I don’t think ‘Parsifal’ is the most difficult Wagner opera to sing, at least not for the tenor. All right, the ages-long duet between Kundry and the title hero requires an enormous stamina, but try to compare it to a Siegfried or a Tristan!
It is a tough job for a director, because how do you deal with all the very heavy symbolism that almost makes the work collapse? Do you strip it down to the bare bones to avoid all sentimentality, or do you go for the opposite and create the utmost in drama ?
Amfortas being admitted to the ICU of a hospital, hooked up to all sorts of tubes and infusions, it really doesn’t surprise me. A bald Kundry? Yawn. I’ve seen that so many times. That her hair grows as the opera progresses? Apparently miracles are still part of this world. That there are women walking around, while we are dealing with a very strict “men only” sect … oh well.
Everything you see in this Parsifal, recorded in London in 2013, has absolutely nothing to do with the libretto. But that’s nothing new by now.
Stephen Langridge strips the story of all its Christian symbolism and brings it down to the ordinary world of ordinary mortals, he says. He himself talks about ‘humanising’ it. One thing he must explain to me: whatever is the young man in a loincloth, who has taken the place of the Holy Grail, doing there?
Innovative theatre? Very well. But Parsifal? No. Turning off the image is not very helpful in this case: none of the singers really appeal to me. Gerald Finley is a fine actor, but he is not Amfortas. There is something missing in his singing; it sounds as if he wants to make it sound as beautiful as possible. But it is not inconceivable that the direction is getting in his way. Anyway, without images, nothing at all is left of the role.
Willard White (Klingsor) lacks the necessary villainy and whoever had the unfortunate idea of casting Angela Denoke as Kundry! (and even worse: as the “voice from above”) …..Even René Pape’s sound is monochromous, as if he is playing his role mechanically.
And Parsifal (Simon O’Neill)? Oh well. He does the best he can. A pressing question: does anyone actually know why singers always have to move like they are suffering from severe spasms these days?
But the orchestra of the ROH, under Antonio Pappano, is playing in a nothing less than divine way, surely an important plus! (Opus Arte OA 1158)
Lehnhoff, a director I greatly admire and who I count as one of the best contemporary Wagner directors, has turned the story around. In his vision, the Grail Knights are not fighting against destructive forces, no, they themselves are the destructive force.
Once founded with the best of intentions to bring people closer together, time had caused them to lose all their humanity and to become a kind of sect, ossified and rusty in their old habits. It seems inevitable that they are all doomed to die with Amfortas; if they are to survive, they must go with Parsifal, and with Kundry, through the tunnel, into a new future. It is an open ending, different from what Wagner would have wanted, but very logical and explainable, and as such more than acceptable.
The cast is excellent. Christopher Ventris is a very convincing Parsifal. Waltraud Meier is a one of a kind Kundry and Thomas Hampson is very moving as a tormented Amfortas. Matti Salminen (Gurnemanz) and Tom Fox (Klingsor) are also brilliant.
The costumes are splendid and the choreography (the dancing flower girls and the seduction scene in particular) is very fine. The very sensually playing Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin is conducted by Kent Nagano. This splendid production was originally made for the ENO in London, after which it was performed in San Francisco and Chicago. From Chicago it was then brought to Baden Baden, where it was filmed in 2005 (Opus Arte OA 0915 D).
Jaap van Zweden
Operas by Wagner, conducted by Jaap van Zweden on the ZaterdagMatinee, it has become a household name. After the performances of Lohengrin and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which were received with great acclaim, it was a foregone conclusion that Parsifal also would prove to be a veritable feast.
We were not disappointed, because what happened that afternoon, 11 December 2010, in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw was nothing less than a brilliant. Fortunately, the opera was recorded live and it has been released (Challenge Classics CC72519). The beautifully designed, compact box contains, besides 4 SACDs, a DVD with images of the highlights of the opera and an extensive booklet with explanatory notes, synopsis and libretto.
It is perhaps not the best Parsifal ever: in my opinion, van Zweden begins a little too cautiously and soberly, but along the way it just keeps getting better and better. Klaus Florian Vogt is a light Parsifal, just as I imagine a foolish young man to be, and Katarina Dalayman a more than convincing, seductive Kundry. Falk Struckman’s Amfortas sounds very tormented, but the palm of honour goes to Robert Holl’s Gurnemanz.
Here is the first act:
Janowski is a very experienced Wagner conductor. His Ring, which he recorded for RCA in the 1980s, is rock solid. In 2010, he and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin embarked on a cycle of 10 Wagner operas, all of which will be recorded live by the Dutch label PentaTone Classics.
I really like the Parsifal (PTC 5185 401 ) recorded in April 2011, albeit with a few side notes. Elke Wilm Schulte (Klingsor) sounds nice and mean and the truly fantastic Franz Josef Selig sings a very impressive, but at times also moving Gurnemanz.
Michelle deYoung (Kundry) is a matter of taste. Personally, in this role I prefer a fuller sound with better height, less breast tones and a little less vibrato, but she still manages to convince me. So too the tormented Amfortas by the then very young Russian baritone, Evgeni Nikitin.
I must admit that I find it hard to like the interpreter of the title role, Christian Elsner. He reminds me a little of the Wagner tenors of the past, one of the reasons why I was so late to Wagner. I find his voice sharp, moreover he tends to shout and I don’t care for that.
I don’t have an SACD, but even with an ordinary CD player, the sound enters your room in a truly grandiose way. As if you are surrounded by it, very natural and with beautiful dynamics.
Christian Thielemann is said to be a worthy successor to Furtwängler, and that may certainly be true. He does not hide his love of the great German composers, and his interpretations of them are rightly praised.
He also shares his capriciousness and wilfulness with his illustrious predecessor, so his interpretations are often controversial. I like that, because it forces the listener to listen attentively. I like his Wagner interpretations best, they are often exuberant and elaborate.
In that respect, he did not disappoint me with the Parsifal (DG 4776006), recorded live in Vienna ten years ago. He emphasises the human aspect of the work rather than its mysticism, and the truly brilliant orchestra closely follows suit.
It was Domingo’s last Parsifal, a role he had (rightly) dropped, and although he has audibly aged, he still manages to convince completely. This also applies to Waltraud Meier’s Kundry.
Franz-Josef Selig is a fantastic Gurnemanz, his warm bass with the beautiful legato seems made for the long monologues, and Falk Struckmann plays a magnificent Amfortas.
In 1998 Tony Palmer made a fascinating film entitled Parsifal – The Search for the Grail (Arthaus 100610). Domingo is the host and tells not only about the work itself, but also about the history of the Holy Grail. It is a very fascinating and enjoyable quest, illustrated by excerpts from Indiana Jones and Monty Python, amongst others. And with the performance of the opera at the Mariinski Theatre, with, alongside Domingo, Violeta Urmana as Kundry and Matti Salminen as Gurnemanz.
Wagner and Stephen Fry
A small detour. Any film and theatre lover knows Stephen Fry of course, one of the greatest English actors of the last decades. But Fry is more than that. By talking very openly about his homosexuality and his psychological problems (he suffers from manic-depressive disorder, about which he has made a film, The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive), he has made himself extremely vulnerable.
He is also a huge Wagner fan, something that has reinforced his “bipolarity”: Fry is Jewish and the majority of his family were murdered in the Holocaust. He also made a film about this, Wagner & Me (1102DC).
The documentary has won awards at various festivals. Quite rightly so, because the result is not only enormously fascinating because of the internal conflict, which a Jewish Wagner lover has to fight within himself, but also shows us the images that an ordinary “mortal” never gets to see: even if you’d ever manage to get tickets to Bayreuth – you would never ever find yourself behind the stage.