Posts Tagged ‘Susan Maclean’

Parsifal, Bayreuth Festival, July 2012

31 July, 2012

The present extraordinary Bayreuth production by Stefan Herheim portrays Germany from before the First World War to the aftermath of the Second, with Parsifal representing the true spirit of the country, and Amfortas the one that lost itself in Nazi times.

Parsifal and Gurnemanz, all images Bayreuther Festspiele/ Enrico Nawrath

It all starts during the overture, with Parsifal’s mother Herzeleide close to death. Lying in bed, she reaches out to Parsifal as a boy, finally managing to embrace him before he runs outside with his toy bow and arrow. As the other four people in the room follow him with their gaze, the faith motive rings forth and Herzeleide dies. Later in the overture she returns to life holding a red rose, embraces her son and falls through the bed with him. The bed plays a central role, allowing transformations forwards and backwards through time.

Parsifal and Amfortas

As we move into Act I the boy has returned, and both Gurnemanz and Amfortas, desiring renewal and exoneration from suffering, look penetratingly towards him at significant moments. Amfortas once made the great error of falling prey to Klingsor’s magic, acquiring a wound that will not heal, and that fatal incident was seen in flash-back during the overture when Klingsor himself appeared on a drawbridge wielding his spear, while Amfortas embraces Kundry on the bed and they vanish into the depths.

This production plays with time. In Act I during that wonderful orchestral interlude where Gurnemanz and the youthful Parsifal travel together to the ceremony of the holy grail, we see Herzeleide give birth, with Kundry acting as midwife. The baby is ceremonially taken away by Gurnemanz, Herzeleide becomes transformed into Amfortas, and images of real World War I soldiers appear projected on the backdrop. Their counterparts enter the stage as chorus, swaying gently from side to side in an immensely powerful scene where the German Eagle appears in place of the swan that Parsifal shot. Thus ends Act I after nearly two hours of music and remarkable stage magic.

Kundry and Klingsor behind

Act II starts with wounded soldiers, and ends with Nazi banners, storm troopers, and the appearance of Klingsor on the balcony of Wagner’s Bayreuth house Wahnfried, a design used here as the set for much of the opera. Klingsor, dressed in blond wig, stockings and suspenders, lifts his spear, the lights go out, and Parsifal breaks the spell. In the meantime Kundry has appeared in a red dress, a white dress and finally clothed like Klingsor but with blue wings — a blue angel ready to seduce Parsifal. The Nazi era seduced many, but the spirit of Germany lives on, and in Act III while Gurnemanz stands in military uniform near the devastation of a flattened city, Parsifal returns. The ceremony of the grail is now transferred to the Bundesrat in Bonn, and a huge circular mirror tilted behind the set allows us to see everything from above. Titurel’s coffin is draped with the German flag, and as Parsifal performs the ceremony of the grail the mirror slowly tilts so that we begin to see ourselves, the audience, participating in this huge cleansing and renewal of the German spirit.

Final redemption

Burkhard Fritz sang a strong Parsifal, Susan Maclean likewise as Kundry, and Thomas Jesatko was a sinister Klingsor. Diógenes Randes came over well as the voice of Titurel, the chorus was excellent, and Detlef Roth was a sympathetic Amfortas, hugely powerful in Act I. Kwangchul Youn made a commandingly strong Gurnemanz, portraying the role with fine gravitas, and Philippe Jordan conducted with a sure hand. The whole performance came over with an air of magic, and it is only regrettable that this intriguing production leaves the repertoire at the end of the season.

This year was my second visit to the production — see also my review last year.

Performances continue until August 26 — for details click here.

Lohengrin, Bayreuth Festival, July 2012

29 July, 2012

This intriguing production by Hans Neuenfels, now in its third year, concentrates on the people rather than the distant historical setting in which Wagner sets his opera. The stage action starts already during the overture with Lohengrin in an antiseptically white room trying to get out, which he eventually achieves by simply walking backwards through the door. Like the Flying Dutchman, Lohengrin desires a redeeming human love, but being forced to reveal his true origins in Act III he must return from whence he came.

King and subjects, all images Bayreuther Festspiele/ Enrico Nawrath

Yet he is on a mission to the land of Brabant, and finds it in uproar. The king is weak, unable to walk a straight line without wobbling, and the people are rats — shy creatures unable to do much when faced with forces beyond their control. Ortrud and Telramund’s scheming to capture the crown is displayed in video imagery of rats, and after Lohengrin defeats Telramund, the dialogue between the schemers at the beginning of Act II is set in the context of an overturned coach signifying their crash, with rats coming out of nowhere to take whatever wealth they still possess.

Elsa wounded by the accusations

Elsa, victim of her own naivety, has become reliant on semi-divine intervention to exculpate her for the disappearance of her brother. She is blind to Ortrud’s clever sorcery, unaware that its diabolical power caused her brother to vanish. But Elsa’s great fault is to question her redeemer rather than her accuser, and when she finally compels him to reveal his origins, the lighting for In fernem Land was superb. Lohengrin was warmly lit in centre stage, while Elsa stood front stage-left in a very cold light. After this distressing scene heralding the end of their love, the boat that comes for Lohengrin carries an egg containing an embryo who stands and severs his own umbilical cord. Elsa’s brother has returned and a new era dawns, but Elsa is beyond help.

Ortrud and Elsa

Such are the essentials of this production, and Annette Dasch sang Elsa beautifully, her first entrance showing huge purity of tone, pitch, and presence. Both she and Lohengrin were the same singers as last year, and Klaus Florian Vogt gave an outstanding performance as the title character. Like Elsa he started with great vocal purity and lack of assertiveness, yet quickly took a bolder attitude when addressing the king. This year Wilhelm Schwinghammer sang the king, portraying him as a very weak character, and Samuel Youn made a very fine Herald, just like last year. Thomas J. Mayer and Susan Maclean as Telramund and Ortrud were very strong, both in characterisation and vocal power, but the main plaudits must go to Dasch and Vogt, who were cheered to the rafters, with particularly insistent stamping and cheering for Vogt.

Elsa and Lohengrin

Conducting by Andris Nelsons was super — the overture was terrific and the Act II dialogue between Elsa and Ortrud reached sublime musical heights. There was huge audience appreciation for everyone, except a smattering of boos for the director — but they do like to boo at Bayreuth. This is a clever production, very well revived, and the dramaturge, Henry Arnold has a particularly good essay in the programme, discussing Wagner’s intentions.

For an alternative perspective on this production, see my review from last year.

Performances continue until August 25 — for details click here.

Parsifal, Bayreuth Festival, July 2011

30 July, 2011

There’s a lovely moment in Act I of this opera when Gurnemanz takes Parsifal to the ceremony of the Grail. As they journey, Parsifal says he hardly steps yet swiftly moves apace, and Gurnemanz replies, my son, here time is one with space. As a space the Bayreuth stage is vast, and in Act I of this production by Stefan Herheim we fall forwards and backwards in time. This allows Herheim to do more than simply let Kundry tell us of Parsifal’s long-dead mother Herzeleide, but actually see her with her long reddish hair, rather like Parsifal’s, and strangely too like Amfortas. We even go back to the moment of Parsifal’s birth, on a bed that serves as a point of transformation between characters and different regions of time. It’s confusing but at the same time extremely powerful.

All images Bayreuther Festspiele/ Enrico Nawrath

The main set is Wagner’s Bayreuth house Wahnfried, with his grave in the foreground, and in Act II a bat flits across the stage, representing the spirit of Wagner’s wife Cosima. The imagery is enormous, but the production concept is simple. It’s the history of Germany from before the First World War until after the Second. Military strength and the need to cure its defeat in Act I, the sorcery of Klingsor — and by extension, Hitler — in Act II, and the desperate need for new leadership now that the old Germany, in the person of Titurel, is dead.

Titurel’s coffin at the end is draped in the German flag showing the German Eagle. On a shield above the stage the insignia of an eagle changes to a dove — it started as a swan, before going through various forms of the eagle, including the Nazi one. The production is on a vast scale, and I cannot possibly do justice to the multiple levels of Act I without a second viewing, but at the ceremony of the Grail we see video projections of cavalry, infantry, biplanes and submarines, and as the chorus sways I thought of the Kaiser and Fatherland. Then when Gurnemanz finally rejects Parsifal we see the young boy who appeared earlier in the Act, well before the swan shooting incident occurred.

Susan Maclean as Kundry in Act II

Parsifal’s killing of the swan in Act I was done from the balcony of the house, the same place Klingsor stood at the end of Act II as destruction reigned down, and his magic realm vanished forever. Earlier in that Act wounded soldiers from the Great War were hospitalised and cared for by nurses who, along with scantily dressed girls, become flower maidens, and get on top of the soldiers in their beds. Klingsor himself is dressed in white tie and tails, with stockings, and a blond woman’s wig. And for the seduction of Parsifal, Kundry is dressed like Marlene Dietrich, with blue wings, recalling the film Der blaue Engel, which first brought her to stardom. Later in the Act she reappears as Herzeleide. It’s powerful stuff and at this point a woman two rows in front was carried out.

Klingsor and Kundry

Gurnemanz, Kundry, Parsifal

During the prelude to Act III we see images of urban devastation, and I thought of my father-in-law’s remarks about the sight of Berlin when he came through in a train from Colditz in 1945. Despite the unusual production, Parsifal is dressed in armour when he reappears, and after Kundry washes his feet, she welcomes sorry-looking people who pass by, and gives them hope. They represent the population of post-war Germany, and the music speaks of redemption. Das ist … Karfreitagszauber, Herr! (Good Friday magic). The final scene is a debating chamber, cleverly seen from above as well as the front, using a vast circular mirror that later tilts to reflect the audience itself. Leadership is needed for a new Germany, and Parsifal supplies it, blessing and healing Amfortas as representative of the Germany that was so wounded by the populist magic of a sorcerer.

This brilliant vision by Stefan Herheim, with sets by Heike Scheele, costumes by Gesine Völlm and wonderful lighting by Ulrich Niepel deserves a fine musical rendering, and got it. Daniele Gatti conducted with wonderful light and shade, and the singing was uniformly excellent. Kwangchul Youn was a sensitive and powerful Gurnemanz, and Susan Maclean was a terrific Kundry showing multiple levels of mood and characterisation. Detlef Roth was a hugely sympathetic Amfortas, Thomas Jesatko gave a sinister, cabaret-like performance of Klingsor, and Simon O’Neill sang beautifully as Parsifal. The voice of Titurel by Diógenes Randes came over strongly, and the chorus was excellent.

Parsifal and Amfortas

Watching this production, I felt in some confusion in Act I, and at the start of the interval found myself thinking of the enormous power of Germany that has produced single-minded creators of great music and political ideology. I thought of Hitler in particular, which is slightly surprising as that aspect of Germany only appeared later in Act II. But the producer had done already started his magic, and by the end I was overwhelmed with admiration.