On first impressions
this outstanding opera DVD is not likely to appeal to those
who like their Parsifal rich in Christian imagery and
ritual, complete with chalice brightly illuminated with heavenly
light. Nor may it appeal to those who prefer the music slow.
If you belong to either of these categories - or both - then
you are more likely to respond to the Deutsche Grammophon DVD
of James Levine’s star-studded 1992 performance, a typically
safe Metropolitan Opera affair.
But this well–honed
German rendering of an English National Opera production deserves
to be given a chance. Persevere and rich rewards are to be had,
not only musically and dramatically, but also in terms of the
interpretation of this profound and, for many, impenetrable
work of art.
I saw this production
(with completely different cast and players) in London at its
launch a few years ago and was disconcerted. The curtain rises
on a depressingly grey scene. When the squires and knights appear
they are swathed, head to foot, in thick, grey material, looking
as if they are preparing for an Arctic seal hunt. After watching
this superbly performed DVD version I am fully converted to
director Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s take. Whatever you see on the stage
in terms of sets, costumes and action is bound to have some
serious intent behind it and will be in accord with Lehnhoff’s
interpretation. The greyness, for example, conveys the sterility
of an institution – the grail knights – that has died but carries
on grinding through its old rituals without anything changing.
I suspect Lehnhoff believes that this is also a metaphor for
institutionalised Christianity and that he thinks Wagner thought
so too. I agree with that. It would be a legacy from the composer’s
anarchic days, his instinctive distaste for institutions, and
his reading of Ludwig Feuerbach, particularly the influential
The Essence of Christianity. However, we may never
know for sure because Wagner was never likely to let on publicly.
He would have upset too many people, some of importance to him
such as King Ludwig of Bavaria.
Back to the greyness.
It allows any appearance of colour to have considerable impact
and so it does with the arrival of two outsiders, Parsifal and
Kundry, both of whom are clothed in costumes of warm, rusty
hue. In the more colourful second act, Kundry’s costumes acquire
even greater symbolic import. They are shed one by one, chrysalis
fashion, by this most complex of all Wagner’s characters. It
is just as well because this is a hot summer’s night in Baden-Baden
and Waltraud Meier as Kundry still ends up seriously soaked
in perspiration. It does help though to lend an earthiness to
her attempts to seduce Parsifal. The scene, perhaps the longest
duo in all opera during which Parsifal resists the temptress,
is the pivotal point in the drama. Many a production will hang
on a successfully powerful enactment. This brings me to the
something of an Aryan Goddess to her fans in Germany, is one
of the great Kundrys of the last generation. In the 1992 Levine
DVD she partnered the leading Parsifal of his time, Siegfried
Jerusalem. You would think that an unbeatable partnership,
but Meier has matured as an actress since then and in this,
her latest performance, she is partnered by Englishman Christopher
Ventris who is easily the least known of the main cast members.
It is inspired casting. He may not have quite the voice and
experience of Jerusalem in his prime but he acts better and
looks the part. He has youth on his side and combines a macho
physique with the air of innocence required of the role. The
two singers have to act characters who, in Wagner’s words in
a letter to King Ludwig, represent “two worlds locked in a struggle
for final redemption”. Their rendering of the scene scores
even more points for me than the fine Meier/Jerusalem performance
for Levine, and the effect is aided by Kent Nagano’s tighter
direction from the pit.
There is no weak
link in the rest of the cast. Matti Salminen is a much admired
and hugely experienced Gurnemanz (he also appeared in the Levine).
Tom Fox, albeit made up to look like an oriental Mephistopheles
in a way that borders on caricature, makes for a convincingly
malevolent Klingsor. Thomas Hampson’s Amfortas was a revelation
to me, and he is superior to Bernd Weikl in Levine’s production,
particularly from dramatic point of view. Not only does he
convey acute suffering but also terror; the fear that there
is no escape from his fate. At the same time he subtly manages
to evince the occasional glimmer of hope. His palpable fear
enhances Parsifal’s role as the agent, through denial and compassion,
of Amfortas’s eventual release.
Above all, what
enables this as a great operatic experience is absolute commitment
and teamwork from all involved. Nikolaus Lehnhoff returned,
with his original choreographer, Denni Sayers, to oversee this
production and he clearly has all the singers on side. Perhaps
the key relationship is the one between conductor and director
and it is in that essential department where many an international
opera performance stalls. I have just read an interview with
director Sir Peter Hall in the context of his latest Glyndebourne
production. He tells of “nightmare” scenarios where he has just
not been able to get the conductor on side with his vision.
In this potential battleground area the relationship between
Nagano and Lehnhoff is clearly one of mutual respect and understanding.
We know this from the “bonus” documentary on the DVD in which
the cast talk intelligently about their roles in Lehnhoff’s
terms, and conductor Kent Nagano makes known his pleasure and
stimulation at working with a director who is not only clear
about what he wants to do interpretively, but understands the
music and its role in delineating the characters. It is almost
worth owning this DVD just to hear Lehnhoff talking about Parsifal.
It is also a considerable aid in understanding some of
the symbolic stagecraft. First time round, I confess to not
knowing what to make of a rock-like thing at the back of the
stage in the first act. I now know it is an asteroid that came
from beyond to shatter the knights’ world. When Gurnemanz starts
to march Parsifal off to the temple of the grail and makes a
cryptic reference to time and space, the asteroid miraculously
starts to take off and spin above them. It was the one point
where I thought Lehnhoff’s approach to symbolism might be getting
the better of him. It is, though, undeniably visually dramatic.
The camera work
is finely judged, involving us intimately in this weird world
in a way that soon makes us forget this is a live performance.
As for the musical
direction, I was completely won over by Kent Nagano’s handling
of this wondrous score with Berlin’s Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester.
There are some glowing textures that are well caught by the
sound engineers - you can hear them in full surround sound if
you have the kit - and Nagano keeps things moving in support
of the developing drama. To get tempi into perspective, Nagano
plays the prelude not far off 20% faster than James Levine.
That does not mean it sounds fast, only that Levine is slow,
indulgently so in my opinion and this approach does not stop
at the prelude.
So if you are in
one of the categories that I mentioned at the outset, or are
ambivalent about whether to purchase this DVD, all I can say
is, give it a go. For what it is worth, I think it one of the
finest all–round operatic productions I have seen, either on
film or in the opera house.
see also Reviews
by Colin Clarke and Anne
April RECORDING OF THE MONTH