In the first thirty years of LP recordings, there were only three commercial recordings of Parsifal and two of those came from live performances at Bayreuth. In the last two years, prompted no doubt partly by the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth, I have reviewed no fewer than four video presentations for this site of the composer’s final work for the stage. All four have been very different from each other in their approach. Of those four I have no hesitation in dismissing the recording from the Brussels Monnaie Theatre conducted by Harmut Haenchen where the production simply failed to match up to the score in too many ways to define. Nor was I overly impressed by the version from the Baden-Baden Festival conducted by Kent Nagano
where Nicholas Lehnhoff’s original ideas frequently obtruded into both the musical and dramatic sense of the action. Since neither of these versions was musically impeccable either, I would not commend either to potential purchasers.
This production of Parsifal by Stephen Langridge given at the Royal Opera Covent Garden last year during the Wagner bicentenary is a decided cut above either of these – both musically and dramatically – and although, as Gerald Finley notes during a brief interview given on the second disc, it is a ‘modern’ production, its purpose is clear and valid.
Stephen Langridge makes a brief appearance in the same documentary, but he also explains his approach to the score at greater length in a booklet note. He has decided in his presentation of Parsifal to concentrate on the suffering and redemption of Amfortas, and on the recovery of purpose and meaning in the rituals of the Grail Knights. Both of these are essential elements in Wagner’s ‘sacred festival drama’, so there is no question here of superimposing on the work meanings that were foreign to the composer’s mind. They do have quite a substantial effect on the way in which we are asked to view the action.
The concentration on Amfortas’s suffering begins even during the opening Prelude. As the music moves onto the themes associated with this, we see Amfortas isolated in a hospital bed surrounded by anxious doctors wearing hospital masks. This seems a little odd, as Amfortas’s wound is specifically a physical one and not bacteriological; one could I suppose argue that the moral corruption spreading from the wound could be infectious to those around him. This bed forms an omnipresent background to the action, sometimes vanishing from sight only to reappear again – as, for example during the Prelude to Act Three – in order to keep Amfortas’s plight in our minds. The screens surrounding the bed also are employed to accommodate projections of images from the ‘back story’ of the opera – and Heaven knows, there are enough of them. This does have an advantage in providing something for the viewer to look at when the stage action grinds to a physical halt. The emphasis on Amfortas continues right through to the final curtain, when Parsifal completely withdraws from the action to allow for a reconciliation between Amfortas and Kundry ... whom he now encounters for the first time since his downfall. This is a perfectly valid way of viewing the meaning of the work, and an emotionally satisfying one at that; but unfortunately it completely fails to measure up to the music of religious transcendence that Wagner has provided for his conclusion.
It will be gathered from the foregoing that this is a modern dress production, which is deliberately proposed by both the producer and the designer Alison Chitty as a means of making the drama register with modern audiences. One could argue about whether period costumes necessarily make dramatic action irrelevant in the modern day, but that is not really the point at issue here. The greater difficulty arises in the modern parallels that the audience is asked to draw between the community of the Grail Knights and their modern equivalents. Here they have an uncomfortable feeling of a board meeting of City bankers, led by a chairman — Robert Lloyd as Titurel, in the inevitable wheelchair — whose only means of maintaining his existence is through the Grail ritual. At this point the feeling of discomfort topples over into repulsion, as the Grail itself is symbolised by a pubescent and clearly distressed boy who is asked to impersonate Christ on the Cross and whose side is pierced by Amfortas in order to provide blood for the Knights and which Titurel eagerly licks up. No wonder Parsifal looks so distressed. In the final Act the boy reappears, now considerably aged, and the Knights seem almost ready to perform a human sacrifice on him before Parsifal intervenes. Given the level of degradation to which these Grail Knights seem to be willing to sink, the viewer is left wondering why on earth anyone should consider them worthy of redemption in the first place. This renders Parsifal’s whole quest rather meaningless.
There is one other element of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk which is missing here – as it was in Lehnhoff’s production – which is the healing element provided by the natural world. Indeed this element provided one of the most central impulses to Wagner’s inspiration, as he described in his memoir of a Good Friday morning when the sights and smells of the spring meadow spurred him on to the writing of the opening scene of Act Three. This is not the only point where images of nature are central to the symbolism of the action. We are given a very effective animatronic swan — which actually appears to expire on stage — but otherwise, apart from some cursory flowers, nothing at all from the environment which surrounds the characters and of which they frequently sing. The trunks of the trees which do service in Acts One and Three are totally devoid of any foliage or sign of living growth. Indeed the colour green is almost entirely absent from the stage; there’s not much blue either. In this, as in many other aspects, a model is provided by the Wolfgang Wagner production from Bayreuth which I reviewed earlier this year and where the elements of the natural world — although stylised — were given their full due.
Other aspects of the production, on the other hand, work well. Lawrence manages to get a real sense of interaction between his characters and gets full dramatic impact from this. Nor do we ever get – as is unfortunately all too often the case in the work of other producers – interaction which goes against what the music is telling us. This is a musically responsive production even when it contradicts Wagner’s own stage directions. Klingsor, for example, does not vanish at the end of the opening scene of Act Two; he remains on stage to orchestrate and direct the actions of the Flower Maidens when they attempt to seduce Parsifal. It is with a gesture of the Spear that he beckons forward Kundry at the moment he deems the time is ripe. Kundry’s curse on Parsifal at the end of that Act strikes him with blindness, and it is not until well into the Third Act that she lifts the curse, so that the first sight that greets his eyes is the Good Friday flowers blooming in the meadow — or not, as the case may be. The music here has the sense of delight and realisation which fits the moment perfectly even if it is not what Wagner had in mind. There are many other such touches: the shy glances between Parsifal and the Grail child, where Parsifal finds his sympathies engaged, constitute just one effective example. Although Mike Ashman in his production for Welsh National Opera (never filmed) used the same music for an exchange of looks between Parsifal and Amfortas, which was even better.
In all, this is a well-thought-through production whose ideas don’t fight against the music, and as such far superior not only to the versions I mentioned earlier but also to the Hans-Jürgen Syberberg film where Parsifal’s kiss causes Kundry to change sex. Other video versions I have seen – an earlier Wolfgang Wagner production from Bayreuth, which was drab and simply dull, and the Metropolitan Opera version conducted by James Levine with some unsatisfactory elements in the casting – were comprehensively trounced by the later Wolfgang Wagner DVD released earlier this year, and to which I gave such a warm welcome. I was pleased to see has been echoed in other quarters. That version would still remain my preferred Parsifal for viewing but this one runs it a close second and is certainly a more dramatically engaging one in places.
In musical terms, too, this is a simply excellent performance. The chorus and orchestra give their all for Sir Antonio Pappano, and although his reading may lack the original insights – some might call them quirks – that Giuseppe Sinopoli
obtained at Bayreuth, it has plenty of power when required. It rises to all the emotional climaxes with full weight and does not stint the spiritual dimension that some conductors have so comprehensively attempted to strip from the work. My only criticism, as so often before, regards the bell effects employed in an attempt to satisfy Wagner’s demands for deep cathedral bells from above during the scenes in the Grail Temple. It may be of use to repeat here some of what I said about the bells used in Haenchen
’s recording, which claimed to be using Wagner’s original instrumentation: “Wagner himself had a ‘bell machine’ made by Steingräber which looks rather like a snooker table with its insides removed — it can be heard on Solti’s Decca recording. What we are given here are a combination of ordinary tubular bells — which are some three octaves too high — together with some sort of bass reinforcement which may or may not be the Steingräber bell machine. This simply throws the whole of Wagner’s orchestral textures out of balance, with the high bells dominating the sound in quite the wrong sort of way. To my mind the best modern solution is the patented synthesised tape by Eckhard Maronn and Rainer Hecht of Hamburg, which produces exactly the right sort of effect. It was first used at Bayreuth by Horst Stein in 1976 and on Reginald Goodall’s recording for EMI in 1983. I don’t know why it wasn’t adopted here.” Well, that is not what we get here either. There is a deep bell effect — which may be the Steingräber machine, but sounds rather like a piano — which is reinforced with gongs and a set of what sound like very large tubular bells. This sounds better than Heinchen’s tinny instruments but is still at least an octave too high.
The greatest strength of this performance, however, lies in its singers. The longest solo role in Parsifal is that of Gurnemanz and this is a role that René Pape might have been born to sing. Too often the part is cast with elderly Wagnerian bass-baritones who have to a greater of lesser extent developed wobbles and often have trouble with the higher-lying notes to boot. Pape is rock-steady throughout, and with his recent experience in the role of Wotan he can manage the higher passages without any sense of strain whatsoever. Nor is this the only merit in his assumption of the part. He points the text throughout with an exquisite sense of meaning and delicacy where required. Just to listen to his delivery of the rhymed couplet “Durch Mittleid wissend” could provide an object-lesson to any rivals which could last them for their lifetimes. He shades the long sustained notes during the Good Friday music, which are so often bawled, with a natural sense of line which is so totally satisfying as to defy criticism.
Graham Finley, with much less Wagnerian experience, is similarly balm to the ears as Amfortas. So often the role is taken by heavy Wagnerian voices in the mould of George London on both the earliest commercial audio sets. The result is hectoring – demanding mercy on the character’s suffering rather than beseeching it. Here Finley shades the text with real understanding, and he also manages credibly to suggest the aging of the suffering Grail King between the first and last Acts. By his side Robert Lloyd as his father – brought onstage during Act One contrary to Wagner’s specifically stated directions – still has the firmness of projection that the role demands, but his dramatic portrayal of the aged monarch with his trembling hands also now unfortunately extends to some unsteadiness of the voice on sustained notes.
The flower maidens in Act Two are a well-integrated bunch of voices, although their portrayal as a collection of good-time night-club hostesses is perhaps a little too obvious. I remember the first Parsifal I ever attended at Covent Garden (conducted by Sir Reginald Goodall), when the voice of the young Kiri te Kanawa riveted the audience. There are no obvious Dame Kiris here, but the singing is nicely shaded nonetheless and never shrill as it can sometimes be. The two Knights, here portrayed as concerned doctors overseeing the treatment of Amfortas, do what little they are given to do well, and are more dramatically involved than usual. The four Squires are also a nicely blended bunch, although Sipho Fubesi lacks the sense of sheer spitefulness that his character ideally demands. Willard White as Klingsor is powerful and commanding, interacting well with Kundry and even managing to make the end of the Act — when Parsifal physically wrests the Spear from his grasp rather than having it miraculously delivered into his hands — look credible.
Which brings me to the two leading singers. I commented favourably upon Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund in Daniel Barenboim’s La Scala Ring last year. At the same time I noted that he was clearly suffering from laryngeal problems that affected his performance adversely. I also observed that his voice lacked “romantic ardour”. I am pleased to be able to report that this perceived lack clearly stemmed from his indisposition, since there is plenty of romantic sweetness of tone and warmth to be found here. He may not look particularly well-suited to the role of the starving woodland waif forced to the expedient of shooting swans for food — has anybody ever managed that aspect of the role better than Warren Ellsworth? — but his acting ability is sufficient to make the viewer overlook that drawback. His singing is fully engaged and dramatically able to ride the storms that Pappano conjures up from the orchestra pit. By contrast with Poul Elming’s converted baritone in the Bayreuth video, O’Neill is more naturally suited to the tessitura of the role. The occasional sense of strain that one finds in Elming is completely absent. His delivery of the climax of Amfortas! Die Wunde! is simply thrilling, both as a musical and as a dramatic experience.
Even more dramatically thrilling is Angela Denoke as Kundry. Unhelpfully making her first appearance in a bald skull-cap — which looks like something out of the first Star Trek movie — she nevertheless seizes every dramatic opportunity which the role gives her and there are plenty of them as well as reacting superbly to the other characters during her long mute appearances in Act Three. The back of the box quotes the reviewer from the Daily Telegraph describing her as “dramatically electrifying” and that just about sums up her performance. I am slightly less sure about her musical handling of the role. She has the guttural low notes required for the contralto-like passages in Act One and the beginning of Act Two although she resorts to Sprechstimme on one occasion. She is decidedly less comfortable in the upper reaches of her duet with Parsifal, approaching high notes with a degree of caution and sometimes delivering them with a sense of abandon which sounds positively dangerous. She is far from negligible in the role, and a great deal better than many of her rivals on disc. However the sheer Wagnerian heft is clearly taxing her in a way that Linda Watson — on the Bayreuth video — finds more natural.
The audience at the end is rightly enthusiastic. At the beginning of Act Three, just before Pappano begins to conduct, there are a couple of hecklers but I cannot discern what they are shouting and I really can’t see what they had to complain about. Could they not have been edited out, however? – the recording derives from three different performances. The performance is spread over two Blu-Ray discs — Bayreuth managed with one — each of which promises extras; but in the event these consist of production photographs only, with the brief documentary featuring rather short interviews with the performers provided on the second disc. The subtitles are excellent, avoiding the solecisms and misprints which disfigured both the Lehnhoff and Haenchen videos. There is however no listing of tracks in the booklet.
Paul Corfield Godfrey