mon 20/05/2019

Parsifal, Mariinsky Opera/Gergiev, Wales Millennium Centre | reviews, news & interviews

Parsifal, Mariinsky Opera/Gergiev, Wales Millennium Centre

Parsifal, Mariinsky Opera/Gergiev, Wales Millennium Centre

Russian orchestra and singers do Wagner proud in the Land of Song

Valery Gergiev, level-headed and few eccentricities in Wagner's last operaAlexander Shapunov

Is it my imagination, or are we getting more Wagner in concert than we used to? It could be a welcome development. How marvellous not to have to tremble at the thought of the latest flight of directorial fantasy: Isolde pregnant, Siegfried as an airline pilot, the Grail temple transformed into the Reichstag (no prizes for guessing which of these is a real case). Instead you can enjoy what Stravinsky called “the great art of Wagner from the direct source of that greatness and not through the medium of pygmies swarming around the stage”.

This was a level-headed, well-prepared, if not always immaculately rehearsed reading, complete in every detail, taking few unnecessary risks

He had just seen an embargo-busting Parsifal in Monte Carlo in January 1913 (with widow Cosima present) and sat in a side box without sightlines. He would have enjoyed his compatriot Valery Gergiev’s concert performance of that wonderful work with the Mariinsky Opera in Cardiff on Saturday. It was quite devoid of what Wagner came to regard as “deeds of music made visible”, unless you count some vestigial gestures from Kundry and Amfortas, or Klingsor tripping over his chair-leg as he got up to deliver his clinching line at the end of Act II (to his undying credit, he delivered it from the floor). Not a pygmy to be seen; decidedly not – these were Russian opera singers. And very fine at opera-singing, for the most part, they were.

Anyone expecting fireworks from Gergiev or, alternatively, the kind of slapdash detailing of his staged Ring here a few years ago was doomed to disappointment. This was a level-headed, well-prepared, if not always immaculately rehearsed reading, complete in every detail, taking few unnecessary risks. A too-quick opening to the second act, and a too-slow prelude to Act III (momentarily sacrificing rhythmic definition) were almost the only eccentricities. Of course, entirely risk-free Wagner is hot ice, a contradiction in terms. The sheer topography of Parsifal is a challenge, what with the onstage brass, Titurel in his underground vault, and the angelic voices from on high. How do you rearrange such perspectives for a concert performance, effectively without a stage?

Gergiev perhaps had taken poor advice on these elements, many of which were barely audible, some literally inaudible. In general, though, the balance was good, an issue Wagner took care over, anxious no doubt to make the best possible use of the Bayreuth theatre for which Parsifal was composed. Good to see and hear this often transparent score played by a modest-sized orchestra (only three double-bass desks, four cello desks); and played so beautifully, with ultra-refined string tone and clean, immaculate wind – an innovatory feature that influenced Debussy, and perhaps even Stravinsky himself: a fine pair of supposed Wagner-haters. The electronic bells have to be endured these days, I suppose, odd though they sound in the concert hall (and whoever was throwing the switches miscounted bars at the end of Act I).

As for the singing, everything was high-class, short of the unattainable Wagnerian perfection. Larisa Gogolevskaya was one of the strongest Kundrys I can recall – and one recalls too many of them, on the whole. Svelte she isn’t, but her musicianship and control were superb, and the intensity of her performance, notably of course in the long Act II duet with Parsifal, irresistible. She deserved (and made the most of) her gratutious top B at the end of it, and was justly allowed to deliver her two-word singing telegram in the last act (“Dienen, dienen”) from the wings.

Like her, Evgeny Nikitin (Amfortas) and Nikolay Putilin (Klingsor) knew their parts and sang them as if they regretted the lack of a stage, a huge virtue in concert performance of opera, which needs, so to speak, to be lifted out of the ambit of oratorio. Yury Vorobiev was a good Gurnemanz but more obviously harnessed to the score – perhaps forgivable with this immense role. Avgust Amonov, a bespectacled, studious-looking, Pierre-Bezhukov sort of Parsifal, came somewhere in-between: rather light of voice and discreet in engagement, but musically likeable, and innocent of the usual Heldentenor barking and yelling.

How good these Russian singers are nowadays: hardly a wobble in sight, the musical line respected, and all bang in tune. The flower maidens were no exception, and the Mariinsky chorus, backed up (when audible from offstage) by our own Ex Cathedra, did Cardiff, which knows about choral singing, proud. Their big test, though, comes later today, in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.

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