Parsifal, Zurich Opera

Shirley Apthorp, Financial Times (27.06.2011)

Parsifal, 26.06.2011, Zürich

Titurel has two sons: Amfortas and Klingsor. His unequal love binds Amfortas to him and drives Klingsor away. A society in conflict yearns for a new leader. This is Europe between the wars, and we all know what happens next.

Claus Guth’s Parsifal, premiered in Zurich on Sunday with a new cast, first saw the light of day in Barcelona five months ago. In examining the myth’s origins and the history of the opera’s reception in Europe, Guth and his designer Christian Schmidt soon found a parallel between the continental passion for the piece in the 1920s and the awful course that the politics of the time would take.

We find ourselves in an increasingly dilapidated military sanatorium, the stately rooms of a once-grand mansion that revolve slowly, allowing us to follow the characters with cinematic intimacy. These Knights of the Holy Grail are bandaged and brutalised, each in a private hell, united by strange religious rituals.

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Klingsor has no special magic – only his rage, the stolen spear, and a group of party girls. Kundry, too, is only human. After her baptism, instead of dropping dead, she shakes her head, packs her suitcase, and leaves the men to self-destruct. When Titurel dies, Amfortas and Klingsor risk a tentative reunion. Parsifal, who has spent the past five hours working out his own place in this disturbed world, is installed by Gurnemanz as dictator.

With Thomas Hampson as a nobly suffering Amfortas, Matti Salminen as a Gurnemanz of gritty depth and frightening power, Yvonne Naef as a complex, passionate Kundry and Stuart Skelton on jaw-droppingly good form as Parsifal, this Zurich premiere had every reason to succeed. Guth has won his protagonists entirely for his cause, and all deliver performances of utter commitment.

More of a gamble is Daniele Gatti on the podium. He has little time for gossamer textures or hallucinogenic ecstasy. His Parsifal is crushingly, sometimes laboriously strong, emphasising the violence of this strange society. Only in the third act does he find time for tenderness, and allow the work’s emotions space to overwhelm.

And overwhelm they do. With singing this consistently good, any other outcome would be surprising. The small scale of the Zurich house, the refinement of the singing, the lyrical design and the precision of the handiwork all combine to make this Parsifal pack a punch. Guth’s construct leaves many questions open. But it makes an effective whole.