Why attend a concert performance of an opera? What is the point without the action and the spectacle collectively resulting in, hopefully, the awe-inspiring whole? In answer to this I should like to suggest that concert performances of opera are the perfect opportunity to really ‘get under the skin’ of a work, for two principal reasons. Firstly: scenery, costumes, props, lighting effects, choking dry-ice and even pungent aromas used to aid the action are absent, and thus one may connect with the music and plot completely free of distractions. Secondly: why not just listen to a recording? Because being present at a concert performance is an opportunity to hear an opera in one sitting in this concentrated format, and denies us the temptations afforded by recordings to stop, rewind your favourite aria, fast-forward through the boring bits, go and make a cup of tea or check who's tweeted recently; you’re there for the duration and concentrate or fall asleep you must (I don’t advocate or recommend the latter). Furthermore, if like me you like to take scores to concerts, whilst following a Wagner opera note for note is a rather athletic feat for the ears, eyes and arms (those scores are heavy!), it is truly a joy to see the whole thing take life from the page and become sound.

Valery Gergiev © Decca / Marco Borggreve
Valery Gergiev
© Decca / Marco Borggreve

By the time Wagner finished writing Parsifal in 1882, his death was only months away and thus this mammoth opera, epic proportionally, ideologically, musically and dramatically, is truly his swansong, though unlike the ill-fated swan in Act One, Wagner’s work is an eternally invincible masterpiece.

The plot, unlike other Wagner operas, is relatively simple and ultimately is a representation in music and drama of the benefits of brotherhood, redemption, spirituality, faith, courage and humility, though the latter many might suggest was not one of Wagner’s strong points.

In this Good Friday performance Maestro Valery Gergiev led the Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersberg and a host of international soloists in a spiritually uplifting experience which was so compelling that the whole six-hour performance was over in the twinkle of an eye.

The orchestra, clearly trained rigorously, were extraordinarily disciplined. The strings, set out in a fashion alien to most British orchestras, (from left to right: first violins, cellos, violas, second violins, with double basses at the back of them), maintained a romantically lush tone without being slushy. Their colleagues in the wind and brass sections also excelled in Wagner’s huge score, particularly the trombone section whose round, full tone gave special dramatic depth. The famous orchestral sections known as the ‘Transformation’ scene and the ‘Good Friday’ music were exemplary.

The soloists achieved various grades of success and surprisingly Avgust Amonov’s Parsifal was easily the weakest interpretation, often lacklustre and much of it sang from (and to) the score; his stage presence also left much to be desired in our (allegedly) young hero. Similarly, Larisa Gogolevskaya’s Kundry and Yevgeny Nikitin’s Amfortas were occasionally overshadowed by the might of the orchestra, but their dramatic involvement was more convincing. Without a doubt, Nikolay Putilin’s Klingsor and Yury Vorobiev’s Gurnemanz were the stars of the show. Putilin’s icy stares and wicked demeanour lent the twisted Klingsor an air of real malevolence, whilst Vorobiev was the only soloist who made any effort to communicate his character’s wisdom with the audience, often singing directly at us with a voice so clear and focussed that other Wagner basses had better keep an eye on this fellow’s movements – his biography advises that he will sing Colline in La Bohème at the Royal Opera this spring, and this opportunity to hear him is strongly recommended.

Chorally, the sound was generally excellent and I am only sorry that they were not a larger corpus. Of singular exception were the six solo Flower-maidens (plus female chorus) of Act II, whose voices were far too heavy and lacking in innocence and purity – ten-foot wide vibratos distorted the youthful lyrical flow of Wagner’s sweetly melodic phrasing, and even the stoutest Parsifal might have been blown from the stage in a tornado of Valkyrie-like screeching. Regardless of overpowering youths, extra-special mention must be made for the ladies of the British chamber choir Ex Cathedra, whose off-stage input was ethereally blissful; truly, Wagner could not have asked for a greater or more precise contrast between the earthly main chorus and Ex Cathedra’s spiritual purity of sound.

Ultimately Gergiev’s impassioned reading of what is possibly Wagner’s finest score amounted to an unforgettable event that was to be revelled in, surrendered to and delighted in. Wagner is so often a joy if you simply allow him to take you for the ride – and that applies to the performers also. At the close of the performance the audience erupted into a well-deserved standing ovation.

****1