Review: Wagner’s Parsifal / Kungliga Operan

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Kungliga Operan, Stockholm, 1 April 2024

Richard Wagner: Parsifal

Christof Loy’s brilliant production of Wagner’s last opera Parsifal has returned to the Royal Opera House in Stockholm. Loy proves his understanding of the work and its dialogue with a carefully staged Parsifal, which premiered in 2013 on the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth.

Photo: Kungliga Operan/Sören Vilks

Peter Mattei returns as Amfortas, a role he sang at the MET, and once again exceeds high expectations. He is portrayed with a crown of thorns in a Christ-like figure, tormented by his wounds and shameful self-expression. He is nothing less than a world-class singer, and has been for decades. The sound and greatness of his voice is enhanced by the very intimate set, which brings the singers closer to the audience and allows for more dynamics. Mattei is a master of timbre and beauty in all his roles. His legato lines stretch out like a very elastic rubber band, growing in intensity and keeping the listener on a leash. The remarkable clarity of his diction throughout the range is a luxury for the ear, and his excellent acting never disturbs the singing, even in uncomfortable physical positions and twisted, tortured movements.

German bass Thorsten Grümbel sings the demanding role of Gurnemanz. His voice is perfect for the role – a truly beautiful bass voice, expressive and versatile, with all the nuances and dynamics you could want. The role has an astonishing amount of text, yet Grümbel’s performance is exceptionally exciting. It never gets boring; he is a tremendous actor, apart from (or should I say gracefully combined with) the excellent singing. His facial expressions, his glances, the careful little movements: it is obvious that he both trusts the director and manages to have the right tempo in his acting throughout the whole (and long) performance.

Miriam Treichl as Kundry – one of Wagner’s most enigmatic roles – brings out all the colours of her sensual and slender mezzo in a great performance. At a time when so much Wagner is shouted and sung with force and loudness, it is a pleasure to hear Kundry sung with such precision and care. Treichl’s excellent legato lines combined with the lyrical beauty of the text is her greatest achievement. Every syllable comes through without disturbing the phrasing, no easy task with a Wagnerian orchestra below. Apart from some uncertainty on the very highest notes (which are few), it is an excellent performance.

The most pleasant surprise of the evening is Joachim Bäckström in the title role. Having previously heard him as both Tamino and the Duke in Rigoletto, I was excited to hear him sing Wagner. Parsifal is not a difficult or heavy (or comparatively long) role for a Wagnerian tenor, but it can be a daunting task for a lyrical, lighter voice. I much prefer a younger, lighter tenor in this role to a larger, heroic tenor voice; Parsifal is young, inexperienced, unassuming, and that should be heard in the singing if you value credibility over sheer power. Bäckström is an excellent opera singer; he does not try to sing what he cannot. He uses his slender but powerful voice with great intelligence and dares to use a lot of piano singing, something this role requires more than one would think. His voice is free of forced vibrato in the loud passages, and the upper register has a very attractive brilliance that cuts through the orchestra with its overtones. In the long scene with Kundry in the second act, it is clear that he has more than enough vocal power and stamina for this kind of role.

Klingsor is portayed by the versatile in-house bass of John Erik Eleby. Dressed in a tuxedo with hat and cane, like the Penguin in Batman, Klingsor comes across as a sadistic villain. Eleby has enough black timbre for the opera’s villain and twists the evil words (“urteufelin, höllenrose….”) in a way that brings to mind Gustav Neidlinger or Zoltan Kelemen. Lennart Forsén as Titurel has neither enough high notes, low notes nor dignity to match the timbre of a king. His complete lack of phrasing is a mystery to me. The flower maidens and smaller roles are very carefully staged and sung lyrically and beautifully by mostly younger singers, which is attractive and true to the work in many ways.

Now it is time to mention the star of the show: Kungliga Hovkapellet under the superb direction of Alan Gilbert. The balance between transparency and full power, between shimmering pads and violent outbursts is so carefully executed, down to the smallest detail. Gilbert’s choice of tempi and where to support and help the singers with dynamics is nothing short of astonishing. Very, very small details in rallentando and rubato prove that care has been taken throughout the rehearsals. In the scene with the flower maidens in the second act, he lets the ensemble breathe between the rapid movements on stage and their vocal lines, and gently synchronises the orchestra with the vocal harmonies.

All in all, this production is on the artistic level where all the performances of this opera house should be.

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