12 Aug 2011
Gergiev conducts Wagner’s Parsifal
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A handsome black steed bows its head, eyes open, peering into the darkness around it.
This is the image chosen for the box cover of a new studio recording of Wagner’s Parsifal, from the Mariinsky Opera forces, led by Valery Gergiev. The somber beauty of the artwork, with lettering for the credits in shades of gray (except for the conductor’s name in white) captures both the admiration provoked by the quality of the performance inside, and some discombobulation provoked by the performance as well. For surely the animal most closely associated with Parsifal is a swan, and the corresponding color scheme would be white. So why this horse caught in ebony, as striking as it is? And under Gergiev’s leadership, why does Parsifal feel so tense and charged, with a strong forward momentum, yet also so barren of spiritual depth in the outer acts or sensuality in act two?
Gergiev’s conducting presents the score as a taut (though, of course, extremely elongated) rumination on pain and internal conflict. Of course, there is a lot of that in Parsifal, and so much of this performance works very well. But there is more in the music — the sick sensuality of act two and especially the tender reconciliation and redemption of the final act. Gergiev is less successful at conveying those qualities. The last chord of the score embodies this. Instead of gently ebbing, letting the tension flow away at the drama’s resolution, the chord lingers on in almost grim determination, and then suddenly cuts off.
It is, however, the outer acts that are most impressive, and much of the credit must go to the outstanding performance of René Pape as Gurnemanz. This character and his extended monologues can wear anyone’s patience down in any merely adequate performance. Such is the sheer tonal gorgeousness of Pape’s voice and the sensitivity and conviction of his line readings that Gurnemanz becomes what he is surely meant to be — the soul and essence of the opera’s world. Pape’s performance alone will make this set an essential listening experience for lovers of the opera.
The rest of the cast is strong but not at Pape’s level. Violeta Urmana as Kundry sings every note with beautiful control, but the underlying conflict of her character is not conveyed. In the lead role, Gary Lehman shows why his late-blossoming career found its most fertile soil in Wagner’s opera. His tenor has dark colors, yet still easily attains higher notes. He only lacks that elusive quality which makes a voice easily distinguished from all others. Evgeny Nikitin transmits the agony of Amfortas, while Nikolai Putilin’s Klingsor growls and cajoles with aggressive unpleasantness. `
The admirable packaging has a separate sleeve for each of the four discs. The booklet offers a guide for “Reading the Russian Libretto,” which is fascinating but somewhat confusing in its aim, as the libretto is also available in English, German and French, and surely those who opt for the Russian version already know how to read the language
The sound picture is beautifully captured, and overall this studio recording impresses. When Pape is singing, the selection for the cover of a dark steed makes sense — something noble, powerful, yet pensive and sad is captured inside. Touched with that greatness, this is a Parsifal deserving of attention.