August 14, 2002
Wagner with a passion
by richard morrison
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
TWO epic dramas were played out at the Festival Theatre on Monday. The less gripping one happened on the stage, where Peter Stein's ultra-traditional production of Parsifal wended its somewhat literal five-hour way, replete with a Grail that glowed blood-red like a 1960s lava-lamp and (at the end) a dazzling cross that bloomed out of the final curtain like something one might see at an upmarket Ku Klux Klan rally. But for once Wagner, and Stein, were upstaged if that is the right word for something that happened in an orchestra pit.
Eighteen months ago Claudio Abbado had an operation for stomach cancer. He wasn't expected to be conducting at this Festival. The 69-year-old Italian's face is gaunt, his body frail. But his conducting ? Simply magnificent. Surrounded by the massed ranks of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, the great multinational youth orchestra he founded 16 years ago, he surged through this vast score with a passion that belied his physique. I was expecting silky sensuality to accompany Kundry and the Flower Maidens; that is his trademark. I was quite unprepared for the brooding malevolence he unleashed in Klingsor's scenes (a sense of evil which the laser-timbred Eike Wilm Schulte perfectly matched on stage). As for the scene in which the duplicitous Kundry (a psychologically credible and vocally superb Violeta Urmana) attempted to seduce Thomas Moser's Parsifal, Abbado caught the ebb and flow of the clashing emotions without ever losing sight of the music's spacious architecture. And it was here, fittingly, that the hitherto rather dour Moser developed real personality. I was less happy with Hans Tschammer's stentorian Gurnemanz, though his reception suggested that others were more impressed. But the only real musical miscalculation was to use the Tölzer Boys Choir onstage in the Grail scenes: hard-edged and sometimes untuneful, they undermined Abbado's subtle approach. On the other hand, the Prague Philharmonic Choir and Arnold Schoenberg Choir were excellent.
Stein's staging certainly doesn't deserve the boos that greeted it at the Salzburg Easter Festival. Helped by Gianni Dessi's uncluttered if Ikea-ish designs and Joachim Barth's unashamedly picturesque lighting, Stein tells the story with clarity and revels in the Christian imagery, rather than sweeping it under a carpet of cute post-Freudian 'insights'. OK, it's startling these days to see Klingsor throw a real spear (on a wire) at Parsifal. And the multicoloured Flower Maidens do look as if they have been wafted straight out of a Burne-Jones painting. But perhaps Stein is making a deeper point here than his detractors allow. When an opera has been weirdly reconceptualised as often as Parsifal has, the only truly 'radical rethinking' left is to go back to what Wagner actually intended. And that can be disturbing, especially for Wagner fans.