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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Christopher Ventris – Parsifal
Petra Lang – Kundry
Alejandro Marco Burmeister – Amfortas
Falk Struckmann – Gurnemanz
Mikhail Petrenko – Titurel/Klingsor
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Iván Fischer
Pierre Audi (director)
Anish Kapoor (set designer)
rec. live, Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam, June/July 2012
Picture Format 16:9, PCM Stereo & Surround 5.1; Region Code 0
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72619 DVD/Blu-ray [248 mins]

Musically – and, particularly, orchestrally – this Parsifal is very fine. Once a year the regular orchestra of the Dutch National Opera steps aside for their neighbours at the Concertgebouw, and the results are normally magical. So it proves here. This is fine a Parsifal as any you’d hear in Dresden or Vienna, two other cities where their principal orchestra also plays in the opera pit, and in some ways it surpasses them. The Concertgebouw play the score as though from the inside out, repeatedly illuminating or bringing to birth new details in the score that you always knew were there but to which you’d seldom paid much attention previously. The sound overall is gloriously ripe and full of body, and you get that at its best in the purely orchestral moments. The Act 1 Prelude sounds shudderingly good, with rich strings and strong, powerful brass that don't assert themselves too much, creating an overall sound picture in which to wallow. Furthermore, the Act 3 Prelude conjures up new visions of loss in the sound of the violins, frustrated yet also full. Likewise, the Act 1 and Act 3 Transformation Musics build in power to huge climaxes, and it’s here that you get a really good sense of Iván Fischer’s grip on the score. He doesn’t hang around and, indeed, is alarmingly fast in the Act 3 Prelude, but elsewhere his approach could better be described as refreshingly nippy, something which keeps the drama going through the otherwise fairly static scenes in the Grail Temple or the Magic Garden.

The singers are mostly old hands in their roles, and their experience reaps rich dividends. Christopher Ventris can no longer pull off the young innocent look, but his voice has deepened and enriched over the years so that he now sounds about as fully rounded as it’s possible to get with this part. Others may long for more of a contrast between the fool of the first half and the hero of the second, but I enjoyed his overall bronzed tone which serves the music very well. Petra Lang has had her moments of vocal crisis in recent years, but the role of Kundry suits her voice very well, the histrionics of the character playing off the extremes of the voice, and she holds nothing back in her vocal and dramatic energy. Falk Struckmann has been an Amfortas in the past, and his Gurnemanz bears great wisdom. The gravelly nature of his voice is less pronounced here and, in fact, helps to add to the character’s weight and distinction. He is very convincing in the long narrations of the first act, and rises with aplomb to the climax of the anointing and the Good Friday music. Alejandro Marco Burmeister makes for a deeply vulnerably Amfortas, fully living the character’s pain, both visually and aurally, and he manages to make him sound both noble and vulnerable; an excellent portrayal. Mikhail Petrenko is a nasty Klingsor, full of malice but also a sense of wicked glee that really works for this character. He also sings the part of Titurel but does so invisibly off stage, so I imagine it was probably the director making good use of his cast rather than making a dramatic point.

But it’s that director that causes this film’s problems. It’s not that there’s much to object to in Audi and Kapoor’s vision: it’s just that so little happens! There are promising visual ideas in places, such as the lurid reds and dark blues that characterise much of the action, and I liked the huge discs that dominate the picture in the second and third acts. However, I’m totally at sea as to what Audi was trying to say, or even whether he was trying to say anything at all. We get hints of the knights as builders in the first act and religious fanatics in the third, while Kundry and Klingsor are suggested as mirror images of one another, but none of this really goes anywhere, and much of the action is so static as to be soporific. That’s particularly true in the Act 2 scene between Parsifal and Kundry, as well as with the opening scene of Act 3, both of which really dragged for me and just didn’t keep my attention. Furthermore, Kapoor seems to have blown his set budget on some knobbly (and rather ugly) sets for the first act that reminded me of his Tristan at ENO, making room for nothing beyond the - admittedly effective - giant discs in the second and third acts. It wasn’t enough to get me angry: just to leave me puzzled and a bit bewildered, which is probably worse! Nor did it help that the camera angles often make it a bit difficult to see what is actually going on, and the smoky transformation scenes didn’t do them any favours either.

One quirk of the Blu-Ray sound mix is that I found it clearer and sharper in 2.0 stereo than in the 5.1 surround, which is odd. Otherwise, though, this is a Parsifal to listen to rather than to see. It certainly won’t displace the ultra traditional production from the Met (under Levine on DG) or Lehnhoff’s super Baden Baden production, not to mention the wonderful Barenboim/Tcherniakov production from Berlin, which thrills me every time I watch it. Among more recent versions, I also warmly recommend Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s production from the 2016 Bayreuth Festival (for which I was in the audience). The singing is every bit as good and the production will really give you something to get your teeth into.

Simon Thompson

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