Parsifal, Salzburg Easter Festival, Grosses Festspielhaus

Salzburg was shocked when the Berliner Philharmoniker decided to decamp. After 36 years as the Easter Festival’s resident orchestra, the Berliners bailed out abruptly in May 2011, giving Salzburg very little time to find a replacement from 2013. Baden-Baden had made a better offer. Managing director Peter Alward swiftly netted Christian Thielemann and Dresden’s Staatskapelle to fill the breach.

So it was the start of a new era last weekend at the Grosses Festspielhaus, though it did not really feel like one. Few Festival-goers have followed the Berliners to Germany, while Thielemann, erstwhile acolyte of Festival founder Herbert von Karajan, has attracted a new audience segment that blends seamlessly into the botox-and-scalpel crowd that has long since made Salzburg at Easter its own.

Thielemann astutely placed his orchestra in a semi-raised orchestra pit, and delivered a Parsifal which showed that the loss of the Berliner Philharmoniker need not mean a loss of musical quality for Salzburg. Though the Dresdeners lack the burly self-assurance and razor-edged clarity of their Berlin counterparts, they bring their own assets – including, significantly, the fact that they are an opera orchestra. They have the flexibility, the fleetness and the modesty to breathe with the singers, and to step back when necessary.

Thielemann makes the most of this. In this over-Wagnered year, his Parsifal is definitive. Every detail is superlatively controlled, sober and transparent. Every word of the text is clearly audible. It is neither intoxicating nor transcendent, but it is beautiful, and as close to perfection as humans can get.

Sadly, none of these things can be said about Michael Schulz’s stage direction. Sculptor Alexander Polzin has furnished him with three obscure sets (first act: vertical glass tubes, later smoke-filled; second act: Greek sculptures, some inverted; third act: an ice floe, with wolves) and hideous costumes (knights of the Grail in white boiler suits; Amfortas in floor-length blue frock; Parsifal in army-camouflage dinner jacket). The two explain in a programme note that, since there is no clear way to interpret Parsifal, they will not even attempt the feat. The result is a helpless hotch-potch of images in which singers, dancers and supernumeraries all look suitably lost.

The cast is uniformly solid, from Wolfgang Koch’s sonorous Amfortas and self-assured Klingsor (why both roles?) and Michaela Schuster’s flinty, impassioned Kundry to Stephen Milling’s untiring, articulate Gurnemanz. In the title role, Johan Botha sings with marvellously easy, silver-toned lyricism, but refuses to act. It is a problem that no number of supernumeraries can solve.

In the closing applause, Thielemann and his orchestra received enthusiastic cheers, while Schulz and his team were booed with a unanimity that was both frightening and gratifying.

Production will go on to Beijing, Madrid and Dresden,

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