Perfection and folly
Gran Teatre del Liceu
01/28/2005 - and 1,4, 7, 8, 10, 12, 14 February 2005
Richard Wagner: Parsifal
Placido Domingo (Parsifal), Violeta Urmana (Kundry), Matti Salminen (Gurnemanz), Bo Skovhus (Amfortas), Theo Adam (Titurel), Sergei Leiferkus (Klingsor),
Sebastian Weigle (conductor), Nikolaus Lehnhoff (director)
Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu, Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu
North Europeans might find it strange to meet Wagner in the bright, Mediterranean city of Barcelona. But the Liceu has long been one of the world's great opera houses, rivaling La Scala and Covent Garden in its reception of leading singers and works as well as in its comfort and décor. And Wagner actually had a special place in the city's musical life in the early part of the last century: his bust stands, along with Bach, Beethoven and Palestrina, on the façade of the enchanting Palau de la Musica Catalána (completed in 1908), while a pair of Valkyries face the maidens from a Catalan folk-songs across the proscenium of the concert hall as equal representatives of beloved music. Although Wagner would have disagreed, it is possible to see his Gesamtkunstwerk, which combines ideas and physical representation with music and drama in powerful works that some might call overblown, as one of the precursors of Barcelona's particularly organic brand of Art Nouveau.
Even more, tradition identifies the abbey of Montserrat, an hour's drive from Barcelona, with Montsalvat, the retreat at the edge of Europe where Parsifal takes place. Certainly, both the Grail legend and Wagner's personal revision of it, incorporate key themes of mediaeval Christianity, especially the agony of Christ's passion, its imitation in the sufferings of martyrs and its travesty in the miseries of the damned, and the joy of the motherhood of the Blessed Virgin, as well as her empathy with her son's life, as commemorated in the prayers of the rosary. Amfortas' sexually induced torment and Kundry's ambivalently sympathetic attempt to seduce Parsifal with news of his mother could be seen as perversions of the positive images of Christ's passion and nativity on the facades of the Sagrada Familia, a modern version of the mediaeval Christian vision that, like the Palau, originated in an artistic world strongly shaped by Wagner's spin on medievalism.
Yet Parsifal has been a comparative rarity at the Liceu, where it was last produced in 1983. Although it is less of a Wagner house than it was a century ago, the main reason may well the difficulty of casting the title role. Placido Domingo's presence in this production makes it not only a promising rarity but also the event of the year, at least. His performance of Act 2 here in concert in 2000 showed that he has the chops for a role that requires a force of nature who can acquire immense spiritual depths and dignity. Domingo has long been distinguished for his technique and musicality, and in this performance he achieved the vehemence of the young Parsifal through intensity and the spirituality of the role in the last act through lyrical beauty rather than bluster or force. It is probably something to be grateful for that he did not chose to become a Heldentenor, since this performance had an almost unique combination of freshness and maturity. Strangely, there were boos for both of his curtain calls, although a tradition house like the Liceu obviously has its share of traditional opera lovers with their tribal loyalties.
Domingo's achievement was all the greater for being part of a superb overall package. An outstanding north European cast lacked only native German-language speakers (Theo Adam's Titurel being the striking exception). Matti Salminen as Gurnemanz combined sonorous force with compassion. Bo Skovhus, until recently most often seen in roles where he removed his shirt, was movingly tormented as Amfortas. Sergei Leiferkus was something of a clockwork villain, but still sinister in a slightly comical way. Violeta Urmana's Kundry sounded glorious, but she, like Domingo, lacked the vulnerability to make her character truly heartrending.
Nikolaus Lehnhoff's production, previous seen at the English National Opera and the San Francisco Opera, at first sight seemed unlikely to work in such a traditional house, and even less in such a colorful city. Raimund Bauer's austere, rocky grey set visualized the wasteland as a Buddhist rock garden, rendered only slightly more organic as Klingsor's garden by Duane's Schuler's ingenious, delicate lighting. It was a milieu for reflection on attachment and the misery it causes, vividly enacted by the characters, rather than the usual mythic scene. But the characterizations were those in the music, at times rendered more human without the carapace of heroic narrative – although Parsifal (in Act 3) and the Grail knights all had their armour, somewhere between Samurai gear and Star Wars. The boos for the production team were less surprising than those for Domingo, but equally undeserved.
This production, adapted as always for the present cast, was less edgy than the ENO performances. To some extent this was because some of the singers were stronger on voice but weaker on stagecraft and sheer dramatic intensity then their London equivalents, Kathryn Harries' Kundry in particular. But it was largely because of the measured direction of the orchestra by Sebastian Weigle, impeccably musical from the horns in the prelude onwards, but somehow lacking in danger. Nevertheless, this production, already long sold out, even for performances by the almost equally impressive second cast, is as rich and powerful presentation of Wagner's polymorphous work as you are likely to find this decade. If you can find a ticket, it is well worth the detour to Barcelona.