Parsifal at Wiener Staatsoper

Wagner Demystified, With a Human Face

VIENNA, Jan. 14 – Sir Simon Rattle, arguably the leading conductor in the world, had never conducted at the Vienna State Opera until Wednesday night, when he made his debut with a bang, and with Wagner’s five-hour “Parsifal.”
“Parsifal” is commonly labeled Wagner’s Christian opera. At the very least it is a tale about redemption, and many conductors limn it in hovering clouds of mysticism.
But Sir Simon gave it a human face. His reading was anchored at every moment in what was happening on stage, aiming not for transcendence but for human emotions expressed in human terms. He drew lyrical passages of pure singing out of the score, as if even the orchestra were speaking with a human voice.
Another major factor in this humanity was the Amfortas of Thomas Quasthoff, who first did the role here when the production opened last April. Mr. Quasthoff, one of the most gifted singers alive, was born with physical deformities caused by the drug Thalidomide: around four feet tall, with hands growing almost directly out of his shoulders and no knee joints, he long avoided the opera stage in favor of concerts and recitals.
Sir Simon helped persuade him to take the plunge into opera, starting with the small role of Don Fernando in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” at the Salzburg Easter Festival in 2003. Amfortas is only his second opera role. He was brave to try it, and right to do so.
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