Andrew's Opera was previously published at

25 April, 2001

Met Parsifal: impressions from a beginner

Metropolitan Opera House, NYC

Good Friday 13 April 2001

ParsifalPlacido Domingo
KundryVioleta Urmana
GurnemanzJohn Tomlinson
AmfortasHans-Joachim Ketelsen
KlingsorEkkehard Wlaschiha
EsquireDanielle de Niese
Flower maidenJoyce Guyer
ConductorJames Levine

I attended this Met Parsifal twice, no mean feat at 5½ hours apiece. One performance was on Good Friday, the very day on which Act III is set, and this year, the 13th or black Friday as well! No bad luck ensued, ignoring my Cajun chicken sandwich in the intermission.

I was anxious to at least 'appreciate' it, even though I knew I may not 'enjoy' it in the usual opera house sense. My actual verdict (if I had one) would not matter much since (1) the opera is not on trial, (2) this 'traditional' and 'stylised' 1991 production is no longer on trial either [it does not mean you have to like it, although I did.] (3) I am new to Parsifal and (4) I am also relatively new to the later Wagner operas. Nonetheless, I will try to describe my unimportant and possibly less than accurate recollections. These views might also be of interest to other 'rookies', as well as for my own purposes in 'digesting' this enormous, epic work.

Like most Wagner stories, Parsifal has extraordinary twists and turns. It is set around the particularly Catholic ritual of displaying and revering, if not worshipping relics of the Christian past, such as fragments of the cross and the Shroud of Turin. The 'Holy Grail' was supposedly the cup used at the last supper and which, by some unwritten tradition, later caught drops of Christ's blood at the cross. I wonder that they did not use 13 separate cups at this repast, and that they used a heavy stemmed vessel as big as a bucket.

Most garish of all the illusions is Klingsor who castrated himself 'to ward off evil thoughts' so he might enter the service of the grail ... but when his second attempt is also rejected, he swears to be the enemy of the guardian order until its destruction or dispersal.

I found the long introductory music a little laborious and unapproachable. It was just one enigma in a long night at the opera. If Wagner intended it to make his audience impatient, he succeeded in my case as I just wanted to get into this wonderful journey.

The curtain rises after about 10 minutes onto a wonderful landscape of trees in the woods with a front scrim. The six or eight huge tree trunks in the foreground are repeated by others in the distance with reflections mirrored in the intervening brook.

Gurnemanz, knight of the grail, gives us fragments of the story while waiting for Kundry, Amfortas, a dead swan and finally, the nameless Parsifal who shot it with his bow and arrow. The latter looks surprisingly youthful on his entry, carrying the flimsy bow which he snaps on realising what travesty it was to kill a sacred bird.

The two hours of Act I pass unbelievably rapidly. We have learned in dribs and drabs the story about King Amfortas who was seduced by Kundry who then stole the spear on behalf of Klingsor. Amfortas' festering body wound will never heal and his life is one of misery and decline due to his moment of weakness. One last time, in great pain and weakness, he reveals the grail and performs communion to the gathered believers. A bright shaft of light beams down onto the huge chalice which lights up red in its lucent alabaster beauty. An effect of white powder falling uses some stage trick since before the descending fragments reach the singers, they vanish into thin air, as though evaporated.

The aged father Titurel calls from off-stage with encouragement. For unknown reasons we meet him next in the final scene of the opera in his coffin, dead, with the lid unceremoniously removed.

During and immediately after the grail opening, voices are heard to sing: "Enlightened through compassion, the innocent fool". To my mind, and even with the help of a German dictionary, this just does not seem to make much sense. Although it obviously refers to Parsifal, various interpretations could be made. To my mind, such ambiguous pronouncements draw attention away from the unfolding drama and towards the dramatist. The story is a mish-mash of biblical and other sources. I do not know where Sir Garwain comes from, but he sent a balsam for the king's wound.

During the wonderful march-like interlude between the two scenes of Act I there is light projected onto the scrim. In a darkened stage, the huge tree trunks slowly align, becoming parallel pillars in a stylized church, replete with beams, buttresses and wonderful ceiling oculus, rather like the Roman Pantheon, showing clear sky above. This is repeated in act III in a similar manner and as a theatrical device, it is a tour-de-force of the highest order. Having read the libretto, it is very close to the composer's specific instructions. It is hard to imagine how it could have been done prior to modern stage machinery.

Act II opens impressively with Klingsor standing on a landing at the top of a curved stone staircase in his 'magic castle'. Declaiming his bitter story, he finally calls on Kundry who is hibernating in a deep pit below. She is given instructions regarding seducing the handsome youth who was at that very moment climbing the battlement walls, in his effort to regain the Calvary spear of Amfortas. Kundry had been cursed to wander the world for all time after she laughed at Christ on the cross.

The use of a scrim causes characters at the front of the stage to appear as if they had 'black eyes' due to the incompatibility with front projection or foot lights. But it did permit amazing changes and contrasts, most notable perhaps in the shadowing from the trees, scene changes and fade-ins and outs.

The most amazing set change occurs when Klingsor orders the end of efforts to seduce Parsifal. His gay, magic realm is transformed before our eyes from floral decadent beauty to the bare remnants of a wintry garden lair. Almost instantly, plants and vines wither, while bright colours turn to shades of grey.

Klingsor now knows that the spear is lost, but, for reasons that are not clear, is also confident that Parsifal will never again find Amfortas and the grail guardians. He hurls the oversized weapon to Parsifal in one of the best stage tricks I have seen. Even a second viewing from better seats was every bit as impressive. There is a crack heard, a spark and a puff of smoke are seen and ... "buoy-yoi-yoing" the three metre spear is apparently thrown from the rear of the huge Met stage to be caught on the full by Domingo at the front of the stage. A little unnerving for patrons in the front rows, as it could have done some nasty damage if not caught in time! I learned that in fact Klingsor's spear was actually retracted in the smoke by strings pulled by stage hands while Domingo is presented with a fresh spear emerging vertically from the stage which he merely angles forward before the 'fog' clears.

We now know that Klingsor is 'done for' and Parsifal has the means to enter and even lead the brotherhood.

Act III starts on a sunny grassy verge, replete with creek and woods, sky and distant landscapes. There is even a 'mound' as ordered by the composer/librettist. The scrim showed a hint of the sunlight penetrating the thick copse of tall trees on the right side. Gurnemanz, now a hermit, is singing of the lost causes of the grail and suddenly finds Kundry apparently cold and hibernating on the forest floor. She lets out a wondrous shriek which is the first thing we know that she is in fact still alive (except for those who know she has more to sing). Once revived with some water from the rather odd looking spring, a knight appears in full armour, including full face helmet, carrying a 3 meter spear which we recognise from the last act.

A more mature looking Parsifal sings of the long fruitless journey in search of Amfortas, the castle and its knights. But Titurel the aged father of Amfortas has died, supposedly due to the son's inability to reveal the grail to the world. We are not told just who Amfortas is King of, nor why his father has apparently abdicated. Remarkably, Gurnemanz recognised Parsifal as the blameless youth who can become keeper of the grail. He determines to take him back to Amfortas to heal his wound with the instrument that created it.

Next scene we are back in the castle's stylized temple at Titurel's funeral with the prospect that the grail may be revealed one last time despite Amfortas' continuing illness and frailty. Enter Parsifal, strength replaces weakness, youth replaces age and light replaces darkness. For some reason Kundry is blessed and then drops down dead, apparently finally forgiven for giggling at JC on the cross long years earlier.

All in all, a very queer work which has an overlay of Christianity (which I find irritatingly incomplete), Teutonic mythology and just plain gory make-believe. Musically one has to concede there are no arias. But there are wonderful choruses mostly male, though there may be a children's choir off stage.

A female acquaintance said at the end: "not really a good opera for women's liberation". There is hardly a good word said about women in general although Parsifal regrets his maternal neglect at one stage if I recall correctly. Most of the women are painted in a rather negative light, nothing unusual for this and most past periods. Their main employs seem to be seduction, assault, child abuse, disrespect and witchcraft. Only Kundry features on the stage and she is one of the most esoteric characters in opera. And the music she is given by Wagner is equally shadowy and cryptic (and one of the vocal challenges of the repertory).

Not a night I wish to repeat in a hurry ... but one I am pleased to have attended nonetheless. I will leave others to describe the music, declamatory singing, orchestral playing etcetera. I just let it all wash over me and it was wonderful. Being totally different from other operas I have seen, I am not in a position analyse or judge further than this. It would be facile to say I heard bits of the Ring and Meistersinger ... and longed for a Wintersturm or Prize song. Parsifal has other gifts. With the medieval story, and a 'realistic' setting as dictated by the composer it is hard not to hark back to the Monty Pythons classics based on parallel themes (The Holy Grail and The Life of Brian).

There is a tradition at Wagner's own Bayreuth Festspeilhaus that there be no clapping during the opera, due to the 'gravity' and 'reverence' of the story, especially at the end of act I. This is ludicrous to my mind and is certainly not observed in New York. In Bayreuth and Sydney there are traditions of at least one long intermission (up to an hour) for patrons to guzzle beer and German sausage. Hardly reverent!

Some of the singing parts are not taken by the usual cast opera voices. Domingo did not have to sing any particularly high notes as far as I heard (cf Otello or Siegfried - not that Domingo sings the latter). It was more like a marathon than the Olympic hurdles. The part of Kundry was taken by Violeta Urmana, a Lithuanian mezzo soprano, yet it has apparently been sung by Gwyneth Jones and Maria Callas. This may say more about the singers than the part they were singing, but it is unusual in opera, if not unique (cf. Rosina, Adalgisa).

John Tomlinson sang a strong and sustained Gurnemanz while the King was played admirably by Hans-Joachim Ketelsen. Klingsor was again done by fine veteran Ekkehard Wlaschiha. Joyce Guyer played both first esquire (?instead of a boy soprano) and one of the excellent flower maidens (another was Danielle de Niese, strong voiced soprano from Melbourne).

James Levine and his orchestra received the most rapturous acclaim and well deserved it was. This opera makes incredible demands of all participants, but the orchestra has probably the hardest job of all.

If it comes to a theatre near you, just go see it!

comments by Andrew Byrne ..

04 April, 2001

Il Trovatore Thursday 4th April 2001

Il Trovatore Thursday 4th April 2001

The week I arrived in New York the final performance of Acis and Galatea under Jane Glover's baton was on the same night as the last Trovatore at the Met, next door. For no particularly good reason, I ended up at the Met and will have to regret missing Acis & Galatea.

This was a REALLY strange Trovatore. I sat next to a woman who had seen every Met production of the opera since the war and she was shocked as each crazy scene unfolded in this 'alternative' show. Her face lit up as, in one of the breaks, I asked about Bjorling and Merrill in the roles. And she had actually met Jan Peerce personally! (And his name is pronounced J-A-N as in the month).

But back to the production, or should I say the lack of it? We were introduced to two huge swinging flats intersecting centre stage. One was white with dark clouds above while the other was dark with light clouds. An angulated return allowed the quite useful device of having two people visible on stage but each out of each other's sight. [This is also used by MAD comic in the 'spy versus spy' section, just before one blows the head off the unsuspecting other, around the corner.] At least twice in the opera this is used to advantage - first when Leonora mistakes Di Luna for Manrico in the dark. In the monastery scene they also placed the men around the corner from each other, thus they were visible from the audience but not to each other.

The soprano was wonderful African American, Michele Crider. She had a bit of a beat in the voice but an accurate coloratura and perhaps a high, slightly sharp high 'D' when called on. [Her Amalia in Masked Ball the following week was even more suited to her ample dramatic voice.]

The surprise of the night was Russian Irina Mishura as Azucena. She was credible, consistent and vocally marvellous. She has already done Amneris and would be an asset to any company lucky enough to secure her services.

The men were not as impressive. Richard Margison started weakly. Off stage in his serenade he sounded hoarse and dry. But once warmed into this difficult part, he coped with 'Ah si ben mio' and just one verse of 'Di quella pira', with two high syllables ... the second clipped short. I was told that this show stopper was originally sung a few weeks ago from some sort of trapeze! There was apparently also a dramatic but near slap-stick entrance which had been 'cut' by the last performance of the current season which started in December with a different cast.

Valery Alexeev was an adequate DiLuna but somehow did not shine or go the extra mile. Carlo Rizzi seemed to take some parts faster and declined to allow the rubato needed to make the baritone's 'Il balen ..' more than workaday and adequate which is was.

Comparisons are odious, but Dennis O'Neil and Ian Vayne were streets ahead with Simone Young in Sydney last January. She insisted on two verses of everything!

They utilised no fewer than three different moons. One was large, red and round, more like Jupiter close-up. Another was a classic, cheesy ¼ moon appearing brighter than the clouds, and evidently BELOW them! A very queer look indeed! An extraordinary touch was, rather than an anvil, we saw an enormous suspended crucible of molten bronze high above the chorus. It was lowered at the end of the chorus to splatter white hot liquid into a hole in the stage.

Extraordinary! But to little dramatic effect, apart from drawing attention to the producers. It is easy to understand a small gipsy band beating some horse's hooves into shape, but smelting their own alloy is hardly credible! But this is opera!

The set for Di Luna's camp in Act III was a long banquet table across the stage cutting it into two with a swirling tiled red and white floor which was used throughout. It was more like a circus than the field of battle. And behind were three lines of hanging objects - quite mysterious - like a clothes line.

Updated and stylised opera. So 'anything goes'. But it failed to catch on. I rather liked the touch of Azucena clutching, fondling and finally hanging a framed picture of her long deceased mother in her 'stride la vampa' scene. Others I spoke to found it trite and unnecessary.

The Metropolitan season book states that this production is by Graham Vick and sets by Paul Brown. For some reason, neither name appears in the program. I wonder if changes after the opening involved these personalities distancing themselves from the current show. However noble the attempt at artistic heights, this production has little merit to my mind. Does it detract from the Verdi? If a majority think so then it should not be revived.

comments by Andrew Byrne .. (Sydney physician visiting New York)

03 March, 2001

Faust - Gounod - Sydney Opera House Feb 2001

Faust - Gounod - Sydney Opera House Feb 2001

Dear Colleagues,

What a spectacular show the Sydney holiday crowds were treated to! Gounod's Faust is a long and truly 'grand' opera and Ian Judge's production takes us on the ill-fated journey of the Devil in an original and stylish manner. Vinson Cole opened this production 4 years ago and it is hard to imagine anyone else doing it better. He is aloof yet the committed hedonist. He seems to use head and chest registers interchangeably, sometimes 'Italianate', sometimes more French-sounding with his totally reliable tenor line. He portrays the philosophical yet avid suitor in marvellous contrast to Siebel (Donna-Maree Dunlop), the youthful and doomed admirer of Marguerite (Patricia Racette). Yet almost everyone is doomed in this opera as I lost count of the corpses by the curtain.

Bruce Martin's booming Mefisto was the highlight of the evening and as confident 'master-of-ceremonies' he gave the most memorable of stage performances. The surprise of the night was Anthony Schroeder's Valentin. He sang with a crisp, high, accurate baritone and after a slightly nervous launch, sang a magnificent show-stopping 'Avant de quitter ces lieux'. His martial scenes and final stop-start death scene were also moving and creditable.

Like Cole, Patricia Racette has sung great roles at the Met in New York and her many qualities shone in Faust. Like most great divas, she warmed up and following a good first half with more-than-adequate Jewel Song, she developed into a power house of vocal stamina at the same time as her persona declined through despair, madness and death. She interacted wonderfully with her stage colleagues and was totally believable in this rather unbelievable conservative Catholic role.

Emmanuel Plasson's conducting was intense and particular from what I could glean at the end of Row F. He had the orchestra sounding in top form with tempi which were sympathetic to my ear. The wonderful waltzes, choruses (the final one taken in the auditorium boxes) and rather odd introductory piece give plenty of scope for the pit to show their wares. The violin is as exposed as it ever gets at the end of 'Salut demeur et chaste' - the splendid singing being matched with the highest quality orchestral playing.

The chorus was used by Ian Judge to great effect as bright faces in the gloom (Nigel Levings' classy job lighting this show). They were also fast movers in the ballroom scene. Standing stock still with wet umbrellas seemed a little odd at the end but the sound of rain before the final applause broke the dreadful tension of the night's calamitous carnage on stage.

comments by Andrew Byrne ..