Parsifal Day

Sunday, August 18, 2000

After a hearty breakfast at the Arvena Kongress, I set out on foot to visit the Festspielhaus and the adjoining restaurant where the Wagner Society of New York was sponsoring its yearly Bayreuth lecture series.  This summer, Professor Simon Williams of the University of California was the speaker.  These are introductory lectures designed primarily for those who do not know anything about the opera that will be performed later on that day.  Professor Williams is a dynamite speaker who is thoroughly prepared with audio recordings, handouts, etc.  Even though I knew much of what he talked about, I found him fascinating, totally in love with his subject, and having a unique way of exciting people's interest and challenging what one thinks one knows. I came away learning something new every time.  I felt as though I was at a summer Wagner seminar - going to a class in the morning, and a related performance in the afternoon/evening.

For lunch I joined another Washington, DC friend at the outdoor café of the Weihenstephan Hotel, on Bahnhofstrasse (near Carl Schuller, the street that leads to my hotel), just down the road from the Festspielhaus and about 15 minutes walk (for me) from my hotel.  The outdoor seating was terrific!! There were several outdoor cafés along that block, and I could see new and old friends, all Wagnerians, walking up and down the Strasse, leaning over the outdoor café barricades to say hello to folks who were eating.  What an atmosphere! Food at the Weihenstephan is great and it's a place I highly recommend.  But if you want to relax and soak up the scene and enjoy the cameraderie, best to go AFTER the performance, not between lecture and performance.  NO TIME!! I was watching my watch constantly to see that I would have enough time to be back at the Arvena Kongress by 2:30 p.m. to change my clothes and head out again.   Luckily, my friend was able to book his room at the Hotel Akzent a block away on Kolpingstrasse.  At 2:00 p.m. I politely excused myself and lit out toward the Arvena Kongress. Good timing!!! I hate rushing around to get ready for the opera.  To have to RUSH to get ready to go to the opera defeats the purpose of the Bayreuth experience.

After dressing up in my opera duds, I went to the lobby of the Arvena Kongress to wait for the hotel shuttle that takes opera-goers to the Festspielhaus.  Now for the ultimate opera experience!

Sitting high up on the Green Hill, just outside the northernmost section of town, the Festspielhaus is an architectural wonder, whose beauty lies in its simple elegance and excellent acoustics.  This precious gem of a building was designed by the composer himself, a man who had no formal architectural training, but whose sense of theater design was based solely on his experience as a musician.  Take it from this seasoned opera-goer:  there is no other building like it.

It was awesome to be able to sit in this theater for seven nights and seven performances.  I continually looked up and around and back and forth at the auditorium's interior with fan-shaped pastel, tan, and blue ceiling with gold trim bars running from stage to back.  Six Greco-Roman columns are jettisoned out from the walls on either side of the auditorium, giving the appearance of an old Roman amphitheater.  On the ceiling near and just in front of the stage where the opening for the orchestra pit is, there are some painted canvas squares to help transmit the sound.  The steeply raked rows of approximately 1,800 seats are not as steep as I had imagined, as the Second Tier at Washington Opera is steeper and yes, there were "tall heads in the way" at the Festspielhaus. The orchestra really is UNDER the stage, not just partly hidden in front with a view of the conductor, as we can see in other opera houses, e.g. New York and Washington, D.C.  At the Festspielhaus, the audience doesn't have the luxury of even seeing the conductor's head.  There is a curved wooden barrier separating the orchestra from the audience, resulting in the sound being pushed back toward the stage and a different, more muffled kind of sound so as not to overpower the singers.  All of these trappings add to the effect of the Bayreuth experience.  It is hard to explain verbally.  It must be experienced.

Now for my first "live" experience with Parsifal, a work written especially for that theater, and of which Wagner had written that it should be performed nowhere else except in that theater.

CAST of Parsifal:

Christoph Eschenbach
Wolfgang Wagner

Andreas Schmidt
Hartmut Walker
Violetta Urmana
Poul Elming
Matthias Hölle

I was not really sure what to expect from this production, having experienced Parsifal only from CDs (which are often digitally remastered to control the sound from the orchestra and vocals) and videotapes (in which the camera controls what one sees).

This production seemed too unsually dark, with pale spotlights just barely illuminating the stage.  It was hard to make out who was who.  The characters did not walk on or off the stage, but just appeared and disappeared in the mistiness.  The singers did not move around at all.  When the knights were "on" they just stood motionless while singing.  Only the flower maidens in Act II, a black silhouette against a bright red background, gave any semblance of motion.  The overall effect of the staging of this music-drama was dreamy surrealism.  Perhaps the darkness of the stage was to symbolize the darkness and despair felt by the grieving knights who had lost the "spear" and had not yet been able to find the Grail, and of the inner thoughts of the hurting Amfortas who could not be cured of his wounds.  When the Grail appears at the end of Act III, it shimmers and shines brightly and illuminates the stage.  The Grail scene was the only brightness in the entire production, and this was to symbolize the joy at salvation, at finding inner peace and rest from strife and toil.

The singing was excellent.  I liked Poul Elming as Parsifal.  His voice is not as "big" as is Placido Domingo's, who I have heard sing that role on CD, but his voice also carries well and shows the right kind of emotion.  For the young Parsifal, the naďve "fool," a lighter, more lyrical voice such as Elming's would be appropriate and more fitting to the role than a heavy heroic tenor's voice.  Violetta Urmana (Kundry) was wonderfully crisp and easy to follow, seductive when appropriate, and very much "alive."  I have always liked Urmana, who has performed this role often, and it is a pity that she has not been scheduled to do it again at Washington Opera (with Domingo as Parsifal) in November 2000.  Andreas Schmidt as Amfortas and Hartmut Walker as Klingsor sang well, too, and even though they were partially hidden by the mistiness on stage, one did not need to see them, but rather just needed to hear them to experience the longing of Amfortas and the conniving evil of Klingsor.

The music was exceptionally beautiful and had a solemn religiosity about it.  A most moving and well-done drama.  Certainly one of Wagner's best!

by Jan Rosen

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