Opera: The cup runneth dry

PARSIFAL ROYAL ALBERT HALL LONDON

IT WAS a little like being in church. A subdued, post-Proms Albert Hall, the faithful gathering with their battered vocal scores and Bayreuth banter to hear what Russia's premiere opera company - the Kirov - might make of the Holy Grail of Western music: Parsifal. Even the title evokes a kind of hush (say it soft and it's almost like praying). There was once a great tradition of Wagner in Russia. Once. There will be so again, if Valery Gergiev has his way. And he will. But Gergiev is not much interested in tradition that doesn't shape the future, and in that he has a lot in common with Wagner, the great operatic reformer.

But we were in church, remember, not in the theatre, and right from the outset, as the motif of the sacrament, gently supported by a heavenly host of hovering arpeggios, wafted its way in to Albert Hall dome, it was plain that the intimacy of Wagner's drama would very likely go that way too, subsumed into the ceremonial wash of hall and acoustic. How would the text fare? Production photographs in the Kirov programme book suggested "Son of Boris" and there were times when the German became strange enough to have you anticipating a coronation scene.

But that in itself might not have been so much of a problem had Gergiev not exacerbated the hall's acoustical treachery and physical size by placing his principals way behind the orchestra and on opposite sides of the platform, so that Gurnemanz and his squires, to say nothing of Parsifal and his Flower Maidens, were almost a bus ride away from each other. Even a fine voice like that of Gennady Bezzubenkov (Gurnemanz) dissipated into a kind of benevolent warble, the words of his lengthy narrations woolly enough to make their sense, let alone their storytelling, hard to follow.

The bigger voices of Larissa Gogolevskaya's Kundry and Vladimir Vaneev's towering Klingsor fared better, but this was essentially the "Parsifal Symphony" with obbligato voices. Gergiev's focus rarely shifted from his score and his orchestra to the singers' hinterland beyond. Even as his Parsifal (Victor Lutsiuk) came apart during the evening, concern and/or encouragement was not discernable from the podium.

Lutsiuk had sounded fresh and promising in Act 1, but drop-outs in the middle of the voice (an inability to sustain even the simplest phrase) are the symptom of poor support. He needs attention. And so does Fyodor Mozhaev (Amfortas). He was spent by Act 3. What does this tell us about the Kirov's workload?

Yet the "Parsifal Symphony" was impressive. Gergiev has an instinctive feeling for the pulse of every score put before him. He and his wonderful orchestra are magicians, masters of every style. This Parsifal took as long as it took. But it was rich in orchestral atmosphere. The dark-hued intensity of the string playing - never more thrilling than with the return of Parsifal in Act 3; or at the burgeoning of the new dawn for mankind later in that scene (heavenly oboe playing, too). These were transporting moments. And when the Albert Hall was a temple, the effect of far-flung voices and brass was everything and more that that other magician, Richard Wagner, will have imagined.

Yet Parsifal is neither symphony nor ceremony but music drama, and until Gergiev and his company have really digested it, performances like this one will leave you wondering why, having consumed the banquet, you still feel so empty.

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