Spiros Argiris
Westminster Choir
Spoleto Festival Orchestra
2 June 1990
Gaillard Municipal Auditorium Charleston
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasKnut Skram
TiturelAurio Tomicich
GurnemanzVictor von Halem
ParsifalWilliam Pell
KlingsorOskar Hillebrandt
KundryRuthild Engert
GralsritterAlan Fischer
Stephan Kirchgraber
New York Times

Wagner regarded ”Parsifal,” his last and least approachable work, as a ”sacred dramatic festival” whose mixture of Germanic idealism, pagan myth and Christian symbolism would forever remain a closed book to the uninitiated. ”Parsifal,” however, long ago lost much of its cultish appeal and entered the international opera repertory. It still stands somewhat uncomfortably between pure ritual and impure opera, but its hold over a large public has probably never been stronger. This growing appreciation of ”Parsifal” may have encouraged Gian Carlo Menotti to bring his production of the work to the Spoleto Festival U.S.A., where it had its American premiere on Saturday evening.

Mr. Menotti, the festival’s founder and artistic director, had staged the work twice before, at his festival in Spoleto, Italy, and in Trieste. He certainly is entitled, at the age of 79, to share his thoughts on this strange piece, the product of Wagner’s final years. The ”Parsifal” that Mr. Menotti produced for his American festival, however, makes no attempt to break new Wagnerian ground. It proved to be thoroughly traditional in staging and musically respectable -surprisingly so, considering the potential for disaster. If this conceptually modest and physically cramped production had little to teach ”Parsifal” adepts, even they might have been relieved to find the score performed with such integrity and faith in its hypnotic powers. For much of the audience, the supertitles, despite a few awkward mistimings, must have enhanced enjoyment of what otherwise could have have been a confusing new experience.

William Pell, a Denver-born tenor who sang the title role at Bayreuth last summer, made a believable and bright-toned Parsifal. Like Lauritz Melchior, Mr. Pell began as a baritone and developed into a Wagnerian tenor. Sturdily built but also chubby of cheek, he was a plausible compromise between the adolescent boy who unthinkingly kills the swan and the older and wiser Christ-figure at the end. No less impressive was Victor von Halem, whose rumbling bass and gentle bearing made him an affecting Gurnemanz. The Kundry, Ruthild Engert-Ely, lacked some of that character’s enigmatic appeal and sensual magnetism, but she poured out her demanding music with unfailing power and much beauty. Knut Skram, a Norwegian baritone, tried nobly to make the wounded Amfortas more than a complaining invalid and at times nearly succeeded. Aurio Tomicich intoned the dying Titurel’s pleas in suitably hollow tones. A severe vocal wobble detracted somewhat from Oskar Hillebrandt’s effectiveness as the self-castrated magician Klingsor.

Since so much of the drama of ”Parsifal” lies in the orchestral music, one had to be apprehensive about what Spiros Argiris and his 80-some musicians could accomplish in the yawning space that is the Gaillard Municipal Theater. Although the sonorities were less rich and dark than one would have liked and tempos brisker than ideal, the pit did itself proud throughout an evening that spanned seven hours. (There was a two-hour dinner break after Act I.) Perfect Wagnerites might not agree, but ”Parsifal” is actually a well-built opera as well as a semisacred ritual. To make sure that his audience would not desert him, Wagner included a lusty scene in which Flower Maidens attempt to seduce the virginal Parsifal. Although most of the Flower Maidens were clad in jewels and body stockings, two would-be seducers bared their breasts and one tall, domineering lady brandished a whip, which was put to use in genteel suggestions of sadomasochistic byplay. (The second bare-chested maiden arrived bound hand and foot with ropes.) In his direction, Mr. Menotti was hampered by the shallow stage of the Gaillard Municipal Theater, an all-purpose hall that had to be extensively rebuilt after Hurricane Hugo last September. The processions of knights in the temple of the Grail and the Good Friday Day landscape were uncomfortably cramped. Klingsor’s castle was minimally represented by a flight of stairs. The scenic transformations, always a staging problem, were avoided: the music was played with the front curtain down, an expedient but not really a solution.

The magician’s garden aroused the audience to applause – a sound that often greets scenery and interrupts performance in opera houses but is considered sacrilegious by devout Wagnerians. Pierluigi Samaritani, the production’s designer, took his inspiration for the scene, with its panting Flower Maidens draped in gems and little else, from Symbolist paintings of Gustave Moreau. Perhaps so, but the canvas was too small.

Risking everything to uphold tradition, Mr. Menotti arranged to have a live white dove flutter over the final scene. Luckily, it flew, like the musical performance at least.

DONAL HENAHAN | June 5, 1990

Sun Sentinal

Spoleto Festival Adds Bit Of Spice To Wagner

Tucked into every program booklet for Spoleto Festival events is a message from artistic director Gian Carlo Menotti. It urges friends of the festival to write letters to Congress in support of the National Endowment of the Arts (a longtime Spoleto backer) and a non- restrictive policy of awarding grants.

As if to send a Bronx cheer in the general direction of the anti-NEA lobby, this year`s festival has its share of material that conceivably could offend some of the folks who seem bent on destroying, or at least subjugating, the agency because of “obscene“ projects supported by tax dollars.

The Allen Ginsberg/Philip Glass collaboration, Hydrogen Jukebox, for example, gets in references to homosexuality (Ginsberg is one of the earliest champions for gay liberation) and some profanity (including the multi-syllable kind). There are jabs at U.S. military actions from Vietnam to Panama, George Bush, industrialists, etc. In short, more than enough to annoy Sen. Jesse Helms, leader of the anti-NEA crusade.

And what would he make of the second act of Wagner`s Parsifal, which was performed on Saturday? The flower maidens who try to tempt the hero with sensual delights flash a good deal of flesh through bodysuits. Two ladies don`t even bother with that modesty, baring nearly all; one of them enters twirling a leather whip. And on rocky peaks behind the women are carved statues of naked men in amorous pairs.

This sort of thing is common at the festival, which, for 14 years, has somehow remained rather fresh and stimulating. That`s what any serious arts festival is all about.

The Parsifal production, first presented at the Italian Spoleto two years ago, proved visually attractive for the most part (the sets are by Pierluigi Samaritani). But Menotti, who was the stage director, did not demonstrate a telling personal vision about the story of the innocent fool who becomes the keeper of the Holy Grail. His approach seemed awfully old-fashioned and even perfunctory.

As for the skin and suggestiveness of those nubile ladies in the second act, the result was more kitschy than insightful or novel. It also wasn`t carefully directed. Like much of the production, it seemed half-thought through. You could easily imagine Menotti saying in rehearsal, “Now go out there and look sexy,“ and then getting distracted by something else so that instead of a concept of sexiness, there was just a mass of bodies writhing about, waiting for the next cue.

The principal singers, too, did not seem to reflect a clear sense of being involved in a grand interpretation of Wagner`s final opera. They presented stock characterizations, with stock poses.

Happily, the generic quality of the proceedings was confined to the stage business. Vocally, this was a remarkably satisfying, involving performance. William Pell was the vibrant-voiced Parsifal; by the last scene, there was some strain (with a dinner break, the production took seven hours), but not enough to diminish his achievement.

Victor von Halem poured out a rich, warm tone as Gurnemanz; Ruthild Enger-Ely made Kundry`s music quite electric; Knut Skram, as the wounded Amfortas, sang with affecting expression; Aurio Tomlich was the resonant voice of Titurel; and Oskar Hille declaimed more than he sang, but made a potent Klingsor.

Crowning the musical success were conductor Spiros Argiris, who brought out much of the score`s incomparable spirtuality; the superb Westminster Choir; and the festival orchestra, which played with extraordinary control and tonal beauty.That orchestra did not sound quite so accomplished the night before when Willie Anthony Waters conducted it in an all-Beethoven program. Discipline was lax, phrasing was often expressionless.

Waters, artistic director of the Greater Miami Opera, had not led the ChoralFantasy and Symphony No. 9 before, and the lack of experience was evident at times.

The Fantasy was messy; pianist Glenn Parker, accompanist for the Westminster Choir, took a thoughtful approach, but proved far from virtuosic. Waters did not get beyond holding things together.

As for the Ninth, the first three movements sounded emotionally detached. But the finale blossomed beautifully and dramatically. Waters concentrated on finding the lyrical side of the music, which is so often ignored.

He coaxed some particularly subtle singing from the vocal quartet (Carolyn James, Korby Myrick, Ben Heppner, Alan Held). And the Westminster Choir, joined by local singers, performed mightily.

TIM SMITH | June 4, 1990

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From the Spoleto festival
A production by Gian Carlo Menotti