Notes and Editorial Reviews
Also available on Blu-ray
Amfortas – Falk Struckmann
Titurel – Matthias Hölle
Gurnemanz – Hans Sotin
Parsifal – Poul Elming
Klingsor – Ekkehard Wlaschiha
Kundry – Linda Watson
Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra
Giuseppe Sinopoli, conductor
Wolfgang Wagner, stage director and set designer
Recorded live from the Bayreuth Festival, 1998.
Picture format: NTSC 16:9 anamorphic
Sound format: PCM Stereo / DTS 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish
Running time: 268 mins
DVDs: 2 (DVD 9)
R E V I E W:
WAGNER Parsifal • Giuseppe Sinopoli, cond; Poul Elming ( Parsial ); Linda Watson ( Kundry ); Falk Struckmann ( Amfortas ); Hans Sotin ( Gurnemanz ); Ekkehard Wlaschiha ( Klingsor ); Matthias Hölle ( Titurel ); Bayreuth Fest Ch & O • ORFEO 10561 (2 DVDs: 268:00) Live: Bayreuth 7/6–13/1998
For the most part, in recent decades the Bayreuth Festival has been a veritable chamber of horrors when it comes to opera stagings, the most recent example being the widely publicized Katherina Wagner abomination of Die Meistersinger . (Andrew Quint gave it a glowing review in Fanfare 34:6; he and I usually have antipodal views on virtually everything Wagnerian—a useful reference point for Fanfare readers, no doubt—and here I could not possibly disagree with him more.) Thankfully, especially since Parsifal is one of my three or four very favorite operas, this time we have instead an instance of what Bayreuth can produce at its considerable peak. While not flawless, this is one of the best-sung and -staged productions of any Wagner opera, let alone Parsifal , yet to grace a DVD, and thus a significant addition to the Wagner discography.
Dating back to 1999, this release is a belated tribute to conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli, whose premature death in 2001 from a heart attack while conducting Aida at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin deprived the classical-music world of one of its more polarizing figures. Like many others, I found some of his interpretations to be illuminating but others maddening, the latter mainly for their perverse manipulations of tempi. Here, he is on his best behavior; his pacing of the score is quite broad, lasting almost four and a half hours, but somehow does not feel as extreme as either the monumental Hans Knappertsbusch or torpid James Levine. (Paradoxically, his one serious miscalculation is the opening of act II, taken at a manic clip faster than any other rendition I’ve ever heard and unfortunately losing some of its profoundly sinister edge as a result.) Taking proper advantage of the unique acoustics of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus —for me, a virtual sine qua non for this score—he produces an orchestral sound that is luminous and radiant, with superb balance of all the instruments and uncommonly clear delineation of oscillating string figurations typically obscured by melody lines in the brass and winds. The great irony here is that no camera was stationed in the covered orchestra pit, so we never get to see either Sinopoli or the orchestra, since no curtain calls were filmed, either. (Thankfully, following the longstanding custom for this work of which I heartily approve, there also is no applause after the acts.)
The staging, abstract in principle but naturalistic in impact, is quite effective in suggesting a mythic timelessness. During the act I prelude, in a clear nod to that of Lohengrin , the chalice gradually becomes visible, descends from Heaven, fills the screen, and then gradually recedes and disappears. The outdoor scenes—the forest of the kingdom of the Grail Knight, the garden of the Flower Maidens—are dominated by flanking sets of tall columns with multifaceted irregular planar faces. By skilled and imaginative use of lighting, these assume various colors appropriate to their settings. For the forest scenes in act I they turn an intensely dark forest green that provides a far more intense impression of trees and dense vegetation than does the foliage used in completely naturalistic stagings. In act III their color is bleached to a far more pale green, symbolically indicating the subsequent decline of the Grail kingdom. For the Flower Maidens scene they are bathed in a ghostly twilight blue when the maidens first enter, and then take on shimmering dark blue and red hues during the seduction scene “Komm, komm, holder Knabe!” Other physical aspects of the staging have also been thought out with care. An opening aperture for the hall of the Grail knights, in which the gravely wounded Amfortas is positioned (in the simple sedan chair used to transport him) to preside over the Eucharistic rite, is symbolically shaped like a casket. The floor of the hall, defined in the back by attractive slate-blue and gray walls, is given an octagonal shape—presumably a reference to the shape of a traditional baptismal font—inlaid with an intriguing maze figuration. This not only evokes a medieval church labyrinth, but also intuitively suggests both the laborious path the knights must pursue to attain holiness and the confusion caused by the fall of their leader into sin. The octagonal shape is used as a unitary device in several other ways to great effect; it is the shape of both the “kitchen island” style altar in the hall, the pit from which Kundry emerges at Klingsor’s command in act II, and the seat on which she reclines in her attempt to seduce Parsifal, insightfully signifying that endeavor to be a sexual profanation of the chaste Eucharistic rite. Likewise, the abstract fortress walls of Klingsor’s castle, with the magician confined between them and visible through only a narrow aperture, aptly suggests a claustrophobic realm of evil. In act III an egg-shaped fountain as a symbol of spiritual rebirth also emerges from an octagonal opening in the stage. (Though not bad-looking, it unavoidably brings to mind Anna Russell’s “Erda the green-faced torso” popping out of the earth.)
Striving for a similarly timeless atmosphere, but somewhat less successfully, are the costumes, stage props, and acting. In act I the squires and knights of the Grail kingdom wear short coats and pants bearing a risible resemblance to those worn by soldiers of the Empire in the original Star Wars film. Fortunately the other costumes are better. Gurnemanz and the knights bearing Amfortas are clad in simple full-length robes with matching tunics, in subdued shades of blue and green-gray; Amfortas is clad in a dark red tunic at his first appearance and a purple one in the scene of the Eucharistic rite, respectively signifying his wound and his royal rank. By contrast, the sorcerer Klingsor parodies the plain garb of his erstwhile fellow knights, sporting a dark forest-green robe overlaid by a tunic with broad stripes in brilliant metallic shades of violet, light red, dark red, and blue. Kundry wears simple white habits in acts I and III but exchanges those for an alluring pink gown in act II. In act III the Grail Knights are much improved in appearance by the addition of full-length white capes, metal cap helmets, and swords. As for the props, the dead swan and Parsifal’s bow are suitable, but the spear and chalice are risibly hokey. The former looks like it was ordered from an Ikea catalog, and its tip glows an electronic pink after its healing touch to Amfortas in act III. The chalice has an ornately carved crystal glass upper portion; after the wine is consecrated a red light bulb glows ludicrously inside it, and interior radiance is badly bungled by use of a white strobe light. One hates to criticize attempts to realize the composer’s detailed specifications, and perhaps these elements looked much better at a distance from the audience, but a close-up camera is most unforgiving. The acting by one and all is conscientious but staid and wooden, and there is one badly miscalculated piece of stage business at the very end: Instead of Kundry dying as the libretto states, she steps forward and quite impossibly—in a medieval Catholic order of knights!—assists Parsifal in celebrating the Eucharist. A thoughtless piece of happy-ending sentimental slop? A theological-political plug for women’s ordination? Your guess is as good as mine.
Fortunately the singing is at a level of excellence matching the staging. Top honors go to the always superb Hans Sotin as Gurnemanz. In his previous DVD outing in the role from 17 years before (also at Bayreuth) he sang very well indeed, but was somewhat light in timbre and could not match the solemn nobility of Ludwig Weber and Kurt Moll; but here both the voice and interpretation have deepened to provide a portrayal joining theirs in the very top echelon. Equally superb is Linda Watson, who has the rare combination of qualities needed for a complete Kundry: a voice that is rich, warm, vibrant, powerful, and absolutely steady, and sweetly seductive, impassioned, and earthy by turns. As Parsifal, Poul Elming is that rarity of rarities, a true Heldentenor with a properly baritonal timbre and vocal heft. The vibrato is steady and the top notes secure and effortless; an occasional slight bleatiness presages the vocal decline that would beset him a few years later, but here adds a welcome touch of vulnerability to the interpretation. If not quite on the stellar level of Siegfried Jerusalem in the aforementioned 1982 Bayreuth performance, he is the equal or superior of other rivals, including Wolfgang Windgassen and Plácido Domingo. Falk Struckmann and Matthias Hölle are two singers of whom I have generally fought shy due to unfocused, wobbly vocal production, but here both are on best behavior. As Amfortas, Struckmann is still a bit diffuse, but not to a degree I find disturbing, and here in alliance with a plangent tone that actually adds to the character’s pathos and wounded vulnerability, while Hölle as Titurel is rock-solid and suitably sepulchral. Only Ekkehard Wlaschiha as Klingsor is on a somewhat lower plane; his voice is still powerful and stable and his interpretation impassioned, but wear and tear from years of heavy use have set in and the emission is now forced and dry, with a certain degree of barking rather than singing. Still, while he is no Hermann Uhde, he is better than most other alternatives.
The recorded sound is excellent, capturing the Bayreuth acoustic to the full. The camerawork is solid but cautious and unenterprising; the 12-year delay between filming and commercial release makes me wonder if it was filmed for archival purposes rather than public distribution. Whatever the case, it now ranks as one of three Parsifal s on DVD to which a hearty recommendation can be given, the other two being the 1982 Bayreuth production and the 1992 Metropolitan Opera staging, both on DG. The 1982 Bayreuth version features dull, drab sets by Wolfgang Wagner and some absurd stage business (notably, in act III the knights move in to kill Amfortas just as Parsifal arrives to save the day), but it boasts committed acting and a uniformly strong vocal cast of Eva Randova, Siegfried Jerusalem, Bernd Weikl, Leif Roar, Hans Sotin, and Matti Salminen, with Horst Stein leading a swift but never rushed performance; it’s worth getting just for the audio portion. The 1992 Met outing features an attractive naturalist staging by Otto Schenck but more uneven musical values. A decade older, the voices of Jerusalem and Weikl are now noticeably more strained though still quite acceptable; Kurt Moll and Waltraud Meier are magnificent, but Jan-Hendrik Rootering is a somewhat woofy Titurel, one must try to tolerate the intolerable Franz Mazura as Klingsor, and James Levine is mired in his slower-than-molasses-in-January podium mode of that time, though somehow he stills mostly makes it work. All other DVD versions feature Eurotrash productions with horribly inept singing to boot. On CD I would especially recommend the fabled 1951 Bayreuth performance, available on several labels, with Martha Mödl, Wolfgang Windgassen, George London, Hermann Uhde, Ludwig Weber, and Hans Knappertsbusch (vastly superior to the oft-recommend Knappertsbusch Bayreuth performance of 1962) and—despite the inadequate Peter Hofmann in the title role—the 1981 DG recording with Dunja Vejzovic, José van Dam, Siegmund Nimsgern, Kurt Moll, and the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan. Worthy if lesser alternatives include a 1953 Bayreuth outing, also issued on various labels, in which Ramón Vinay and Clemens Krauss replace Windgassen and Knappertsbusch, and a 1971 Bayreuth performance on Melodram with Janis Martin, Sandór Konya, Thomas Stewart, Gerd Nienstedt, Franz Crass, and Eugen Jochum. Finally, mavens of historical recordings with high tolerance for poor recorded sound will look to the 1936 Teatro Colón performance on Marston with Marjorie Lawrence, René Maison, Martial Singer, Fred Destal, and Alexander Kipnis led by Fritz Busch, and the 1938 Met broadcast (with 10-second gaps in sound every four minutes due to use of a single recording turntable) featuring Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, Friedrich Schorr, Arnold Gabor, and Emmanuel List, with Artur Bodansky leading acts I and III and Eric Leinsdorf stepping in for his temporarily indisposed colleague in act II. The Guild label has issued an intact act II of this performance in superior sound preserved from a different source.
FANFARE: James A. Altena
Works on This Recording
Parsifal by Richard Wagner
Poul Elming (Tenor),
Falk Struckmann (Baritone),
Linda Watson (Soprano),
Hans Sotin (Bass),
Ekkehard Wlaschiha (Baritone),
Matthias Hölle (Bass)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra,
Bayreuth Festival Chorus
Written: 1877-1882; Germany
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