Having managed to go a whole month without reviews in July, where's Runnicles brings you another timely effort, in that it is only from December (only being relative). After the finer moments of Haitink's ring cycle (spoilt by a poor choice for Brunnhilde), I was most eager to hear this. Unfortunately it disappointed.
Haitink's conducting was workmanlike, in the worst way: there was no drama and up in the Gods it was much too quiet. He was also very slow: act one weighed in at over hour and forty-five minutes, and it felt it. Now, I like a slow Parsifal, my favourite recording is, after all, the 1951 Knappertsbusch, but there was none of the flow that and beauty that that compensates with, Haitink's climaxes did not feel organic. Indeed, his reading felt rather stop start.
I said in my review of the Runnicles Gotterdammerung at the Proms that I thought John Tomlinson's voice was past its best, I still feel that. However, in the role Gurnemanz this matters less than it did for Hagen and there is still a wonderful sense of character to his performance. Petra Lang's Kundry, another key reason for wanting to see the production, is very good as was Falk Struckmann's Amfortas, though to some extent he was hobbled (quite literally) by one of the many silly quirks of this production: a bizarre crutch with a wheeled crutch which he couldn't put any weight on as it would have slid out from under him. Similarly, Christopher Ventris as Parsifal has been dressed up to look as if he's come to repair the telephones. The offstage choir in the first act were far too faintly balanced, where is Runnicles with his genius for this sort of thing when you need him. And the less said about the revealing of the grail the better - what grail! It was left to our imaginations.
Haitink's conducting briefly caught fire at the start of act two. On the whole this was brisker but had soon returned to dullness. Willard White seemed a bit past it as Klingsor but Lang's Kundry and Ventris's Parsifal are very strong. But in Klingsor's castle the production goes from bad to worse. Damian Hirst on acid might be the closest explanation - why was there a giant fish hanging from the ceiling? Why were the flower maidens doing pilates? According to the programme "We are in a submerged castle, imaginable only in a world of poetic magic.". Hmmm. Whatever you say. I don't see what's wrong with a proper castle, or how are characters were meant to be able to breath. I don't mind a change of scene when it reveals something, here it was just silly. It gets worse as the lights flash to indicate Klingsor and Parsifal's battle and the spear being hurled, but this just appears comical, the more so as the tiny wall at the back of the set collapses to indicate the fall of Klingsor's realm. If you can't do something on a proper scale, it's often best to not do it at all. Set designers Gillles Aillaud and Vera Dobroschke-Lindenberg and original director Klaus Michael Gruber take note!
How could it be worse? In act three we find out, which the team, in their wisdome, have set on a golf course. In fairness, it is meant to represent the snow thawing patchily. But it doesn't look like that, it looks like a golf course and the snow patches look a little like sheepskin rugs. If the directors want to know how this is done, take a look at Hytner's Don Carlos. Similarly absurd looking is the tent that appears to have been patched with sheepskin. Then there is the blue stone that is slowly dragged off the stage like some weird cartoon character. The golf-course motif is continued when Parsifal plonks the spear down into one of the holes, yet for some reason Gurnemanz recognises it nor him. At the close the grail knights are all wheeled onto the stage as if their on rollerblades and the effect to represent the grail is as odd as it was in act one. "Oh yes." moaned one patron as the music finished. And, indeed, broadly the audience seemed to have loved Haitink.