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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal (1882)
Poul Elming (tenor) – Parsifal: Linda Watson (soprano) – Kundry: Hans Sotin (bass) – Gurnemanz: Falk Struckmann (baritone) – Amfortas: Ekkehard Wlaschiha (baritone) – Klingsor: Matthias Hölle (bass) – Titurel: Richard Brunner and Sándor Sólyom-Nagy (tenor and baritone) – Grail Knights: Sarah Fryer, Jane Turner, Helmut Pampuch and Peter Maus (mezzos and tenors) – Squires: Claudia Barainsky, Joyce Guyer, Simon Schröder, Katerina Beranova, Dorothea Jansen and Laura Nykänen (sopranos and mezzos) – Flower-maidens: Andrea Bönig (contralto) – Voice from above
Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra/Giuseppe Sinopoli
rec. Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 6-13 July 1998
C MAJOR Blu-ray 715804 [268.00]

When reviewing the production of Parsifal from the Netherlands Opera towards the end of last year I lamented bitterly the lack of a video of the music drama which adhered with some degree of fidelity to Wagner’s stage directions. I cited the Metropolitan Opera as a best representation of the ‘authentic’ school despite some below-par singing and in a more minimalist style what I described as Wolfgang Wagner’s “tired” Bayreuth production from the 1980s. That production by Wagner’s grandson is not the same as that on display here, and the singing is a distinct cut above that on the Metropolitan video. Indeed, this might well be the Parsifal of choice for a video collection.

When the Bayreuth Festival re-opened in 1951 it featured a production of Wagner’s Bühnenweihfestspiel by his grandson Wieland, which stripped the scenery back to the barest of essentials. This was done to a degree that occasioned protests from the conductor Hans Knappertsbusch who was to conduct. That production remained in the Bayreuth repertory for many years, until it was replaced by a new one by Wolfgang Wagner, who largely followed Wieland’s lead while adding a few more scenic effects. It had a decidedly imitative and second-hand air to it. Here in his second Bayreuth production Wolfgang has been much more adventurous. I complained in earlier reviews about the lack of nature in the productions by Nicholas Lehnhoff and Romeo Castalucci, which since the love of the natural world is an essential part of Wagner’s scheme, seemed to me to leave out one whole dimension of the score. The booklet notes here state that “nature is more alluded to than present”; but in fact the omnipresence of nature is suggested beautifully by the green illumination given to the polyhedral unit set. The only jarring element is the sacred spring in Act Three, enclosed in a hemispherical globe like some water feature in a municipal park.

In general this is a well-produced and faithful presentation of the score, even down to the glowing Grail at the end and Parsifal actually catching the Spear when it is thrown at him by Klingsor. The transitions from one scene to another are smoothly handled. For those seeking a ‘traditional’ Parsifal this one should appeal strongly. Not that there are not also some original touches: Kundry helps Parsifal to raise the Grail from the shrine in the final scene, for example. There are also elements that are unobtrusively right. The entry of Parsifal in that same scene is often staged so that he comes onto the stage during Amfortas’s ravings to the accompaniment of the Klingsor theme: not here, where his appearance is properly delayed until the moment when the ‘Dresden Amen’ becomes audible in the orchestra. Those who are looking for a more modern directorial interpretation, however, will look elsewhere. This Blu-Ray comes into direct competition with only two other video presentations which fall into the traditional category – the earlier Wolfgang Wagner production from Bayreuth conducted by Horst Stein, and the Metropolitan Opera version conducted by James Levine. I shall therefore confine my comparisons to these two sets, with apologies to those readers who find points of interest in the video versions by Syberberg, Lehnhoff and Castalucci - the only other productions I have seen at various times.

It has to be said firstly that the Metropolitan Opera version conducted by James Levine, produced by Otto Schenk with designs by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen, is more conventionally beautiful to look at. It has real-looking flowers in the Good Friday meadow and bare-breasted Flower Maidens to tempt Parsifal in the Magic Garden. The Temple in this version is less satisfactory, with what appears to be a big hole in the roof to admit the light. Wolfgang Wagner’s circular gathering – as in his earlier production, and that of his brother – gives more real sense of ceremony. The main problem with the Metropolitan Opera video however lies in the casting. Not with Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier, the two leading protagonists in the roles of Parsifal and Kundry, but in the other parts. Franz Mazura is frankly well past his best in the role of Klingsor. He is rough-toned and approximate in a manner which goes a considerable way beyond characterisation. Bernd Weikl is a bullish Amfortas and although Kurt Moll is an expressive Gurnemanz, he is not given much to do by Schenk.

Wolfgang Wagner’s earlier Bayreuth production also had Siegfried Jerusalem as Parsifal, younger but less experienced than at the Met. It paired him with Eva Randova as Kundry; and Randova, although dramatically fiery, sounds highly uncomfortable in the higher reaches of the role which lies beyond her mezzo comfort zone. Nor is Wolfgang’s earlier production as imaginative as his later one. The manner in which Amfortas stares at Parsifal during the Communion in the Temple, half in hope and half in bewilderment, is here riveting and gripping. It adds impetus to what can be a dangerously static scene.

The singers in this new reissue may be slightly less starry names but they are by no means second best and they function well at all levels. Poul Elming converted from baritone to tenor in order to undertake the title role — which does not rise very high above the stave — but there is no sense of strain in his heroically inflected singing. Jerusalem in his sets shows more delicacy of approach in places, but Elming’s tone is rich and warm and his acting is well considered. Linda Watson as Kundry is properly a soprano as Wagner instructs, which means that she can rise to the higher passages in Act Two without any sense of strain. She has a good strong lower register which stands her in good stead in Act One. Again, Waltraud Meier is more subtle in various textual nuances. Otherwise Watson is a joy to hear, not least in the high-lying climax of Ich sah’ das Kind where there is none of the clear effort that many mezzos manifest in their attempt to reach the notes.

Falk Struckmann has attracted criticism over the years for what is regarded in some quarters as his over-forceful style of singing. Here in his earlier career he brings a real sense of lyrical line to the laments of Amfortas. Hans Sotin is a rich-toned Gurnemanz — he also took the role in the earlier Wolfgang Wagner production. Although he could be more expressive he makes much of the words and he never evinces the slightest sense of strain even in the longer-limbed and high-flying parts of the role. Ekkehard Wlaschiha, a noted exponent of the role of Alberich, is full of menace and character as Klingsor. Matthias Hölle is a solemn Titurel. The Grail Knights and Squires are cast from strength and although the Flower-maidens do not feature any starry names — Solti’s audio recording had Dame Kiri te Kanawa and Lucia Popp leading the ensemble — they form a delightful unit.

What makes this new reissue so compelling is the conducting of Giuseppe Sinopoli. During his lifetime critics constantly complained about his interventionist approach to scores, highlighting passages by the use of excessively slow speeds in a manner that the composers might not have recognised. He doesn’t put a foot wrong here and there are many subtle inflections which pass unnoticed in less carefully considered performances. By comparison Levine is weightier but less imaginative, and Horst Stein on the earlier Bayreuth production is simply workmanlike.

I commented on Hartmut Haenchen’s use of tubular bells, some three octaves too high, in his supposedly ‘authentic’ realisation of Wagner’s intentions in the Netherlands Opera production. Here we have what seems to me to be the ideal solution in the form of the electronic synthesiser developed by Eckhard Maronn and Rainer Hecht of Hamburg and in use at Bayreuth since 1976. At least, I presume that is what we hear, although the booklet contains no acknowledgement of the fact. The bells are slightly subdued on their initial entry, but afterwards they come sounding through the texture in exactly the right pitch, the right balance and the right proportion.

The box contains the warning that this “historic document of outstanding artistic significance and quality” justifies the “minor shortcomings in the sound and picture that are discernible in this live recording.” Actually this does not appear to be a live recording, but a recording made under studio conditions from the Bayreuth stage without any sign of the presence of an audience. Bayreuth did that sort of expensive thing in those days. There is no need whatsoever to make any apology for shortcomings in either sound or picture, both of which are exemplary in every respect. Indeed for many viewers – including myself – in both its avoidance of extraneous and disruptive directorial ‘concepts’ and its faithfulness to what Wagner’s music is telling us, this might very well be the video representation of choice for Parsifal. One only wishes that Bayreuth had done as well since.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Masterwork Index: Parsifal