Asher Fisch
Seattle Opera Chorus and Orchestra
16 August 2003
Marion Oliver McCaw Hall Seattle
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasGreer Grimsley
TiturelKevin Langan
GurnemanzStephen Milling
ParsifalChristopher Ventris
KlingsorRichard Paul Fink
KundryLinda Watson
GralsritterThomas Studebaker
Andrew Greenan

‘Parsifal’ at McCaw Hall is extraordinary

Wagner’s “Parsifal” has never been an easy assignment. It radiates complexity, ambiguity, immense musical challenges. And in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, political baggage.

Wisely, Seattle Opera waited until now to mount the composer’s final example of his great art, using all its experience in producing Wagner and celebrating the opening of its new home, McCaw Hall, Saturday night.

The production will join other Wagner ventures of this company for its intelligence, savvy stagecraft and musical standards. There is beauty and gripping drama. What is interminable in some productions has been banished. More could not be asked of any “Parsifal.”

Extraordinary praise to Seattle Opera, then, but also to McCaw Hall, which could not have been given a more rigorous test than “Parsifal”: the high-tech “coups de theatre” that are now possible, to the music, both stage and pit. A gala a month ago gave considerable hints to the potential of this house, but “Parsifal” gave proof.

With the realignment of the proscenium, the stage picture is more effective, with seemingly greater depth. It is hard to stress how so little means so much. Singers can be heard easily and fully. As important is the orchestra, which now has genuine presence, fullness of sound, clarity and definition. A bravo, yet again, to Jaffe Holden Acoustics of Connecticut, in collaboration with the Seattle architectural firm LMN.

Stage director Francois Rochaix and set and costume designer Robert Israel are well-known in Seattle for their imagination, intelligence and controversy in a single breath. Their work in “Parsifal” is typically seamless and thoughtful, with invention readily found. Rochaix has found ways to animate every scene with action, a striking accomplishment in “Parsifal.” His tableaux are beautifully assembled, even spontaneous, and the characters appear real, not just archetypes.

Israel is a modernist, and his sets on a huge, elevated rake reflect that. However, he softens his abstractions with the stunning use of superscreen projections of authentic landscapes, such as Snoqualmie Pass and a famous English garden designed by the 18th-century landscape architect Capability Brown. Adding a telling third is the lighting design of Michael Chybowski. As for controversy, I don’t think it will be major. Like many involved with “Parsifal” today, Rochaix and Israel are uneasy with the myriad Christian references, both militaristic and pacific, embedded in the libretto and the reception surrounding their treatment. Thus, they conceived a “Parsifal” that is everywhere and nowhere. Christian symbols have been eliminated, with no sign of the cross, and the Grail Knights, looking rather ragtag, suggest Eastern Orthodox clergy and others of dubious status. The flower maidens, by contrast, are colorful and amusing.

New to Seattle but not to “Parsifal” was conductor Asher Fisch. He drew the best out of the orchestra, with the string section sounding like silk, strong yet supple. The balance between winds and strings was extraordinary, and his control is astonishing. His ability to mold each phrase enriched the entire fabric of the opera.

Fisch created a long, sinuous line and some of the most beautiful and effortless sonorities I have ever heard from the pit. His tempos were just, clocking in at four hours. Except for occasional flubs, the orchestra played exceptionally well, and the Seattle Opera Chorus sang in a resplendent style.

The company works fervently to get the best singers for its summer productions of Wagner. “Parsifal” is no less so with Christopher Ventris in the title role; Linda Watson as Kundry; Stephen Milling as Gurnemanz; Greer Grimsley as Amfortas; and Richard Paul Fink as Klingsor.

With an effective stage presence, Watson made Kundry sympathetic. Many sopranos shout Kundry, but Watson sang the role with voluptuous warmth and vigor, making the vocal line compelling for its inherent musicality as well as drama. Milling made his local debut three years ago in Wagner’s “Ring.” His performance made a mighty impression, but nothing could equal his Gurnemanz: The voice was so powerful and plush, so full-bodied and rich in individuality, yet subtle, that the character’s long speeches were welcome.

Ventris may not possess a heroic voice, but it is sweet and solid and true without a trace of tired leather. He was the embodiment of youthful appeal, which can be said for very few “Parsifals.”

Grimsley has sung a lot in Seattle, but rarely so effectively as Amfortas. He always held our attention. I liked Fink’s Klingsor. His portrait had menacing spirit and depth, and never failed to make an impact.

Jonathan Dean’s supertitles are accurate and poetic.

R.M. CAMPBELL | August 3, 2003

The New York Times

Seattle Opera Gamble: The Results Are In

Opera buffs in Seattle have had several weeks to explore Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, as the Seattle Opera’s extensively renovated home is now called. The public has been free to wander into the spacious and colorful new lobby with its airy glass walls that flow right into an outdoor courtyard overhung with delicately laced metal scrims. For the first time passers-by can stroll through the inviting walkway onto the grassy expanses of the Seattle Center, the city’s arts and entertainment complex. The opera house has been open for tours and tried out in some special festive concerts.

But only with Saturday night’s performance of Wagner’s ”Parsifal,” a new production and the official opening event of McCaw Hall, was the public finally able to answer the most important question: How does the renovated hall sound?

The acoustics of the existing hall were adequate but unremarkable. As the proprietors of Avery Fisher Hall can tell you, gutting a hall to improve acoustics is risky. There is a good chance of making things worse. And 70 percent of McCaw Hall is new.

This is one case, however, where the risk paid off. The new auditorium is acoustically excellent.

During intermissions Seattle Opera subscribers buzzed with amazement over the improvement. At the curtain calls, the principal architect Mark Reddington and the consultants from Jaffe Holden Acoustics would surely have been cheered had they appeared. Though the seating capacity declined only to 2,890 from 3,017, the hall seems much more intimate. The side walls were narrowed, the balconies were extended and the proscenium was made higher.

In a visually striking innovation, the side sections of orchestra seats slope upward so they connect with the first balcony. This has turned typically disadvantageous seats into prime locales where you have a nice perch to view the stage. The acoustics have been further enhanced by reverberation chambers within the side walls, which are adorned with matrixes of steel bars and beams that diffuse the sound much as sculptured cherubs and rococo frillery did in opera houses of old.

The amenities are also exceptional. The house now has 100 stalls in the women’s restrooms. The dressing rooms, which I saw on a backstage tour, have gone from appalling to luxurious. (The company’s general director, Speight Jenkins, said a city councilman called the downtown jail better equipped than the old ones.)

I had some initial misgivings about the acoustics, but I think I was reacting more to the way the Israeli conductor Asher Fisch approached the subdued opening segment of the 100-minute first act. This radically ruminative music invites the slow tempos Mr. Fisch took. But slow, soft, thick-textured music should still have definition and a quiet intensity, qualities Mr. Fisch’s work lacked at first. As the opera progressed, though, he brought more incisiveness to his interpretation and drew warm, shimmering colors from the orchestra. By the second act, with its stormy music for Klingsor the sorcerer, Mr. Fisch found his footing. The pacing and shaping of the third act, even during the quietly despondent passages, were deftly handled. But for some occasional slips, the orchestra played radiantly.

And from the start the voices of the strong cast came through vividly. The British tenor Christopher Ventris brought youthful energy and a bright, firm dramatic voice to the role of the wandering Parsifal, who turns out to be the prophesied innocent fool the spiritually demoralized knights have been awaiting. The baritone Greer Grimsley sang with aching poignancy as Amfortas, the ailing ruler of the knights, who deems himself unworthy. The soprano Linda Watson was an affecting Kundry, the ageless and alluring woman who once mocked Jesus on the cross and lives on, abjectly serving the knights, yearning for salvation but unable to stop herself from seeking oblivion through sex. Ms. Watson’s voice can be wobbly and hard-edged. But she sang with power, excitement and surprising tenderness. The strapping bass Stephen Milling brought his commanding presence and husky voice to the role of Gurnemanz.

This production by the Swiss director François Rochaix, with sets, costumes and background designs by Robert Israel, a mix of abstract imagery, geometric set pieces and timeless costuming, was effective if unmemorable. In one bold stroke the magic castle of Klingsor (a feisty performance by the baritone Richard Paul Fink) is depicted as a tall, narrow tower with a winding wooden staircase on which the sorcerer flits from floor to floor, plotting his evil through mathematical calculations on a chalkboard. When Parsifal recaptures the grail knights’ cherished relic, the spear that wounded the side of Jesus, Klingsor’s castle is swallowed up with alarming speed as it sinks below the stage floor.

The theater introduced a 70-by-34-foot backstage digital projection screen that allowed Mr. Israel to suggest misty skies and ominous clouds and make eerie white-capped mountains behind Klingsor’s castle transform into a verdant green park for the seduction scene. Still, this technology can surely be used more imaginatively than it was here. The hallmark of the production came with Mr. Rochaix’s sensitive direction of the cast. He has tried to de-emphasize the specifically Christian imagery of the opera and make Parsifal a less Christlike figure. This is pretty hard of course, since by the third act Parsifal, anointed with oil by Gurnemanz, his feet bathed by a supplicating Kundry, presides over a de facto Communion.

Still, Mr. Rochaix has made the knights a movingly ragtag band of befuddled souls who embrace one another at the end of the grail service, grateful for the mutual support as they await spiritual rescue. With this essentially fine production, which runs through Aug. 24, the company, a bastion of Wagner, has presented the 10 major Wagner operas.

There are lessons other arts centers can learn from this company’s success. In a news conference Mr. Jenkins, the company director, said that making the building earthquake safe, work that was mandated by law, would have cost $89 million, with $10 million more for improvements to the backstage flies. This would have meant spending $99 million to wind up with essentially the same auditorium. So the $127 million spent on this 18-month renovation seems a bargain. Saturday night was one time when Mr. Jenkins deserved a curtain call onstage.


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A production by François Rochaix (2003)