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Richard Wagner: Parsifal
21 Jan 2008

WAGNER: Parsifal

This DVD records and commemorates a 1981 production of Parsifal in its Bayreuth lair, and the singers of 1981 are as fine as recollection might paint them.

Richard Wagner: Parsifal

Eva Randova (Kundry), Siegfried Jerusalem (Parsifal), Bernd Weikl (Amfortas), Leif Roar (Klingsor), Hans Sotin (Gurnemanz), Matti Salminen (Titurel). Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival, conducted by Horst Stein. Production by Wolfgang Wagner. Video director Brian Large. Bayreuth Festival June-July 1981.

Deutsche Grammophon 073 4328 [2DVDs]

$45.99  Click to buy

What may startle younger viewers accustomed to the contemporary shock-jock taste of German opera staging will be the reminder of how recent that all-conquering trend is: As late as the ’80s, Bayreuth would give you a forest and a temple where a forest and a temple were called for, a chorus of knights taking holy communion in that scene (by turns, those not singing are communing), with costumes of an almost embarrassing faux medievality in unsubtle, stained-glass reds and blues. Is this 1981 or a misprint for 1881, you may wonder — though as Parsifal had its world premiere in 1882, the answer to that should be obvious. This is a Parsifal very much aware of itself as Wagner’s apotheosis of the medieval religious ritual drama — there is no attempt at realism — higher matters are on the minds of everyone concerned.

Whether Wagner’s Gothic-revival religiosity appeals to you is not exactly the point; this production is not intended to convert but, like a medieval passion play, to proclaim mystical truths to those already converted. If you believe Wagner’s philosophic/religious mysticism takes a backseat to his musical achievement, you will have no difficulty enjoying this Parsifal. If Wagner’s mucking about with race and sacramental blood and sexual wounds gives you the willies, Parsifal is probably not for you in any case.

The set for the forest is a Klimtian forest; the Temple of the Grail five stage-high columns, curved to imply the ribs of a dome, curiously echoed in some rather threatening structures in Klingsor’s garden — as though to imply that Klingsor is attempting to create a sacrilegious parody of the Temple. The Grail manifests magically enough (though its glowing ruby heart is too obviously an electrical stage trick and would profit from distance) and the costumes make grand stage pictures from far off. None of the choral singers are individuals in this story anyway; they represent an archetypal mob, a backdrop to the symbolic drama in the foreground.

The acting of the principals in that foreground is stately and superb: either they, or the director, has put them through the meaning of every phrase of the libretto. The one unfortunate thing about director Brian Large’s fondness for close-ups is that we can see dry, empty hands when Kundry washes Parsifal’s feet and he baptizes her, also when Gurnemanz anoints him king of the Grail. We can also see that Randova has not bothered to make herself appear eldritch in Act I — which makes it difficult to understand why Amfortas and Gurnemanz do not recognize her as Klingsor’s houri, and why Parsifal does not know her when he meets her in Klingsor’s garden. Nor does she bother to die at the end of the show, though otherwise she follows Wagner’s careful directions in fixing her attention.

Horst Stein’s measured pace is most fulfilling: we are given a leisured march through this living ritual dream of a score, and tension arises through musical not active means. The singing is of a consistently high quality. What Siegfried Jerusalem lacked in sheer power as a heldentenor (and at Bayreuth, and in this kinder role, did not need), he makes up in thoughtful acting and phrasing: he is a puzzled seeker, not so frolicsome as many a Parsifal is played, but pensive from the first, a fool in his slow understanding but a mystic in his determination to make sense of what he sees and hears. The discovery of human pain and guilt that comes to him in Kundry’s kiss intensifies an awareness that was already present, lurking beneath the surface, and comes out in the final scene as Amfortas’s agonized face smooths itself out, and both agony and crown are transferred to the new Grail-king. (I also liked the touch of his having grown a beard between Acts II and III — and that it is already graying with his comprehension of the world.)

Randova, for whom Kundry was a signature role, sings with a luscious but little-varied tone in the long scene of attempted seduction. Hans Sotin is a Gurnemanz who reveals a temper even as he holds it in check, talking with the pages or with the nameless swan-killing youth or, sternly, to the mysterious knight (in, admittedly, a weird late-nineteenth century version of a Moorish caftan) who appears with a spear on Good Friday, but he always sings with majestic power. Wolfgang Brendel is more internally wracked than hysterical as Amfortas — indeed, that internality is a quality of all the characters in this staging: they are not so much wrestling with each other as with their own souls and internal demons. The well-named Leif Roar (did he ever sing with Peter Schreier?) scowls visibly and vocally as a human, rather than demonic, Klingsor. In terms of luxe casting, giving Titurel to Matti Salminen makes one gasp.

As ever with old Bayreuth recordings (or programs), it is entertaining to ponder where great careers began and led: Hanna Schwarz, a splendid singing actress who would win world-fame as the Fricka of Chereau’s Bayreuth Centennial Ring two years later, sings a page, a flower maiden and the Voice from Above in these performances; Toni Krämer, who would become a dull but competent Siegfried, is a Grail Knight.

John Yohalem

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