By Arthur Kaptainis
JOLIETTE, Quebec – Few opera lovers would nominate Parsifal – long, solemn, enigmatic, and amply stocked with monologues – as a leading candidate for concert presentation. This did not stop the Lanaudière Festival from attracting what appeared to be more than 4,000 listeners to the Fernand Lindsay Amphitheatre outside Montreal on Aug. 6 for an outdoor performance that lasted almost five and a half hours (including a spoken introduction and intermissions). Nor did it prevent Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conducting this score for the first time, from adding another trophy to his already crowded cabinet.
It should be stressed straightaway that the future Metropolitan Opera music director was leading the Orchestre Métropolitain, the “second orchestra” of Montreal (more about those quotation marks later) that gave him his break in 2000 and of which – Philadelphia and Rotterdam notwithstanding – he has remained the staunchly loyal artistic director and principal conductor. Nézet-Séguin’s relationship with the OM is not altogether one-sided, as he often gives his first performances of substantial works with these players, whom he clearly trusts (and rehearses in his native tongue). In the summer of 2013 he conducted Lohengrin in concert in Lanaudière with the OM – his first performance of any Wagnerian opera – before involving himself with a staging. Met-watchers will not need to be reminded that YNS is in charge of a run of Parsifal in the big house in February in a production directed by fellow French Canadian François Girard.
My impulse after the glorious conclusion of the Lanaudière Parsifal was not to predict a great success in New York but to wonder how a staged performance could significantly raise the ante. This was wonderfully committed playing that made the most of Wagner’s storytelling power while doing full justice to the beauty of the orchestration. Voices were justly balanced, and the confusion so often engendered by contemporary direction was absent. Yes, it was necessary in the outer acts to edit in some lacunas, but given the narrative nature of Wagner’s art, the takeaway impression was not of doing without so much as marveling at how much of the Parsifal story can be made clear with heartfelt singing and gestures as simple as lifting an arm in supplication or holding a clenched fist earnestly to one’s chest.
The cast was international. Like most Parsifals, the German tenor Christian Elsner produced an adult rather than youthful tone, but his expression was always apt and his facial acting vividly conveyed the innocent hero’s path of spiritual discovery. Musically refined and tonally firm, Japanese mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura seemed a restrained Kundry in Act I but opened up in the more overtly dramatic act that follows. Tension was palpable during her anti-love duet with Parsifal because we could relate strongly to the priorities of both characters.
Israeli baritone Boaz Daniel was a crisp and vivid Klingsor. (It was interesting to observe how an open collar, in concert, can function as a subtle marker of infamy.) Brett Polegato had a great success in his role debut as Amfortas. The remorse and anguish of the king could be heard in his plangent voice and seen in his pained expression. Another Canadian, bass-baritone Thomas Goerz, offered an impressive walk-on as Titurel, father of Amfortas, who is apparently not as frail as all that.
In many ways the binding agent of any Parsifal is Gurnemanz, the veteran knight who furnishes boatloads of backstory and offers no small impetus to the moral progress of the title character. British bass Peter Rose found variety in the music for this fatherly figure without compromising his status as the one knight on whom we can truly rely. In short, he was not a bore. Knights and Flower Maidens (who went unidentified in the printed program) were equal to their tasks and a credit to the depth of the Orchestre Métropolitain Chorus (as prepared by François Ouimet and Pierre Tourville).
Principals were in good voice and integration with the orchestra was pinpoint. This was due in part to Nézet-Séguin’s insistence on standing in front of the cast rather than lining them up at the apron, the more visually dramatic option. There was a price to pay sometimes as the compact but famously active conductor obscured the view of a singer or two. But giant screens on each side of the stage were there to make amends, along with projected titles in French and English. I often feel honor-bound to keep my eyes on the stage in such circumstances and ignore the screens, which of course are a significant aid to patrons on the lawn beyond the reserved seats underneath the roof. At any rate, as a voice professor of my acquaintance observed, it could be taken as a luxury to have access to expressive HD closeups along with natural (if lightly enhanced) sound.
And what sounds there were. It would be hard to assemble even a highlight roll of echt-Wagnerian moments, but the expert balance of warm strings and glowing lower brass seemed at the core of the achievement. Cellos spoke eloquently from the middle of the stage, YNS being by nature a splitter of first and second violins, even if he respects the traditional configuration in Philadelphia. Detail made the drama vivid, as did the conductor’s tensile sense of how every measure leads to the next. It is not easy to categorize Nézet-Séguin simplistically as a “slow” or “fast” Wagner conductor. The secret to his international success in all kinds of music might well be his unerring instinct for the golden mean.
As for the excellence of the orchestra, perhaps we should not be surprised, since the OM serves as the main pit band for the Opéra de Montréal and is unusually experienced in theatrical music-making. Yet Parsifal represents a special order of achievement. (This was, indeed, the first performance of Parsifal in Quebec since 1954.) While it is still common to view the OM as the honorable No. 2 in a city made familiar to music lovers in the 20th century by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Charles Dutoit, this convention will need to be considered more critically if playing of this caliber prevails in scores of unusual difficulty. The YNS/OM performance in March of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony is certain to be on many 2017 local best-of lists. Note also that Nézet-Séguin is taking the OM on a European tour in November and December.
Not that Kent Nagano, who will let his MSO contract expire in 2020, is going away just yet. His abridged public performance of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is likely to draw five figures to Montreal’s Olympic Park on Aug. 10. His indoor operatic exploits with the MSO have included concert performances of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Tannhäuser, Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise, Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, and the offbeat Honegger-Ibert collaboration L’Aiglon. Whether all this activity makes Montreal the opera-in-concert capital of the world might be open to debate. But the city is surely one of the contenders.
Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.