When the curtain descended on the last night of Bernard Haitink’s tenure as Music Director of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden in 2002 he informed the press that it had also descended on his operatic career.
After sixteen years at the helm of one of the world’s leading opera houses he had decided that the time and effort required to perform opera was too exacting, so he devoted himself to the symphonic repertoire.
His decision came as a big blow to those of us who had admired his peerless performances at Covent Garden, especially in the Wagnerian canon. I count myself fortunate that not only did I have the privilege to see both his Ring Cycles (1990-91 Gotz Friedrich and 1994-6 Richard Jones) but Meistersinger and Parsifal his first major Wagner work in 1986 – as well.
The wait has been long, (five years to be precise) but well worth it, as Haitink has now made a triumphant return to opera, with a transcendental performance of Parsifal at the Zurich Opera. It seemed incredible that we were going to be robbed of his Wagnerian credentials, especially when there’s a dearth of top-notch Wagner conductors around, so someone at the Zurich Opera deserves a medal and a couple of bucketfuls of Niebelheim gold in persuading this most persuasive of conductors back into the opera house.
And what an evening it turned out to be. All the hallmarks of Haitink’s Wagner were present in abundance – the pacing of this long work (over five hours) was faultless and he directed a lithe, muscular performance, drawing exceptionally vivid playing from the Zurich Opera orchestra who played as if their lives depended on it.
Another revelation of the evening was hearing this large scale work in such an intimate space, as the Zurich Opera House only seats just over 1000, which made for a truly overwhelming and absorbing evening of music theatre.
Parsifal is one of Wagner’s most ambivalent works, containing proto-Christian elements all shot through with the composer’s rather tasteless ideas on Aryan purity, so it’s no wonder that directors come a cropper when trying to make sense of its myriad themes.
Hans Hollman’s production is both austere and severe, yet shows an intellectual maturity that far outstrips any Wagner productions we’ve seen in the UK of late. Both London Ring cycles were bereft of any sense of innovation or intelligence so it was a welcome relief to see both in abundance in this Parsifal. With understated designs by Hans Hoffer, the production allowed you to focus on the characters without any distractions. The story unfolded logically, and for that one should be grateful.
The cast was as good as can be assembled for this opera nowadays. Christopher Ventris in the title role showed why he is in so much demand in this repertory his tenor voice rang out with clarion ease and could easily ride the orchestral climaxes. Yvonne Naef managed to convey all the disparate elements of the ambiguous role of Kundry (part seductress, part Holy Mary and part penitent) with her sensual voice providing the aural balm of the evening. Michael Volle was a suitably tortured Amfortas, pouring forth a flood of burnished tone in the last act, but it was the veteran bass Matti Salminen as Gurnemanz who won top vocal honours for the evening. Every word came from the heart and he provided the lynchpin of the entire performance a truly unforgettable portrayal. The chorus excelled.
I’ve seen many Wagner performances over the years, but this ranks as one of the very finest, mainly due to Haitink’s galvanising presence in the pit. The good news is that he will now conduct Parsifal at Covent Garden this winter, with Ventris again in the title role. It promises to be the operatic event of the Royal Opera’s season.