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Wagner: Parsifal / Ventris, Meier, Nagano, et al

Wagner / Ventris / Meier / Salminen / Negano
Release Date: 05/17/2005 
Label:  Opus Arte   Catalog #: 915  
Composer:  Richard Wagner
Performer:  Thomas HampsonWaltraud MeierChristopher VentrisMatti Salminen,   ... 
Conductor:  Kent Nagano
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Deutsches Symphony OrchestraBaden-Baden Festival Choir
Number of Discs: 3 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

Also available on Blu-ray

Director Nikolaus Lehnhoff's re-interpretation of Wagner's religious festival play is controversial. In notes accompanying this 3-DVD set, he says that "Parsifal is an endgame in the wasteland," and that "Wagner's music mercilessly tells of total loneliness, of living in an empty world stripped of all its former meaning." Indeed, there is less concentration on the Christian aspects of the work here than in any production I've encountered, as if religious conventions and the holiness associated with those conventions are now beside the point: Gurnemanz and the Grail Knights have lost touch entirely with pure spirituality
Read more and are bound only by meaningless ritual, crippled and greedy.

The sets and costumes by Raimund Bauer and Andrea-Schmidt Futterer, respectively, work ideally with this conception. We are in a gray, barren, post-apocalyptic landscape, filled with scraps and rotting (and overturned chairs, for some reason); an inexplicable boulder (meteorite?) juts from the rear wall in Act 1. The ashen, stone grayness of the "look" is highlighted only by Kundry's splashes of color (Klingsor's costume also is bright and colorful, but it's ridiculous and doesn't tell us anything); she looks like a wild animal at times, and later, like a penitent, in white.

The third act features more barrenness, but with a railroad track snaking toward the rear of the stage, where there is a white light. When the Knights want Amfortas to uncover the Grail, they attack him like an angry mob; they care nothing for him as anything other than one who performs the rite. He cradles his father's corpse in his arms lovingly and longs to leave the Knights--his death is a joy for him because he'll be escaping the vulturous, meaningless brotherhood. His wound may be healed, but he dies peacefully, first putting his crown on Parsifal's head. Parsifal, needing no accoutrements of piety, removes the crown and gives the spear to Gurnemanz, so the latter can continue, with the living dead that the Grail Knights have become, to uphold old, outdated values that have nothing to do with the living. And Kundry does not achieve the peace-in-death she has asked for throughout the opera; rather she leads Parsifal up the tracks to the light--presumably a better future--as the curtain falls.

Whether you agree with it or find it heresy (Wagnerian or otherwise) doesn't matter; it is enormously effective. And musically it is brilliant, with only an exception or two. Kent Nagano takes quick tempos, getting through Act 1 in an almost-record 96 minutes. The one miscalculation in the act is the Transformation Music: it is too fast, almost a jaunt in the park rather than torturous. It's nicely presented, though, with Parsifal and Gurnemanz moving slightly in place while shafts of light move in rhythm around the stage. Nagano gets the Orchestra to shimmer in that special Parsifalian way--when Gurnemanz recognizes the changed Parsifal in the last act, there is a glow that causes both warmth and a chill. He agrees with Lehnhoff, apparently, and has the chorus sing aggressively when they demand the Grail ritual--it's brutal.

The cast is splendid. Christopher Ventris may not have a voice that is instantly recognizable (à la Vickers, Kollo, etc.), but his Parsifal is well thought through and handsomely inflected and sung. He acts with dignity and is particularly effective in the final act. Waltraud Meier remains the Kundry for our time (it is her only completely effective role), her stillness as fascinating as her wild moments. Her voice easily encompasses the part and she's alternately gorgeously seductive and gorgeously crazy. On some level she's the focus of Lehnhoff's production--the true sinner who is truly repentant, that is, entirely human. Thomas Hampson's Amfortas is remarkable. He gets the complexity--the suffering and the rapture--inherent in this character and projects it through movement and facial expressions almost moreso than he does vocally. The voice itself is not what ultimately impresses you.

Bjarni Thor Kristinsson's Titurel is sung somewhat wobbly, but since the character is here presented as a living skeleton, what were we to expect? Tom Fox portrays Klingsor well despite his silly costume; his self-loathing is as clear as his hatred of others. And last, but hardly least, is the Gurnemanz of Matti Salminen, the voice hardly one of many colors but ideal in this reading. He is strong and pious (albeit emptily) and an un-nuanced character. This is not damning with faint praise; his singing is solid and spotless. The Flower Maidens, entwining Parsifal without ever making physical contact, are excellent.

This is a perfect example of a performance that must be heard and seen, and the camerawork is sensitive and telling, allowing us to read the shadings and changing emotions on the characters' faces. Picture format is 16:9. The sound is sensational, and listeners' choices are LPCM Stereo, DTS Digital Surround; there are subtitles in French, English, German, Spanish, and Italian. Features include a cast gallery, illustrated synopsis (skip both) and a series of interviews with Lehnhoff, Meier, Ventris, and others that analyze the production--all interesting but not as riveting as the production. Whether you like the concept or not, it will make you think--and musically, you certainly won't be disappointed.

-- Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

Parsifal by Richard Wagner
Performer:  Thomas Hampson (Baritone), Waltraud Meier (Mezzo Soprano), Christopher Ventris (Tenor),
Matti Salminen (Bass), Tom Fox (Baritone)
Conductor:  Kent Nagano
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Deutsches Symphony Orchestra,  Baden-Baden Festival Choir
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1877-1882; Germany 

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