, though he sings well enough; Günther Groissböck is also on the average side as Titurel, but Michael Volle is extremely well cast as Amfortas, a vocally accomplished performance that overcomes Hollmann's irritating way of dealing with the character's physical impediment. The star of the show is Matti Salminen, who is so imposing in the part that one almost feels that the opera should be renamed Gurnemanz. Unlike most of the other singers, it's easy to believe that Salminen is the thinker behind the thought, so to speak, when he is delivering his complex monologues. He delivers a well-rounded portrayal of the role and engages with the text on a deep level. The DVD is worth buying for his contribution alone; and the good news is that, according to the latest edition of Opera magazine, Salminen will be returning to Covent Garden after a gap of thirty years in next season's new production of Tristan und Isolde.

The Knights, Squires and Flower Maidens are all decently sung, and the chorus is in excellent form under Haitink's baton. The orchestra, too, is highly responsive to his direction which, as can be seen from the welcome brief snippets of footage from the pit, is more active and flowing than he is sometimes given credit for. Although again I find the Act I Prelude too slow and disjointed, there are moments of overwhelming orchestral force, especially in the transformation scenes in the first and third acts. In all honesty, I'm not sure than anything is gained by releasing this performance as a DVD as opposed to a soundtrack-only CD, and I preferred most of the Covent Garden cast, but Haitink and Salminen make an irresistible pairing that should not be missed by avid Wagnerians.

By Dominic McHugh