Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Parsifal – Zurich, 2007 (Great Singing, Dull Staging)

It seems that in Zurich, it’s often feast or famine. It’s probably like this with other opera houses, too. Zurich (fortunately) makes a lot of its productions available on video (and I tend to look for them), so perhaps that’s why it's their productions in particular seem so uneven to me.

This Parsifal is strong musically, but like the Zurich Arabella production of the same season, it’s dramatically dull and visually cheap. Notes on back of the DVD call the setting “austere” and that’s being generous. It doesn’t look deliberately sparse; it looks like they had no budget for scenery or props. The most interesting aspect is the tables that emerge from the floor. The flower maidens carry some “magic” acrylic panels that just look silly. Seriously, I think a junior high drama department could come up with something better.

I was watching this to try to become more familiar with the music and story in preparation for the Met HD broadcast. I've seen the latest Bayreuth edition on the small screen, and of course the staging is much more intricate there, if not distracting. There is so much going on, and there are so many layers of meaning. But I have to say there is always something to watch there. This Zurich production barely has one layer of meaning, taking literal staging to its most stripped-down extreme. Even Wieland Wagner would probably find this one too minimal. This performance is actually better with the picture turned off.  

The visuals are especially disappointing, because the production is strong musically. Bernard Haitink leads a powerful, well-played, well-sung performance. Christopher Ventris and Yvonne Naef turn in striking performances as Parsiful and Kundry (pictured below). The standout singers are Michael Volle as Amfortas and Matti Salminen as Gurnemanz. The chorus and comprimari are up to their typically good standard.

I was looking for a clip to add to this brief (for me) review; it’s telling that I can't find anything from this production on YT. Apparently no one feels it's worth taking the time (and risking the copyright infringement) to post excerpts. I think it’s worth a listen for the singing if you can find it at the library, for rent, or really cheap used, but this definitely is not a Parsifal video for the ages. 

On the other hand, (he added later that day) Zurich has given us some gems: 
  • Mozart Cosi fan tutte (Bechtolf Hartelius as Fiordiligi...with a twist)
  • Strauss Ariadne auf Naxos (Guth - Ariadne auf Restaurant)
  • Puccini Tosca (Robert Carsen - A Diva playing a diva playing a diva)
  • Schubert Fierrabras (Guth - Exploring the composer's father issues)
  • Mozart Zauberflöte (Kušej - A wedding, a labyrinth, and Queen-in-a-fridge)
  • Monteverdi Il Ritorno d'Ulisse In Patria - (Hartelius, Kaufmann, Henschel;
    and Kasarova as Penelope...need I say more?)


  1. One can get away with a lot of copyright infringement with opera DVDs, I've discovered. Usually the owners of the copyright don't care, or they insert little ads at the bottom. Audio-only clips from CDs, however, are another matter.

    Are the colored panels supposed to be flowers? (I.e. it's Square Day at Zurich Opera? Brought to you, a la Sesame Street, by the letter M and the number 3 . . .)

    1. Yeah but watch it on concert broadcasts! Anyway, I am not sure what the panels are supposed to be. All I can think is, well, they SOUND nice, but I bet they feel stupid waving those panels around.

  2. That Ulisse now lengthens the list of the things I have to get.

    It's interesting that you wanted to get familiar with the music before the broadcast - I usually only go through the libretto.

    1. Well, not every opera. But Wagner--Parsifal in particular--can be so dense, it's nice to recognise a few of the leitmotivs (besides the Dresden Amen) going in.

  3. A short word about the wretchedness of staging in Europe and the omnipresence of stage directors whose talent is known only unto themselves. In both France and Germany, at any rate, patrons of the arts do not keep the opera houses running. The money comes from the state, whether the staging be a basketball representing the Eiffel Tower or a couple of bricks and a cement mixer for the island of Naxos. In France there is no school of opera and there is no school for would-be stage directors either. Very often the guy who shows up to stage this or that has not even read the libretto or does not know the story. Their "experience" may have been acquired in the cinema or in the theatre and most of them can not read one note of music, even if tortured! Consequently, the audience can be left flabbergasted by the idiocy of many productions, but nobody dares say anything, for fear of being called an ignoramus. When I started music, the names of these people were not even on the programme. How they sneaked in, to be able to play such a horrendous part in a prodction, is a mystery to me. Thank heaven they have the singers and their sense of drama to bail them out! They have the last word and I believe that they even get paid after the dress rehearsal! Intellectual bullying and snobbery I shall not stand for. It is an utter disgrace that a singer about to sign a contract should have no idea what sort of a scenic disaster he is letting him or herself in for. Ask a Frenchman what he thought of such and such a setting on the way out of the opera in the foyer and in all confusion and likelihood, he'll say: "Intéressant!" Then "outraged", he can cross the street and expound to the barman about the dreadful show he has just been to, as if it were all done on purpose so that the "outraged" can tell everyone else how it should be done and soothe their ego.


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