Tuesday, June 30, 2009


It had been a long time coming and took a small diversion from our main travel axis, but seduced by a thrilling Ring Cycle last year, and besotted with Adam Fischer and his orchestra, we went back to Budapest for a first live Parsifal. Not that Budapest doesn't have other attractions.

The Palace of Arts (there is a click-for-English top right) is now 4 years old. It was built down the river on an old industrial site, is a bit more photogenic inside than out, but the major hall is an acoustic wonder with a timber internal fitout, movable side panels, and timber acoustic deflectors over the concert platform. The sound is the most immediate I have ever heard. There they hold an annual Wagner Summer Festival in June. The driving force and muscial director is Adam Fischer, brother of Ivan, whose Mahler 2 (depsite a tweeter wrecking variance in dynamics) and Mahler 4 (just out) are must haves. In fact, it was the Ivan Mahler 2 that set me on the Fischer trail, though I had been to Budapest before.

Now people have said Parsifal is a conversion experience, an epiphany, a revelation, and so it goes. Maybe it is, and maybe also Simon Rattle is right, it is the journey not the destination, and he should know. My Parsifal journey began years ago in Intensive Care after a bike racing accident listening to Levine's Norman/Domingo Parsifal while on morphine. It stayed a bit blurry for quite some time and then continued intermittently, usually put aside for something more pressing to dive into. And the years have moved on, now a few DVD's later the Nagano one is pretty well imprinted, with the highest benchmarks from Matti Salminen, Christopher Ventris and Waltraud Meier, all glory to her, is there any other who understands this timeless creature more than she.

Whatever conspired to keep the Budapest Parsifal below the metaphysical I'm still thinking about. It may well have been simply overexpectaton, but I think most of all it was because this was a performance about getting the notes right, not letting what is between the notes come through, and if there's anything that needs the latter it is surely Parsifal. The orchestra played well for Adam Fischer, though not as confidently, perhaps not as familar, as in the Ring. He is lovely to watch, a good half a chest in full view, and is extremely attentive and responsive to his players.

The choral work pleased me most. I'm a sucker for big choirs, and this being semistaged, without directorial resctrictions, they mustered a choir at a rough count of 130 (30 were children) for the great Act 1 chorus, standing the full height of the hall over 3 levels. The sheer scale of it was impressive enough, but they were tight, beautiful dynamics, and the sopranos especially, infused with the children's voice, were particularly other-worldly.

Judit Nemet's Kundry was big voiced with a luxurious middle and a fine shriek. Not one to take no or be woken up reluctantly. Nikolai Schukoff was a Parsifal of the lean dark handsome show-off-your-chest variety, his voice strangely cold, all the notes there, but something missing for this first timer. I see he is singing Janacek next, and that I would like to hear.

Erik Halfvarson as Gurnemanz stole the show, not the depth of voice of many lifetimes of Matti Salminen, who has, but he was more than wise enough, and took final curtain calls, as the star. The crowd loved him, as they did the Amfortas of Kovats Kolos, who I found pushed and more stretched and strained than wounded.

The (6) flower maidens (f-me-shoes and satin gloves) sang as well as they looked and were really well choreographed, the women's chorus behind. This was the only scene in which I was totally engaged, and arguably one of the hardest to pull off.

Main cast curtain calls with flower maiden picking up white dove released at final moment

We had tickets to the second performance two days later, which a (very happy) opera fan behind the hotel desk took, as we slipped out of town to Paris, a few days early, a matter of Pride. This was not because of the performance, but had already been arranged, reluctantly initially, but then it was Paris Pride, in Paris of course, and more exploring ... to find this:

Looking back onto Montmartre, from the belevedere in Parc des Buttes Chaumont

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