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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal (1882)
Christopher Ventris (tenor) - Parsifal; Waltraud Meier (soprano) - Kundry; Matti Salminen (bass) - Gurnemanz; Thomas Hampson (baritone) - Amfortas; Tom Fox (bass) - Klingsor; Bjarni Thor Kristinsson (bass) - Titurel
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Kent Nagano
Recorded live at the Festpielhaus Baden-Baden,  4, 6, 8 August 2004.
Includes film, Parsifal's Progress [75'18]
Stereo and surround sound
OPUS ARTE OA0915D [3 DVDs: 96:07 + 66:43 + 143:43]



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 cast.

Waltraud Meier, 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.

John Leeman

see also Reviews by Colin Clarke and Anne Ozorio





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