OPERA: Simon Rattle conducts Wagner's Parsifal, Netherlands Opera, Amsterdam

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The Independent Culture
Seen so soon after the jejune Covent Garden Ring, this revival of the Amsterdam Parsifal (production, Klaus Michael Gruber; designs, Gilles Aillaud) stands out for its mature poetic intelligence. Scarcely showy, it bears signs of a well-subsidised house - sophisticated technology, no cheese-paring, and occasional magnificent visual generosity: in Act 1, the Grail Sanctuary with its Last Supper table, a Leonardo extending all the way across the vast stage front, behind which sits a single row of knights with empty places left for the sick king (Wolfgang Schone, tragically powerful) and his henchman Gurnemanz (Robert Lloyd, noble voiced, rhythmically cavalier).

The triumph of Act 2 is the garden itself, a 3D transcription of Klee and Gaud, hung with androgynous fruit and flowers, among them a gently luminous yellow fish. The slow motion of Parsifal towards Kundry, then, after their kiss, their separation to positions so far apart that the eye cannot contain both, reaches complex ends from simplest means. Violeta Urmana was glorious: Poul Elming looks the part but hasn't in this large house the vocal size to yield the role's full demands.

In Act 3 the pastoral scene failed to evoke deep freeze and spring thaw. But the knights' second entry, each man concealed behind empty armour, made the most terrifying moment I've yet encountered in the theatre. Crowned, however, by the final resolution into timeless radiance, self-knowledge achieved, transcendence inaugurated.

Such excellence requires money. But money cannot guarantee a successful acoustic, whose absence was clear from the start. Wringing the sonorous glory of this score from such an untingling space would be superhuman. Sir Simon Rattle comes new to Parsifal after half a lifetime of orchestral experience learnt mainly from the luxurious textures and emotional turmoil of late romanticism and early modernism which evolved above all from Wagner's opus ultimum. He is specially equipped to read back into it what it gave birth to. In doing so, he reveals accidental affinity with the post-Boulez approach that aims to clean out the accumulated Germanic mud. Which, in effect, reduces the ceremonial and mystical aspects. In the outer acts, the depths below the earth and the radiance of the heavens were surprisingly withheld. Nor was this wholly the fault of the unresponsive acoustic, for, in Act 1, after a relatively lacklustre Transformation and Eucharist, the sound truly became, in Debussy's famous phrase, "illumined from behind" (though the distant choral melodies were sadly inaudible); and in Act 3 the unfolding warmth of the Good Friday sequence swept all before it. Yet, while overall momentum was often masterly, some stretches, and important individual moments, lay a little inert.

By contrast, the middle act was altogether sensually alive: Klingsor's glinting evil, the languorous then sparkling seductions of the girls, then Kundry's deeper insinuations, were intense and passionate; as the contretemps mounted to violent confrontation, Rattle's mixture of coherence and disintegration was the most convincing I've ever heard.

The work's human aspects, then, are realised by Rattle with extraordinary musical fullness, while the ritual aspects are relatively pale. Their fusion has to overcome our epoch's inhibition with the great bastions of Victorian Gothic, especially when charged with such a potent exploration of the darkest places of the human body and soul. To achieve this fusion will surely be the work (among much else) of half a lifetime - Rattle's second half. There is no conductor now active of whom one can be more certain that he will eventually get the All of Parsifal into the One.

To 21 Feb, Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam. Booking: 00 31 20 6 255 455

Robin Holloway