NSO’s Parsifal

featuring lots of people; more details below

Wagner’s music is great. Like, great in the same way that saying Mt. Everest is large.

I don’t know how the man could stand himself, though, really, or how anyone else could even bear to be in the same area code as the man. How could someone with such a vision, such grandness about his ideas even be tolerable in person? That’s another topic, though.

Parsifal was beautiful.

As I’ve lamented before, opera, true opera, is a rarity in Taiwan. We get, at best, one or two fully staged operas a year. This coming season is special, though, with an opening of a new concert hall down south (and coinciding with a certain American composer’s centennial). So last year, the NSO did a fantastic, fully staged, all three parts of Puccini’s Il TritticoThe year before that was a semi-staged (or “opera concert”) performance of Verdi’s Otello

And that’s what we got this year, too. For what I assume to be financial reasons, we did not see a fully staged opera in the National Theater this year, but instead got a performance (only two this year instead of three) of most of Wagner’s Parsifal. I say most of because… they omitted the first act, and while all the music for the evening, singers and all, sounded superb, that fact hung over the evening, at least for me.

As evidenced by the NSO’s one-a-year traversal of his Ring Cycle, it’s clear that Wagner is a consummate musical architect, with a remarkable sense of drama and construction and development; can a scene sometimes be long-winded? Absolutely? Does some stuff occasionally seem to drag on? Yup. But in the big scheme of things, it all falls the way the composer wished it to.

I know that were the NSO to perform the entire piece, we’d have probably begun closer to 5 pm instead of 7 pm (already earlier than the usual 19:30 start time), but I will say I would have had to do some more (mental) preparation if I were to be in my seat for a performance that long this evening.

The performance tonight excised the entire first act. They played the prelude to Act I and moved right on to Act II. I get this: it’s a long work, and they did a bit of dramatic text stuff to set up a bit of what Act I told us, except it was done in a few lines of text within sixty seconds instead of at least that many minutes. My biggest grievance about this is that I found it hard to suspend my disbelief, to be drawn into the story, as unfamiliar with it as I am, with the second act. Wagner, and any good dramatist, sets up a story to draw in the audience, not require them to do homework. That single complaint aside, the rest of it was fantastic, and once I got warmed up and into the story, it was excellent.

In previous ‘opera concert’ events, it was readily apparent that the acoustics in the concert hall are necessarily not like those in the theater or opera house, and this meant that some performers have been difficult to hear, if at times not almost altogether drowned out. This was not the case, this evening, though, and it appears not to have been because the orchestra held back at all.

We had Will Hartmann in the title role, the sublime Heike Wessels as Kundry, Michael Lion as Gurnemanz (most of the time; more on that later), and more. Wessels seemed as if she may not have even broken a sweat, at times reaching near-frightening volumes even over the ensemble, but always tasteful. It was appreciated in this setting.

The NSO sounded fantastic, and Maestro Lü seems always to love opera very much. Conducting is that much more impressive when you’re at the helm of an entire stage production, and one luxury we did have, for those interested, was to see the conductor work his magic, instead of just a baton or gesture peek above the pit here and there.

(It was announced that Michael Lion had taken ill but would still give his best effort at Gurnemanz, but he had support in the form of a fantastic voice, who, ventriloquist-style, sang the part from the far right of stage while Lion continued acting, although by that time, there wasn’t much more acting to do besides stand and gesture here and there. I think there were some people who didn’t even notice this was happening. Thankfully, as he should, the remote Gurnemanz got roars of applause during his curtain calls.)

I’ll admit my own error as well: I could certainly have been more familiar with the roles and the background, the story, etc., before going in, but I shouldn’t have to do homework. As it turns out, the quality of the singers and the sound of the orchestra made me wish that much more that we had a real staging of this opera, in the theater, complete with stage design and all the rest. It’s that much more immersive, and locally, it is to say the least a special occasion to have reason to be at the theater for a proper opera.

All petty criticisms aside, even without the first act, it was a wonderful performance. See y’all in October for Siegfried.

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