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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal (1877-1882)
Parsifal – Set Svanholm (tenor)
Kundry – Astrid Varnay (soprano)
Amfortas – George London (bass-baritone)
Gurnemanz – Hans Hotter (bass)
Klingsor – Lawrence Davidson (baritone)
Titurel – Luben Vichey
Voice – Jean Madeira
Flower Maidens - Lucine Amara, Maria Leone, Hertha Glaz, Heidi Krall, Jean Fenn, Margaret Roggero
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/Fritz Stiedry, conductor
rec. 17 April 1954, Metropolitan Opera House, New York
PRISTINE AUDIO PACO171 [4 CDs: 248:25]

The Metropolitan Opera hosted performances of Parsifal at Easter on a mostly annual basis from 1903 (the bootleg U.S. premiere given over the threats, lawsuits, and pleas of Cosima Wagner) to the 1960s. Even when the opera wasn’t in repertory for the season, the house would still trot it out to display to the faithful for one or two performances before returning it to the basement to rest until the following April.

The 1954 broadcast will be of great interest to those who wish to hear Varnay in the role of Kundry, as well as those who might want to hear Hans Hotter in excellent voice for his signature role of Gurnemanz. This broadcast documents Hotter’s final performance at the Met; general manager Rudolf Bing never understood Hotter’s voice, and constantly plugged him into minor roles that were frankly beneath him. For every Flying Dutchman, there was a Grand Inquisitor, and for each Wotan, there was a Pogner or Gunther. Two years previous to this performance, Bing assigned Hotter the role of Amfortas. He sang beautifully as the tortured Grail King in 1952, but Gurnemanz was perhaps a more congenial role for his voice. This recording captures not only Hotter’s final performance at the Met, but also his first-ever performance of Gurnemanz. Although his memoirs credit Wieland Wagner with later teaching him the subtleties of the role, Hotter sings here with great compassion and understanding. He also in much better vocal estate for the New York audience than for the 1962 Bayreuth performances immortalized on Phillips.

Varnay did not often sing Kundry, so it is good to have even this inconsistent souvenir of her interpretation. Her Kundry is at times viscerally exciting, but in a melodramatic manner. The cries at the opening of the second act are the blowsy shouts of an inconvenienced barmaid. The famous “Ich sah das Kind” is matronly rather than sexy, and her slow portamenti recall the barmaid rather than the sexpot who successfully seduced Amfortas. At the same time, she is completely secure vocally, and makes much of the role sound easy, no small feat.

George London’s rendition of Amfortas is as stunning here as it is on the 1953 Bayreuth discs. His shame and suffering is palpable in every bar, and the voice is at its most beautiful. Set Svanholm was 49 at the time of the broadcast, and years of toil in the Wagnerian mines were beginning to take their toll; his performance is stentorian and rather routine. There is some barking in the second act, as well as some moments of iffy intonation.

In the pit, Fritz Stiedry’s bland conducting cannot erase memories of Knappertsbusch. Compared to many modern conductors, the overall tempi are fleet, but Act 1 Scene 1 in particular seems interminable. This is not just a tempo issue, but also a question of shape. What should be massive climaxes in the Transformation music, or in Act 2, are damp firecrackers: all sizzle, no payoff. The orchestra plays well for Stiedry, ensemble is tight, but otherwise, he contributes little of interest.

The booklet notes point out that the Klingsor, Lawrence Davidson, was a last-minute replacement for Gerhard Pechner, the evil-voiced baritone who gave a chilling performance in the 1952 broadcast. In ‘54, Pechner took ill while getting into makeup during Act 1, and Act 2 was delayed to allow Davidson to reach the theatre. Usually relegated to roles like the Jailer in Tosca or Marquis d’Obigny in La Traviata, Davidson was thrust into this major part at the last minute, and to his credit, he did an excellent job. There is little of the skin-crawling characterization one would have gotten from Pechner’s Klingsor, but it is an honorable showing.

It is a delight to hear “Opera News on the Air,” the intermission entertainment featuring Milton Cross, Boris Goldovsky, Rose Bampton, and Charles Kullman. Cross, Bampton, and Kullman speak with charmingly antiquated American accents, the tenor in particular showing off his New Haven roots via his dropped “r”s. Goldovsky demonstrates beautifully at the piano, and we get an excellent overview of the opera. If only the modern Metropolitan thought that this sort of musical thumbnail was necessary for its listeners!

From an audio engineering perspective, this is the most stunning Met broadcast I have ever heard, no doubt thanks to the tender ministrations of Pristine’s Andrew Rose. One could be forgiven for thinking that this was a digital stream from a live performance occurring in 2021, rather than a broadcast taped off the air back in 1954. Bravo to Pristine for their hard work on this release.

Richard Masters
Previous review: Colin Clarke

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