Bernard Haitink
Chor und Orchester der Oper Zürich
April 2007
Opernhaus Zürich
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasMichael Volle
TiturelGünther Groissböck
GurnemanzMatti Salminen
ParsifalChristopher Ventris
KlingsorRolf Haunstein
KundryYvonne Naef
GralsritterMiroslav Christoff
Günther Groissböck
Stage directorHans Hollmann
Set designerHans Hoffer
TV directorFelix Breisach
Mostly Opera

This Parsifal was recorded live at the Zurich Opera House in April 2007 during the run of performances, of which I attended one.

Hans Hollmann´s production is from 1996 and has now been replaced. Hollmann presents what I consider an essentially religious view of the work: Mist and light. Water, purification? Abstract, quadratic and aesthetic designs. Hollmann says: “Wagner presents only possibilities – Parsifal can never be wholly fathomed by interpretation.”

Well said. However, Hollmann seems to have restricted, rather expanded on Wagner´s work, though the simplicity of the sets rather act as a backdrop for Wagner´s glorious music. Not the worst interpretation at all, but also not ideal: In both Act 1 and 3 we are in a 19th century class-room. Mist, water. On the wall : Wasser. Later: Blut. The knights are blind. In Act 2 a mirror flips in Klingsors imaginary castle surrounded by candelabres. We could be in Musée des Art et Métier in the middle of an Umberto Eco novel.

Bernhard Haitink was never a favourite of mine, though he probably is the raison d´etre for this DVD. Some find him close to ideal in this repertoire. To me, he lacks a certain ggrandiosity and above all the sense of dynamics. Both Barenboim and Thielemann, among the presently active conductors have this. Haitink lingers too long in the middle ground without approaching the extremes. Valery Gergiev, coincidentally, presents with much the same type of reading on his newly released Parsifal CD.

Yvonne Naef is a wonderfully darkvoiced and secure as Kundry, but rather restrained on stage and nowhere close to Waltraud Meier´s definitive Kundry. Christopher Ventris is a fine Parsifal, but the best performances come from Matti Salminen and Michael Volle.

Salminen has one of those voices which just ages wonderfully well: No wobbles a la John Thomlinson, but instead he has kept his firm steady tone, His stage presence, of course, is intact.

And Michael Volle, just about ideal for Amfortas and probably the best Amfortas I have heard live.

Adequate justification for a DVD? Probably not. Why would one return to this version, now that we have Barenboim/Kupfer? Not for Salminen, who can be seen on the Baden-Baden DVD with Waltraud Meier, though I do find Haitink superior to Kent Nagano. And next month we will see the new Met Parsifal with Jonas Kaufmann and René Pape, probably to be released on DVD as well, which will be a strong competitor unless the staging turns out to be completely hopeless..

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Christopher Ventris: 4
Yvonne Naef: 4
Matti Salminen: 4-5
Michael Volle: 5

Hans Hollmann´s production: 3
Bernhard Haitink: 4

Overall impression: 3

16 January 2013

Bernard 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.

Dominic McHugh | 23 August 2008

Entre Zürich et Parsifal, c’est une longue histoire : Wagner y trace les premières esquisses de son ultime drame en 1857, et dans la ville a lieu en 1913 la première représentation publique hors de Bayreuth. Mais Zürich en cette soirée d’avril 2007 est aussi le cadre du retour de Bernard Haitink au lyrique, après l’annonce faite à Covent Garden en 2002 qu’il ne toucherait plus jamais à l’opéra. Qui a pu le convaincre de se dédire pour Zürich ? La possibilité, si l’on en juge par le résultat, de réunir le meilleur plateau vocal possible, en tout cas dans l’idée qu’il se fait de Parsifal dans ce théâtre. Et la grande réussite est justement avant tout cette adéquation idéale entre le lieu scénique et le projet. Dans la foulée Haitink retournera à Covent Garden avec son Parsifal. Autre contexte…

  L’ancienne production de Hans Hollmann, créée en 1996, est revue par Gudrun Hartmann dans le sens de l’allègement, de l’épure : le symbolisme des rares accessoires (cannes d’aveugles, évocations de croix, coupe d’eau… ), la simplicité extrêmes de mots (Wasser, Blut, Quell) projetés sur le fond de scène pour évoquer le contexte de chaque acte, disent que rien ne compte qui ne soit indispensable pour souligner la portée philosophique du livret. Les éclairages ont un rôle essentiel, soulignant une présence ou évoquant un cadre. Dans la cérémonie du Graal au premier comme au dernier acte, une violente lumière blanche suffit à la transfiguration, sur laquelle s’élève lentement une colonne noire. Gudrun Hartmann et Jürgen Hoffmann jouent sur les contrastes symboliques de couleurs, noir contre blanc, mais, symbolique encore, ce sont des carrés de couleurs avec lesquels Kundry recompose le passé de Parsifal, et qui plus tard accompagneront la rédemption. Tout cela paraîtra peut-être trop épuré, trop simple, et cela le serait sans la force musicale qui accompagne l’idée, et sans la cohérence avec la cérémonie sublime que célèbrent en même temps le plateau et la fosse, d’où l’on sort bouleversé. Cette vision « chambriste », intime, voulue aussi par l’espace scénique restreint de Zürich, exacerbe les tourments, impression renforcée par une réalisation vidéo qui s’attache aux êtres et à leur cheminement. Ce Parsifal revient aux fondamentaux de l’ouvrage et à ses préoccupations mystiques clairement ancrées dans le christianisme.

  Yvonne Naef, voix somptueuse jouant sur les gradations de couleurs au fil de ses revirements, est une Kundry sensuelle, au jeu juste et pourtant complexe entre pécheresse et salvatrice. La scène du baiser à Parsifal est particulièrement réussie, qui voit ce qui devait être révélation sensuelle transformée en cérémonie de rédemption. Prenant des libertés avec le livret de Wagner, Hollmann offre à Kundry une fin magnifique et cohérente. Matti Salminen habite littéralement un Gurnemanz d’anthologie. La voix paraîtra peut-être sous-dimensionnée aux wagnériens canal historique, mais on n’en a cure : la simplicité de l’interprétation, fervente et sans aucune caricature, la présence scénique exceptionnelle, le texte si explicite, projeté idéalement, la sérénité de la posture… tout est dignité. Michael Volle, avec une très belle présence, évite la surenchère habituelle du rôle d’Amfortas pour un dégradé de nuances étonnant. La seule relative déception est le Klingsor de Rolf Haunstein, timbre clair, plus insidieux que terrible.

  Et Parsifal ? C’est Christopher Ventris : pas un héros, un homme, émouvant, quelques difficultés dans l’aigu, mais une voix claire, très projetée au-delà de l’orchestre. Et un contraste finement amené entre la tonalité juvénile de la voix au premier acte et sa transformation progressive vers plus de profondeur et de chaleur. Belles et efficaces filles-fleurs, chœur masculin superlatif. Et au-dessus de ce plateau vocal inspiré, plane un Haitink souverain, poète, tout en nuances, assurant une narration graduée et sans emphase. Très attentif aux équilibres et aux détails, il conduit un orchestre de chambre dont chaque ligne chante, s’offrant le temps de la lenteur et le luxe d’une puissance constamment contrôlée.

Sophie Roughol | 10 Décembre 2008

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