It has always been my ambition to hear Parsifal on Good Friday at a time when its message of rebirth resonates with the spring world outside. I have never managed it yet, but listening to this concert performance from the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra on the Tuesday of Holy Week is the closest I have come, even if it remains unclear quite what Wagner would have made of it.
He, as much as any opera composer, elevated the status of the drama in relation to the music, to the extent that his Festspielhaus in Bayreuth placed the orchestra pit entirely out of sight below the stage. While that was designed to suit the music he had already composed, Parsifal alone was written to suit the space, with the sound devised to drift up to the audience from below.
In this performance, however, the Mariinsky Orchestra very much took centre stage, with all of the soloists performing in lines at the side. Under the baton of Valery Gergiev, the orchestra was on wondrous form, as it seemed to combine the best features of a number of different approaches to the score. Lasting around fourteen minutes, the Overture was taken on the slow side, without approaching the extremes of Reginald Goodall. A more appropriate comparison might be made with Bernard Haitink, but while in 2007 at the Royal Opera House Haitink occasionally sacrificed strict rhythmic unity in pursuit of such an organic, fluid sound, the same could not be said of Gergiev. It was beautifully tempered and evenly balanced from start to finish, although that did not prevent it from possessing its fair share of exciting details. The trumpets revelled in their assertive tone, the flutes remained confident in their own beauty, while the strings found ample room to breathe within the parameters set by such a controlled approach.
Wagner’s music alone is capable of sustaining interest for over five hours, and there was something invigorating about being able to concentrate solely upon it. I am a fan of Niklaus Lehnhoff’s 1999 production, most recently revived by English National Opera last year, but it is still refreshing not to have to worry whether the spear will actually hover in mid-air, or if the ending will be changed to link the opera to Auschwitz. All the same, it felt as if a trick had been missed by keeping the principals standing on the sidelines. They were generally strong, and most of their faults were really a product of the way in which they were presented.
Yury Vorobiev’s Gurnemanz was not lacking in presence, his fingertips pressed together as he sang, but it was hard for him to command the stage during his Act I narration when he was positioned between the back row of first violins and double basses. Similarly, with both characters shunted to the side, Kundry’s enticing of Parsifal in Act II fell flat. Larisa Gogolevskaya as the former built up a good head of intoxicating steam, but too often Avgust Amonov looked more bored, or at least preoccupied with what he would sing next, than tempted. He was far more effective when singing out to the audience as he explored and proclaimed his own character.
It may have been coincidence, but the two most engaging performers notably stood at the end of their lines where they had more room for expression, and were not lost amidst a sea of bodies. Evgeny Nikitin’s Amfortas had an impassioned tone that highlighted his sense of desperation, while Nikolay Putilin’s Klingsor sang with a firm, deep and yet still quite radiant voice.
Some of the most striking moments, however, involved the chorus. The female chorus and especially the six Blumenmädchen shone, while Act I’s revealing of the Holy Grail was a definite highlight. With the excellent Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Vladimir Felyauer’s Titurel positioned on the second balcony, we witnessed the type of stagecraft that was lacking elsewhere. If the output from the Mariinsky Chorus sometimes sounded just too triumphant for the context, the contrast with the despair of the occasion only served to further highlight the pathos. This, however, was a night where the Mariinsky Orchestra ultimately stole the limelight, and, playing as it did, I am glad that I was able to experience Parsifal like this, especially so close to Good Friday.
The Mariinsky Orchestra’s recording of Parsifal, conducted by Valery Gergiev and featuring Violeta Urmana, Gary Lehmann and René Pape, is available on the Mariinsky label (released September 2010).
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk