Parsifal - Semperoper, Dresden, 21 March 2008
It's hard to imagine any sort of modern production in the gilt-barnacled meringue of Dresden Semperoper, a temple to unfettered retro maximalism. Theo Adam's 1988 Parsifal, here revived for the 99th (whatevs...) time, and faithful pretty much to the letter of Wagner's original directions, seems entirely in keeping with its surroundings.
It's not bad looking considering its age, and there's DDR charm in the slightly crude and creaky set, with its Dr Who plastic rocks and its suspended tree trunks swinging like ribbons across the stage. The chainmail and nightie costumes complement Semper's neo-Renaissance decor - though Parsifal himself is updated with Grizzly Adams leathers, and Kundry gets a Liz Taylor caftan.
With a seasoned cast - no superstars, but better than you'd get on a typical night at Bayreuth these days - and a seasoned conductor, it promised much. The giveaway phrase I should have read more closely was 'Inszenierung - nach Theo Adam'. In other words, no director named. This became painfully obvious within the first few minutes, as I watched the usually estimable Kurt Rydl (Gurnemanz) pairing his frigid posturing with a few stock gesticulations. I'd even doubt if, well-drilled chorus aside, there were any rehearsals either. Anything other than just standing there and belting it out was an option only for the brave.
The nadir came with Klingsor's death, a scene potholed with traps for even the best-planned production. Parsifal is supposed to catch the spear Klingsor has thrown at him when it suddenly comes to a stop over his head. It's usually done with two spears, a lighting trick, and a little sleight of hand. Given the general fidelity of this production to time-worn tradition, I expect that was the intent here, too.
Instead, while Egils Silins (Klingsor) was singing his way up, spear in hand, to the big moment, a second spear suddenly rose up vertically from a trap in front of an alarmed-looking Klaus Florian Vogt (Parsifal), a few feet away. First he shuffled across a bit to conceal it. Then he picked it up and held it aloft. This is still a good few seconds before he's supposed to catch Klingsor's spear. I'm guessing the lights should have done something here, a bit of flashing maybe? So now they were both armed with twin spears. Silins, fully spotlit, now let his spear drop as nonchalantly as possible behind him, as if he was dumping a cig butt in front of a no-litter sign. What a mess.
There was a half-heartedness in the performances, too. Only Katarina Dalayman (Kundry) really gave her all consistently. She was forceful and assured, making up in power and stamina what she lacked in subtlety. But the lack of complexity in her interpretation was ultimately disengaging.
As Gurnemanz, Kurt Rydl's stage-filling presence wasn't quite enough to compensate for the lack of direction and pedestrian accompaniment. He tried hard, but the long narrative passages dragged forever, and he sounded tired and desiccated at the top.
Klaus Florian Vogt's Parsifal was solid, but no more. There were a few focussed and even beautiful moments, but he seemed to be taking it line by line, and failed to bowl me over as he has done on previous occasions. I think anyone who hadn't heard him before would be impressed (he certainly got a big hand at the end). But, based on previous performances, I now (OK, unreasonably) expect him to redefine every role he performs, and that just wasn't the case tonight.
Franz Grundheber's Amfortas wasn't quite imposing enough, but there was a tragic dignity in his world-weary tone and intelligent reading of the lines.
Peter Schneider drew a dull performance from the orchestra, with some scrappy playing here and there. To his credit, he avoided disaster in the trickiest sections (perhaps the only parts fully rehearsed....?), and the singers were handled sensitively, but there was never any sense of unity or structure to his interpretation.
At least the offstage performances were exceptionally well-coordinated, and the choirs singing from the balconies sounded several times more competent than their Paris counterparts did a couple of weeks ago. If only the rest of the performance could have been pulled together to that sort of standard.
The only entirely satisfying experience of the evening came in the interval at the basement bar, where I enjoyed their fabulous open sandwiches, a mountain of dill-sprinkled smoked salmon heaped on the merest gesture of bread - and only 3.50€.