11 JANUARY 1992, Page 31


Parsifal (La Scala, Milan)

Enchanted evening

Rupert Christiansen

You might think that finding tickets for the opening night of La Scala's season would be problem enough in itself; but the real challenge, it emerges, is that of physi- cally propelling yourself through the opera house's front doors at the appointed hour. Outside in the piazza, extravagant numbers of police make futile attempts to har- monise the conflicting interests of paparazzi, fur-coat freaks (both pro and anti), knaves, cutpurses and hordes of star- spotters, all in a state of hysterical anticipa- tion. Between them and the royalty, the chains of officialdom, the ancient divas and guard of honour, an innocent ticket-holder has no hope of making a dignified entrance. Pushing is a word which acquires new significance in such circumstances: ruthless, mindless, heartless pushing; an ecstasy of pushing, democratically elbowing its way past the claims of the King of Swe- den, Renata Tebaldi and the local Baron Scarpia. Through all this anarchy, the city band tootles cheerfully through Verdi's Greatest Hits, ironically oblivious of the madness it is serenading.

If you ever get inside, the spectacle is ravishing. The auditorium — heavily restored after wartime bombing and not Inherently one of Italy's most beautiful — is garlanded with winter laurel and white flowers. Along six layers of boxes stands the audience, looking strangely like rows of paperbacks lining a bookcase. Everyone's couturier and perruquier has done some- thing tremendous, and everyone wants everyone else to know about it. The lights fade before there is a chance of settling the parade and another five minutes of whis- pering, shoving and waving follows. The excitement is heady and contagious.

It seems impossible that a six-hour per- formance of Wagner's Parsifal, slowest and most hushed of operas, could be sustained in such an atmosphere — perhaps 55 barn- storming minutes of Cavalleria Rusticana would be more to the point. But this is to underestimate the intense underlying seri-

ousness of La Scala, an institution that is the focus of Milan's prestige and identity. The home of Otello and Falstaff, Pasta and Callas, Toscanini and de Sabina, it has an honour that must be justified each time the curtain rises, and the Milanese are not frivolous or sentimental when they come to defend its magical reputation: anyone on that stage has their head on a bloodied exe- cution block, and mere good intentions will not be enough to save you from the chop.

So it is a great tribute to La Scala's musi- cal director Riccardo Muti that he flung down this German gauntlet and redeemed it in triumph. I am sure that I am not the only member of the audience who will never forget the glory of this Parsifal, which from the first stomach-churning phrase of the Prelude worked its spell, as sublimely intoxicating as opium or some deliciously forbidden sexual perversion: bravo Wagner, bravo tutti, they shouted before the begin- ning of the third act. Hear, hear, I mut- tered to myself, hear, jolly hear.

Muti's conducting was cool and lucid, wonderfully confident of itself. Occasional- ly, as in the Flower Maidens scene, one wanted a shade more sensuousness, even a touch of wit, but elsewhere the purity and clarity of tone and colour spread radiant light over a score which can .seem Stygian in its density. The second act rose to a thrilling climax; the third just melted into eternity. Cesare Lievi's production was a perfect match. Austere, intelligent, scrupu- lously prepared, faithful to Wagner's stage directions, it had nothing pretentious or egocentric about it, yet managed all the transformations of scene and the difficult fairy-tale elements (the dead swan and Klingsor's spear, for instance) with some- thing more than tact. The music was allowed to communicate on its own terms, and the singers allowed to give of their best how refreshing to find a production which doesn't seem fundamentally out to bully an opera into meaning what the pro- ducer wants it to mean. • The cast was superb. Domingo has done nothing nobler than this Parsifal, and I hope that as he enters • the last decade of his career he will forsake the operatic flesh- pots and devote himself with ascetic fer- vour to the Wagnerian repertory, which is desperately in need of tenors with his rock- solid technique and instinctive legato. Robert Lloyd .makes a real character out of dismal old Gurnemanz, and Wolfgang Brendel, a baritone whom in London I found a bit c)f a stick, was an electrifying Amfortas. For Waltrud Meier's Kundty I can find no adequate superlatives. She is 'absolute mistress of this extraordinary role, and her silent, chastened presence in the third act was as moving as her desperate seductiveness in the second. The voice was vibrant,.and thrilling and the text is etched with a sharpness which makes her rivals — if she has any — sound mealy-mouthed. That she looks breathtakingly gorgeous too seems almost unfair. Covent Garden must get her back as soon as possible, at any price.

The entire performance held La Scala rapt, until delirious curtain calls crowned the evening at midnight. The nobs all trooped off to some fabulous dinner and reception as the rest of us reeled out into the freezing fog in the piazza, where a crowd waited to hear our verdict on La Scala's honour. Un trionfo, I should have said, but couldn't, dumbstruck by the addict's realisation that the only thing I wanted was the whole experience, from first push to last shove, all over again.