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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.
16:9 Anamorphic. Stereo. All regions
Subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian.
Includes the film, 'Parsifal's Progress' by Rainer E. Moritz [75'18]. DDD
OPUS ARTE OA0915D [3 DVDs: 317'00]

 


This is a fascinating interpretation of the Parsifal legend. Nikolaus Lehnhoff's production may be known to English readers from ENO. In Lehnhoff's eyes, 'Wagner's music mercilessly tells of total loneliness, of living in an empty world stripped of all its former meaning'. The Knights of the Holy Grail 'have over time lost sight of their roots'; most tellingly perhaps, Lehnhoff tells us that, 'Parsifal is an endgame in the wasteland'. Gurnemanz symbolises all that is old, believing in the strength of the rituals that used to work but now are spiritually empty.

Interestingly, in Religion and Art, Wagner himself says that, 'One might say that where religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for art to save the spirit of religion by recognising the figurative value of the mythical symbol ... But religion has sunk into an artificial life when she finds herself compelled to keep on adding to the edifice of her dogmatic symbols, and thus conceals the one divinely true in her.' So music, then, is to be religion's saviour, to realign it with the spirituality it has lost.

The world of this Parsifal's Act 1 is barren. A rising stage - at the time when I saw this at the Coliseum I just thought it was part of that house's then penchant for all things sloping - and a piece of rock that juts out from the wall: a meteor, possibly, part of the ongoing destruction of the physical as a mirror for the spiritual decline? To set the scene (and so much more), the Prelude needs a real sense of the mystical; great things are, after all, afoot. Nagano however leads a nicely together rendition, with nicely balanced brass. Yet is it clear that we are entering a holy land of the ideas, a land where faith is nevertheless in crisis? Listen to Goodall's recording and the answer is self-evident.

Gurnemanz is Matti Salminen, dressed in sack-cloth. With his squires placed in the form of a triangle (representing the Trinity, presumably) he greets the day,. This Gurnemanz is a man of true faith, and Salminen reiterated this by vocal inflection; the way he emphasises the second statement of the word 'eines' at 'Es hilft nur eines, nur eines'. A Redeemer is called for, yet it is Kundry who enters. She is dressed, in this production, as a human bird; she does, figuratively, fly in at speed. Yet do I not remember seeing - I do not have the score to hand - an instruction that she should be clad in snake-skin?. Certainly it would make sense to make a link between shedding skins as she has shed lives; more of that in Act 2 of course. Musically Meier gives a rather lyrical reading of some vital lines. Her 'Sind die Tiere hier nicht heilig?' is defensive rather than attacking, for example.

Salminen's long narratives are expressively delivered and with real structural awareness – thus his 'O wondervolle, heilige Speer' has real cumulative impact. His diction is well-nigh faultless.

Amfortas is Thomas Hampson, acting, correctly, as if unbelievably weak, yet his 'Durch Mittleid wissend' is simultaneously full of hope. Again, his robes are plain - the crown presumably came from Oxfam.

Christopher Ventris enters every inch the boyish fool, painted as a warrior on his face. He cannot see that he has done wrong in killing the swan, and yet he is about to embark on his journey of self-realisation. To him initially it is just another animal, yet to the knights the swan is holy, just as the dove is - at Jesus' baptism the Spirit of Christ descended in the form of a dove. Birds are thus a direct representation of high spirituality hence Messiaen's fondness for our feathered friends. Parsifal is, if you like, starting with a blank sheet, and boy can Vetris's face imply this.

The Transformation Music is visually manifested by shafts of light around the stage. Parsifal and Gurnemanz remain stationary, swaying in one place as if walking. The rock in the wall rotates too.

For the 'service' Parsifal watches from the side-lines. Not only does this imply his lack of understanding, it also physically breaks the symmetry of the rite in progress, a lovely way of expressing the processes at work here. Parsifal wanders around curiously as the Grail is uncovered. Titurel (Kristinsson) is depicted as a living skeleton, an image that stays with the viewer long afterwards. If only Nagano's conducting had invoked the state of real majesty here – this can be an imposing sight, yet the feeling of greatness of interpretation remains missing.

Act Two is a magnificent piece of music. I wonder to this day at the structurally interruptive nature of the Herzeleide Narrative. It is an aria in all but name and a tonally-sectioned-off piece. In Schenkerian terms, this represents a descent from 5 to 2, with the dominant note of 1 reinterpreted harmonically to allow the drama to move on. Klingsor is Tom Fox dressed almost like an insect and thereby bringing back memories of a recent DVD of Madama Butterfly I reviewed. Kundry wears a skull-cap and black perhaps to contrast with her later seductiveness. However what is really impressive is Meier's singing. Her range is huge ... and it needs to be for this part! It is certainly believable in this production that Parsifal could resist the Flower-Maidens; their costumes of extended arms to resemble flower parts is distinctly un-sexy. Kundry is another matter. Here she emerges from behind a screen, as if shedding an existence in the process.

Nagano paces this act well, from the lullaby-like two-in-a-bar of 'Ich sah das Kind' (what a high register from Meier here!) to the subtle emphasis on the Spear motif in the horn as she asks Parsifal, 'What else brought you here but the wish to know?'. The Spear in the orchestra provides the answer.

Interestingly, the kiss that forms the height of her seduction – and enables Parsifal to feel the wound of Amfortas in his side – comes too late. Musically it comes at precisely the moment when a major triad is recontextualised to sound as a dissonance - because a diminished seventh has assumed by this time normative status in our hearing. Good, though, that Kundry sheds her final layer just as the chalice-music is heard, and that her wing comes off at the word 'Erlöser' ('Redeemer'). Needless to say Kundry's massive leap - high B flat to low C sharp if memory serves - on the chilling world 'lachte' (she saw Him on the Cross and laughed) is spine-chillingly superb.

Production-wise the gross error is that at the end of the act Klingsor is meant to throw the spear at Parsifal, and it hovers above its target. Here the solution is much more mundane: Parsifal just takes it off him!

Nagano seems to raise his game for Act 3's magnificent Prelude. A sloping stage and a railway track to (apparently) nowhere, with Kundry in a bundle at the end of it is the fittingly austere setting. She sings her one word in this Act ('Dienen' – 'Serving') with appropriate numbness.

Parsifal enters with the Spear, dressed all in black armour. Gurnemanz (Salminen) is generally excellent in this act, although his scoop up to 'Heil dir, mein Gast' is surprising. But the triumph for the production is that when Parsifal reveals himself he does indeed appear changed; and how holy the music sounds as Gurnemanz kneels in front of the spear ('Höchstes Wunder!'). But Salminen is no Robert Lloyd (to mention a recentish Gurnemanz that impressed), and his longer narrations do not carry the same sort of weight. And if Nagano paces the act well, giving enough space, he does little more than that.

This is a harrowing last act, with Titurel's skeletal figure mixed in with corpses in an onstage pit. Amfortas is convincing in his refusals to open the Grail, and as he memorably puts the crown on Parsifal's head at the moment of death provides a moment of real tenderness.

Well worth watching and listening. This is an interesting take on one of the greatest dramas ever written.

The 'extra' is a 75-minute film called 'Parsifal's Progress'. This includes extended excerpts from this production as well as interviews (Meier speaks in German) with the principal singers. There are commentaries on the production, choreography etc. Interesting, certainly, but the production itself is far more stimulating.

Colin Clarke

see also review by Anne Ozorio April RECORDING OF THE MONTH



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