Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal (1882) [278:29]
Parsifal - Poul Elming (tenor)
Kundry - Linda Watson (soprano)
Gurnemanz - Hans Sotin (bass)
Amfortas - Falk Struckmann (baritone)
Klingsor - Ekkehard Wlaschiha (baritone)
Titurel - Matthias Hölle (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival/Giuseppe Sinopoli
Wolfgang Wagner (stage director)
rec. Bayreuth Festival, 1998
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 16:9; PCM Stereo, DTS 5.1 Surround
UNITEL/C MAJOR 705908 [2 DVDs: 113:21 + 165:08]

The association of Parsifal with Bayreuth is closer than that of any other stage work and theatre. That alone makes this DVD worth considering. Great as are the audio only Parsifals from Bayreuth, especially those of Knappertsbusch, the surround sound of a DVD helps Wagner’s world come alive more vibrantly and transparently. Considering that Wagner wrote this Bühnenweihfestspielspecifically for Bayreuth, it’s important to take seriously the theatre’s special acoustic and the impact this has on the Parsifal sound.
Unfortunately, this production came from something of a dark period in Bayreuth’s post-war history. Premiered in 1989, it dates from Wolfgang Wagner’s festival directorship, one which most critics regards as being, at best, a mixed success. Wolfgang’s greatest initiative was to bring outside directors into Bayreuth to enliven their productions, notably Götz Friedrich, Patrice Chéreau and Harry Kupfer. Unfortunately this served only to point up the inadequacies in Wolfgang’s own productions. He seemed doomed to make pale copies of his brother’s famed “New Bayreuth” style, but in a manner much less successful than Wieland’s. Wolfgang’s conception here is broadly traditional but without Wieland’s courageous innovation so that the overall impression is anachronistic and, most seriously, dull. The stage is kept fairly bare, though we see the grail as a chalice which glows at the right points, and Parsifal really does catch the spear at the end of Act 2. The grail kingdom in Acts 1 and 3, however, is suggested by a set of enormous green crystalline columns, more of a cubist emerald city than the magical forest. These rotate to form a stepped background for the grail temple, and Amfortas is given a table to sit at for the ceremony. There’s nothing offensive in any of this, but it falls between two stools: it doesn’t offer the radical interpretation so successfully given by Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production on Opus Arte, and it doesn’t do the ultra-traditional setting as successfully as Otto Schenk for the Met on DG. Consequently it will probably please no-one as a staging. Friedrich Spotts’ magisterial history of the Bayreuth Festival, essential reading for any Wagnerian, sums up this production succinctly by saying, “with no evident concept of staging or interpretation, it appeared that Wolfgang had run out of ideas.”
This is made worse by his appallingly staid non-direction of the singers. For an enormous chunk of the staging the singers merely stand still and sing at one another. Some will find this a great blessing after bad experiences in other productions, but it makes many scenes pass far too slowly. The great Parsifal/Kundry duet, in particular, feels interminable, threatening to grind to a halt altogether. Furthermore, Amfortas does barely anything in his great Act 1 monologue in the temple. The knights do little but march in file, and the flower maiden scene just looks daft.
Mercifully there are some redeeming features in the musical performances. Poul Emling’s Parsifal is a safe, four-square interpretation, almost irritatingly innocent in Act 1 but making the journey through to the Grail King of Act 3 very convincingly. Linda Watson’s voice is remarkably pure so that she doesn’t quite manage to be the seductress of Act 2, but she makes a beautiful sound. Hans Sotin booms his way through Gurnemanz with authority, though not much beauty in the Good Friday scene. Ekkehard Wlaschiha and Matthias Hölle are very successful, though Struckmann’s Amfortas is much too gritty: he may well convey the character’s agony but there are times when tonal intonation feels about to disappear entirely. He is far better heard on the Opus Arte DVD. The best thing about this DVD is Sinopoli’s conducting. He has a gift for uncovering the diaphanous transparency of this great score, and in his hands the music seems to shimmer in mid-air, though the weight of the Act 3 temple scene is hugely compelling. There are times when I wished he would keep things moving more effectively, but this is a worthy document to set alongside his Dutchman and Tannhäuser recordings for DG.
On the whole, though, that’s not enough to recommend this DVD over the competition. In my experience the two most successful interpretations are those I mentioned above and, depending on your preference, you can probably enjoy either or both much more than this one.  

Simon Thompson 

Diaphanous transparency shimmering in mid-air but overall far too static a production.