Bernard Haitink
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
21 December 2007
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasFalk Struckmann
TiturelGwynne Howell
GurnemanzJohn Tomlinson
ParsifalChristopher Ventris
KlingsorWillard White
KundryPetra Lang
GralsritterNikola Matišić
Krzysztof Szumanski

This was Royal Opera’s first revival of its 2001 production of “Parsifal”, a staging shared with Teatro Real Madrid, although its original incarnation was a 1990 production for Netherlands Opera. Even on its first outing it was not a very distinguished production, and in truth it now seems even more dated. That is not to say that there is not much to treasure in this revival which was extremely strong both orchestrally and vocally.

One of the great boons is the return of Bernard Haitink. We last encountered him conducting “Parsifal” in this house when he was Music Director. The production then was Bill Bryden’s, one that was not critically acclaimed and was never revived. Haitink had a good cast then (Robert Lloyd’s Gurnemanz and Waltraud Meier’s Kundry stand out in the memory) and probably has an even better and balanced one now. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House seems to be on something of a Wagner ‘high’ at the moment. Following excellent and exciting performances in the autumn’s four ‘Ring’ cycles, the musicians now produce wonderfully translucent yet velvety textures for “Parsifal”. The pastoral moments of this score, generally featuring woodwinds, emerged from the pit with clarity and cohesion. There was some fantastic oboe- and flute-playing and the more dramatic outbursts were thrilling in their immediacy, the strings managing to sound ethereal and luminous in the outer acts, and suitably astringent and sinewy in Act Two when the action centres on Klingsor’s domain. Only the electronically transmitted bells do not meet up with the standards set elsewhere, although they were better judged in the final act than in the first.

Haitink’s way with the score is generally very singer-friendly, and he keeps the pace of the drama on the move, relishing the thematic and emotional developments without milking them artificially. He also allows the singers to really get their words across, a blessing as one’s interest is maintained through the incredibly undramatic and static production. The opening scenes in the forest worked pretty well, but once inside Montsalvat the dramatic tension sagged, largely because once all the knights were assembled they remained seated at their tables, and so the musical depiction of movement during their Grail rituals was not mirrored on stage: odd as the director had managed the tricky transition from forest to castle rather well.

The same is true in Act Two where the flower maidens simply lay undulating on the floor, rising slightly to sing, and then lying down again, the potential entrapment of Parsifal completely lacking. And so it continued. The charged duet between Kundry and Parsifal is statically staged, Kundry singing into the auditorium from the front of the stage with poor Parsifal positioned to the rear until he needed to come forward for the kiss. At the opera’s close, even the depiction of the realm of the knights teetering on the brink of a terrible coup was devoid of any physical or visual menace. Stillness has its place in Wagner – but this is taken to extreme here. Some of the effects such as the collapse of Klingsor’s realm and Parsifal’s retrieval of the spear remain risible. It is almost a ‘concert performance’.

The singers survive this. Sir John Tomlinson turned in another of his detailed, dynamic and theatrical performances, making every word tell, and keeping the interest through Gurnemanz’s long narrations. Yes his voice may sometimes be a bit threadbare at the top and not absolutely focussed, but the sheer intelligence and completeness of his portrayal silence any criticism.

Christopher Ventris as Parsifal also made a strong impression. His is the perfect voice for the part; it rings out clean and true and with fluidity. The staging does not give him the chances to make much of the character in the first two acts. Indeed it left him looking rather gawky and ill at ease – rather than wild, reckless and uncomprehending. However, his portrayal of the world-weary Parsifal arriving in the forest at the start of the final act was touching and his performance grew in stature from then on.

Petra Lang could be one of the world’s reigning exponents of Kundry, for her voice sounds at its best where the majority of the role lies. She has a lovely velvety tone, resonant low notes and a secure and exciting top register. “Ich sah das Kind” in Act Two built up impressively and her vocalising of her encounter with Christ was thrilling. We know her to be a dramatic and theatrical performer, but she suffered terribly from the poor direction here, and so this pivotal moment did not have the impact it should. After some of the soprano-ish roles she has undertaken of late, it is good to once again hear Lang taking a part that suits her.

Falk Struckmann was making a rather belated Royal Opera debut as Amfortas. Having to deal with a huge prosthetic wheeled wooden arm and sing well cannot be easy, and perhaps this explained his rather extrovert performance as the suffering fallen King. “Wehvolles Erbe,..” was well sung albeit at a fairly unremitting forte, and thus did not plunge the emotional depths it sometimes can. He fared better in Act Three where his individual timbre and rather more nuanced singing suited the desperation of his plight and the sorrow at the death of his father.

Willard W. White reprised his Klingsor, seen in this production when new and also in the Bryden one. It is a part that suits his incisive and rich tone well. It was also a pleasure to hear the immediately identifiable timbre of Gwynne Howell emanating from one of the suits of armour. It’s a shame that Titurel does not have much to sing!

In the smaller roles Royal Opera has cast from strength from its Young Artists programme, and this meant the esquires and flower maidens were credibly young-looking. Krzysztof Szumanski’s Second Knight made an unusually strong impression. The chorus was also in fine fettle, not that these singers were visible much, and only the slightly ill-pitched tuning of the children marred things.

Ultimately the evening was very satisfying because the musical aspects were so well handled – if the production had lived up to those standards, this would be a “Parsifal” hard to beat.

Alexander Campbell

Bernard Haitink’s return to Covent Garden was always going to be special. This, after all, was the man who saved the orchestra from New Labour’s attempts to disband it, and therefore saved the company as we know it. No one present at the Royal Albert Hall’s concert performances of the Ring will ever forget those performances or Haitink’s well-timed intervention when he asked the public for help. During his time at the Royal Opera, Haitink excelled in a wide range of repertoire, from Mozart to Tippett, but it is for his conducting of Wagner above all others that he will be remembered. We were fortunate indeed, then, that he chose to make his return with Parsifal – or, indeed, that he chose to make his return at all, given his understandable feelings concerning the political manœuvring at the Royal Opera House.

I am delighted to report that however high our expectations may have been, Haitink amply fulfilled them. Just occasionally, I had wondered whether I had been romanticising his tenure; if anything, I realised that I had underestimated what we have lost. Whilst I have been most fortunate to hear some very fine Wagner conducting in the theatre, including performances by Barenboim, Rattle, and Thielemann, this Parsifal confirmed once again why Haitink must rank as the greatest living Wagner conductor. He has the ability not only to hear Parsifal as one great span, but to convey this organically to the audience as if it were the easiest thing in the world. This is the directional hearing of music in the distance that Furtwängler termed Fernhören. It works at a more microscopic level too. Never do I recall hearing the Prelude to Act I evolving so seamlessly into the opening bars of that act proper. Yet variation within overarching unity in no way loses out. The ‘break’ came, as it should, yet so rarely does, when, after morning prayer, Gurnemanz instructs the squires to rise and to attend to Amfortas’s bath. Perhaps more impressive still was the opening of the second act. Haitink pulled off – seemingly effortlessly – the trick of introducing the contrast of a new world, that of Klingsor and a ‘different’ Kundry – whilst relating it to what had gone before. There was drive, fury even, but never brashness, and the melos resumed almost as if the interval had never occurred. A true sign of greatness, moreover, in Wagner conducting is economy with climaxes, an economy shared with the composer himself. There are few things worse than the climax-every-other-bar, deaf-and-blind-to-structure conducting of a Solti; Haitink could not be further removed from this.

I also noticed how careful Haitink was to delineate the very particular sound world of Parsifal. The music sounded truly ‘lit from behind’, in Debussy’s celebrated formulation and in many sense also sounded closer to Pelléas than I can recall hearing before. It would come as no surprise to anybody that this most ‘unshowy’ of operas is one in which Haitink has excelled, and the sense of more than one might initially realise bubbling beneath the surface is common to both. Wagner’s art of transition is all the more powerful for its magic being only just perceptible. This is not to say that there is no muscle, no rhythmic impetus, far from it, but the development is never four-square. It is all too easy to underline motifs in the Ring; here it would be truly deadly, since their meaning and status within the whole is all the more malleable. The long line and the slow burn are everything – and they certainly were in this performance.

Haitink was royally served by his old orchestra, whose joy in having a seasoned Wagnerian back at its helm was palpable. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House does not have the great ‘German’ sound of, say, the state orchestras of Berlin or Dresden, nor the magical sweetness of Vienna, yet this perhaps enabled it more readily to sound closer to Debussy. The strings were silky smooth, at times almost Karajanesque, albeit without the Austrian conductor’s occasional – and sometimes more than occasional – chrome plating. They exhibited a wonderful ability to play softly yet with richness of tone, and when the great climaxes came, the swell was beautifully rounded. The brass section was equally impressive, not least those crucial liturgical trombones. Not even under Karajan or Knappertsbusch, moreover, have I heard the dramatic role of the kettledrums so perfectly realised: punctuating, inciting, remarking. The end of the second act was a case in point, recalling what had gone before but also looking forward from this ‘drama’ to the return of ‘liturgy’ in the final act.

John Tomlinson, fresh from his triumph as Wotan, proved every bit as memorable as Gurnemanz. The old man’s narrations were crystal clear and ineffably moving through the depth of their experience: experience belonging to the character, the actor-singer, the orchestra and conductor, and of course to Wagner. The agony of Monsalvat, the community in crisis, was here personified in the stoic Gurnemanz as much as the wounded Amfortas, without ever tending towards facile hysteria. Falk Struckmann, almost incredibly making his Covent Garden debut, was a noble Amfortas, agonised but far from the Nietzschean caricature. Since there are more difficult Heldentenor roles than that of Parsifal, it is easy to underestimate the achievement of a well-sung, well-acted Parsifal, but this was what Christopher Ventris presented, within the confines of the production (on which more below). To begin with, the character seemed a little nondescript, but I soon realised that there was development at work, a development that the work if not the production ascribes to grace. It was quite right that the Parsifal of the third act should be more heroic than that of the callow, ignorant youth of the first. As Kundry, Petra Lang performed a similar service. There have been more searingly dramatic portrayals of this most extraordinary of Wagnerian roles, but there was no cause for complaint and much cause for rejoicing in this deeply musical assumption. Her acting skills, such as could be deployed, were very much of a piece with her singing. And Willard White, another deep-voiced musical knight, treated us to an excellent Klingsor, secure of line and full-bodied of tone. As Kundry appreciates early on, Klingsor is malevolent yet so utterly vulnerable; both qualities were dialectically apparent in White’s reading. The choral singing was well handled too, not just in its musical qualities but in its layered positioning, aptly suggesting the spatial qualities of a great basilica. There was admittedly something of a trade-off between atmosphere and verbal comprehensibility, but this should not be exaggerated.

It pains me then to say this but, as I have already implied, the production helped no one. It seemed a waste of time when the Royal Opera bought it in for Simon Rattle. If anything, the revival director (and previously ‘associate director’), Ellen Hammer appeared to have made things worse. And for the Royal Opera to have failed to have come up with its own production the second time around was insulting to the performers and to the audience. If absolutely necessary, another production on loan would have been preferable: pretty much any other production on loan. The first act was bearable, with one reasonably striking image – that echoing Leonardo’s Last Supper, albeit to no particular dramatic effect. For some reason the Grail was a smallish piece of rock. To describe the direction of the second act as amateurish would be charitable. Quite apart from the garish designs, Personenregie was almost entirely absent: the characters were casually and unforgivably abandoned by the direction. Poor Kundry had to spend most of the time standing in the same position of the stage, not even looking at Parsifal and merely singing to the audience: a quasi-concert performance without any of the real thing’s virtues. Nor did this appear to be saying anything about the characters’ separation, alienation, etc., etc. Herbert Wernicke’s Covent Garden Tristan made a point of doing so and worked very well, at a fascinating level of colour-symbolic abstraction. Klaus Michael Grüber and his team from the Berlin Schaubühne merely seemed to have no idea whatsoever what to do. As for the third act, the banality of the strange spotlit moving rock during the Transformation Music pretty much summed it up.

It would be in vain to pretend that this did not matter at all. Wagner’s theatrical vision is all-encompassing; his work deserves nothing less than the best in every department. Yet somehow, despite the hapless stage direction, the greatness of Haitink’s musical direction shone through. This was never more the case than in the transcendence of the closing bars, which reached a perfection such as I do not ever recall hearing before in Parsifal, not even in the awe-inspiring Zen of late Karajan. Schopenhauer’s Will seemed finally to have been pacified, which would have been achievement enough in more propitious circumstances. Inevitability and wholesale transformation were as one. Wagner conducting does not, indeed could not, get better than this.

Mark Berry | Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 21.12 2007

The Guardian

Not content with mounting four complete cycles of Wagner’s Ring marathon this autumn, the Royal Opera has chosen to end the year with his last, almost as complex work, Parsifal. Next week sees the arrival at Covent Garden of more seasonal fare in the shape of Rossini’s version of Cinderella, La Cenerentola. But the management seems determined to make us earn it. Ellen Hammer revives Klaus Michael Gruber’s decidedly schizophrenic 2001 staging, which begins in minimalist style before roving ocean and apparent mountain-top en route to a dully conventional ending, in which the principals fight for attention at the front of a stage filled with suits of armour. The work’s many layers of what might loosely be called meaning – a thoroughly Wagnerian mish-mash of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, religiosity and paganism, depravity and redemption – duly gets lost along the way. But no one, surely, goes to Wagner for the words.

We open in a forest of bare metal columns, where John Tomlinson’s noble Gurnemanz takes half an hour to tell some young squires the back-story, too complex to detain us here. There follows a giant, unnervingly static Last Supper. For the magic kingdom of Willard White’s Klingsor we appear to move underwater – why else would he have a shark hanging from the ceiling in a cave decked out with sub-Miro maritime trimmings? Petra Lang’s sultry Kundry then fails to seduce Christopher Ventris’s manly Parsifal, perhaps because there is not a scintilla of sexual chemistry between them.

In the domain of the Grail, Tomlinson is reduced to a Baden-Powell tent from which to greet Parsifal’s arrival with the sacred spear that can solve all problems, not least the wound slowly killing Falk Struckmann’s Amfortas. When Parsifal makes his last, climactic entrance, to heal Amfortas and succeed him as ruler of the Kingdom of the Grail, he just wanders in from the wings, when all those suits of armour could have concealed a more appropriately dramatic emergence.

The staging, if you get my drift, is as wacky as the subject matter. The real reason to fight your way into this five-and-a-half-hour display of Wagner at his most sumptuously megalomaniac – beyond the comparative rarity of companies brave enough to stage Parsifal – is the return to Covent Garden of its former music director, Bernard Haitink, conducting more luminously than ever as he approaches his 80th year.

The orchestra seems so pleased to see him back that it plays with all the stretch-limo sleekness Wagner could dream of, especially delightful detail coming from the wind amid fortissimos almost powerful enough to drown out miscreant mobile phones. Impassioned Wagnerians gave Haitink their loudest cheers, for all the magnificence of Tomlinson and White, the assurance of Ventris and Lang, the eloquence of both male and female choruses. Even Bayreuth might be envious of the sounds Haitink wrings from his outstanding forces, as it certainly would be of a staging with so many, er, talking-points. As the first-night audience entered the Floral Hall for the first interval, Haitink’s Wagner still ringing in its ears, a pianist was tinkling ‘My Way’. From a door behind him came the throbbing thud of disco music. If Covent Garden must go to such lengths to accommodate the corporate crowd, maybe the quid pro quo could be the surrender of their BlackBerries.

Anthony Holden | 9 December 2007

The Telegraph

Glowing, glorious, sublime

I have heard many wonderful Wagner conductors in my lifetime – Goodall, Solti, Thielemann, Abbado, Elder and Rattle among them – but, hand on heart, I think Bernard Haitink is the greatest of them.

Returning to the Royal Opera after an absence of five years, he brings to Parsifal a warmth and beauty underpinned by a gravity that is never ponderous or pompous. As the old knight Gurnemanz philosophises in that oddly Einsteinian line “time becomes space”, under Haitink’s baton the music seems to hang, glow and shimmer in the air, evolving without moving.

The orchestral sound is rich and full, reminiscent of the velvets and silks that Wagner loved almost fetishistically, but it is never merely sensual. There’s a quiet wisdom and spiritual grace about Haitink’s interpretation, too, which repudiates all the hateful ideological uses to which the opera has been put, and it becomes not so much a weird racist parable as a childlike fairy-tale in which moral innocence triumphs over an old curse and nature rejoices and all manner of thing shall be well. Haitink has never been a conductor particularly interested in singers, but here they seem to float on the cushion he makes for them, and even that grand old barker John Tomlinson stops his usual rasping and shouting to spin Gurnemanz’s narration with a real musical line.

Falk Struckmann is a magnificent Amfortas, heroic in his torment, and Petra Lang (despite some problems with intonation) makes an enthralling Kundry, as demonically focused on seduction in the second act as she is seraphically serene in her redemption in the third. Christopher Ventris makes a strikingly young, tall and handsome Parsifal, singing with ardour and clarity throughout, and I noticed some good young voices among the ranks of esquires and flower maidens.

Klaus Michael Grüber’s production returns, revised by Ellen Hammer with stronger lighting than when it was first seen here in 2001. The Covent Garden stage isn’t wide or deep enough for Gilles Aillaud’s sets to make their full impact and the special effects are pretty feeble, but the Hall of the Grail tableaux are hauntingly lovely and Grüber’s direction understands the value of stillness and understatement in this most meditative of operas.

An unforgettable evening, marred only by the sacrilegious intrusion of mobile phones, with Haitink and his glorious orchestra reaching into the Wagnerian sublime.

Rupert Christiansen | 11 Dec 2007

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A production by Klaus Michael Grüber (2001)