James Levine
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
20 April 1985
Metropolitan Opera House New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasSimon Estes
TiturelJulien Robbins
GurnemanzKurt Moll
ParsifalJon Vickers
KlingsorFranz Mazura
KundryLeonie Rysanek
GralsritterMichael Best
Richard Vernon
New York Times

”PARSIFAL” is not an opera in any conventional sense. Nor is it, despite the piety that audiences sometimes affect in its presence, a religious ceremony. It is best understood and appreciated as a solemn ritual of the esthetic cult known as Wagnerism, whose grip on the musical public’s imagination seems as strong today as at any time since the composer’s death a century ago. The spell that ”Parsifal” can cast in a glorious performance is difficult to explain to nonbelievers in the Wagnerian creed, but it rests heavily on the mesmerizing power of pure ritual and ritual’s handmaiden, ecstatically solemn music.

The Metropolitan Opera’s first ”Parsifal” of the declining season on Monday evening turned out to be just such a glorious event. James Levine, conducting a performance that stretched over five hours and 15 minutes, never lost the thread of continuity, though his pacing was notably even for this work. In fact, it does not seem right to speak of tempos in such an expansive reading, in which the score’s pulse at times could barely be detected. The first act, lasting two hours, was one long epicedium, a time-suspending funeral march that put the orchestra and its conductor to severe tests. Especially in the first act’s Prelude, the orchestra delivered some raw and unbalanced sonorities, but on the whole it played with exquisite tone and admirable concentration.

The cast, one of the season’s strongest from top to bottom, had two of our time’s finest Wagnerians in the leading roles. Jon Vickers, his virile tenor sounding fresh and pliant, sang with his usual conviction in the title part, creating a character that one could sympathize with. It is high praise to say that he acted the perfect fool, the innocent youth who must learn to recognize and reject the world’s fleshly pleasures. He thus deserves admittance into the Brotherhood of the Grail, a rigorously celibate organization that not every reformed fool would choose to join.

Leonie Rysanek, as the unsuccessful, tortured seductress Kundry, was in uncertain, scratchy voice early on, but her tone steadied and took on sheen as the night progressed. Miss Rysanek, whose long dark hair changed to a hussy’s red in the temptation scene, was a pitiable figure, despised and rejected by men. Most Kundrys are half-savage, subhuman creatures, given to bellowing hideously, crawling about on the floor and rolling their eyes to dramatize their plight. Miss Rysanek showed she could scream as blood-chillingly as the best of them, but on the whole her Kundry was softer and more recognizably womanly, particularly in the final act when, in an allusion to Mary Magdalene, she prostrates herself before the beatific Parsifal and dries his feet with her hair. Feminists are warned to avert their eyes at this point.

Simon Estes sang movingly as the anguished Amfortas, the king whose bleeding wound will not heal. Kurt Moll’s rolling-thunder bass and towering dignity made him an ideal Gurnemanz. And Morley Meredith fulminated wonderfully as the evil sorcerer Klingsor, a man so confused about his sexual identity that he has castrated himself in a vain attempt to gain admission to the Brotherhood.

The Nathaniel Merrill-Robert O’Hearn production, now 15 years old, still succeeds in an eclectic style that is in debt partly to Wieland Wagner’s Bayreuth and partly to 19th-cen tury traditionalism. The scenic transformations to music that resembles the tolling of ponderous bells work well, sometimes quite magically. The Flower Maidens in Klingsor’s garden dance and sing with appealing enthusiasm, but a few of them do appear in need of a Weight Watcher’s regimen. The knights all wear the same ludicrous wigs, fashionably streaked in silver. Such small flaws are merely distracting. However, the last act disappoints in a larger way by failing to make the most of the Good Friday Spell, one of the most magical interludes in all of Wagner. Instead of opening out onto sunlit, flowery meadows, the scene remains smothered in stony gloom, so that the music cannot make its usual ethereal effect.

DONAL HENAHAN | April 10, 1985

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 622 MByte (MP3)
Matinee broadcast
A production by Nathaniel Merrill (1970)