James Levine
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
April 1991, June 1992
Manhattan Center New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasJames Morris
TiturelJan-Hendrik Rootering
GurnemanzKurt Moll
ParsifalPlácido Domingo
KlingsorEkkehard Wlaschiha
KundryJessye Norman
GralsritterAllan Glassman
Julien Robbins

The most cogent reason for considering this set must be the Kundry of Jessye Norman. Here, in a part that lies ideally for her soprano shading to mezzo, and singing in wholly idiomatic German, she gives perhaps her most convincing portrayal in an operatic role to date on disc. The rich, seductive sound of her tone and her simple yet intense phrasing in Act 2 and her tortured outcries in Acts 1 and 3 make her one of the most telling Kundrys on disc, as does her long-breathed phrasing and, my goodness, it does have to be that, given Levine’s drawn-out speeds.

I single out Norman’s reading for inordinate praise possibly in compensation for finding very little else in this recording to justify yet another Parsifal when the catalogue is full of worthwhile sets (though that doesn’t include Levine’s earlier, equally turgid performance, one characterized, as AW put it, by ”slow tempos and heavy phrasing”). Either the music is slowed almost to a standstill or it is blown up out of all proportion, an effect exaggerated here by the recording in the Manhattan Centre. If you think Parsifal is about the physical sensation of the most refulgent sound ever heard in this work, indeed a sonic spectacular, you may enjoy this set more than I did. The playing of the Metropolitan Orchestra is undoubtedly virtuoso and big-boned, the choral singing upfront, but none of this has much to do with giving a satisfying, spiritual account of this piece. This performance is self-indulgent, the ne plus ultra of stodginess. It followed performances at the Metropolitan when Opera’s New York correspondent wrote amusingly that Levine won the Knappertsbusch Memorial Prize for slowness, but that is a slur on old Kna who never allowed the score to drag as it does here.

If you take such a crucial passage as the first Transformation scene, not only does Levine take longer over it than any of the conductors listed above, bar himself, but it becomes a piece of orchestral exhibitionism. Turn to Karajan or Knappertsbusch and you hear it integrated into a total view of the work. Another example, the section after Kundry’s cry of ”Parsifal” in Act 2, shows incontrovertibly how laming is Levine’s heavy hand. The music here drags along at snail’s pace, allowing the pulse to falter dangerously. Knappertsbusch, no speed merchant, doesn’t make that mistake in either of his performances, while piercing to the heart of this significant moment. Barenboim goes pretty slowly but he never loses the pulse of the music. Levine regains some momentum in Act 3 which he shapes with a surer hand than the earlier acts.

But here the set suffers from its other serious drawback, Domingo’s Parsifal. By no stretch of the imagination does he sound comfortable in the part. He sings it with his customary intelligence and steady tone, but the phrasing is often wooden and the text seems to mean little or nothing to him. Turn to Jerusalem (Barenboim) or Windgassen (Knappertsbusch/Teldec) or Kollo (Kegel) and you discover the inner core of the character and his development from uncouth youth in Act 1 to mature knight in Act 3. Kurt Moll is, of course, an experienced and sensitive Gurnemanz, with the warm, fatherly tone the role needs, but he is neither as eloquent as he was for Karajan nor as noble or spiritual as Hotter (Knappertsbusch/Philips) nor as emotion-laden as Weber on Knappertsbusch/Teldec. Morris’s Amfortas, strongly sung, is anonymous and one-dimensional. Listen to van Dam for either Karajan or Barenboim to hear something of its torment: even better to London on both the Knappertsbusch versions. Wlaschiha is a suitably vicious, arrogant Klingsor but not in the class of Uhde (Knappertsbusch/Teldec) or Nimsgern (Karajan). Rootering is a suitably grave and wavering Titurel. The Flowers are weedy and unlovely: listen by contrast to the lovely sound of Barenboim’s Maidens. So nothing is done here to topple the recommendations of Barenboim or Karajan among relatively recent readings, or Knappertsbusch/ Philips, at mid price, for the most moving interpretation of all—unless, that is, you prefer Knappertsbusch/Teldec in mono or Kegel for a quite different view of the work, the anti-pole to Levine’s in its emphasis on the drama.

In between sessions for this CD recording, a live Met performance was also recorded for video, with a more satisfactory cast (see page 161), and that might be a better buy for anyone wanting Levine in this opera.

Addressing the controversial ideology underlying much of Wagner’s achievement without compromising its sublimity and greatness is perhaps the primary challenge facing Wagner interpreters today. Yet it’s one that seems to have bypassed James Levine, whose vehement opposition to conceptual approaches to Wagner staging is well known. In this his second recording of Parsifal, he demonstrates once again that a non-interventionist account is simply not sufficient: a personal interpretative vision of the work is vital. ‘Frigid’ is the only word to describe it. As if to convince us that Nietzsche was right in dismissing Wagner as a miniaturist, Levine presents the work as an infinite succession of expressive soundbites, each one inflated out of all proportion to its large-scale function. Yet, paradoxically, Levine’s squeezing out of the last molecule of expressive juice results not in heightened intensity and deeper emotional involvement, but in a curious distancing, only emphasised by the exceptionally beautiful playing of the Met orchestra and the unsparing clarity of the recording. Levine’s evasive tactic rubs off too on his singers, an enticing line-up on paper but in execution consistently disappointing: not even Kurt Moll’s experienced and sensitive Gurnemanz (so moving on the Karajan recording, also on DG), nor Plácido Domingo and Jessye Norman’s exquisitely sung but dramatically uninteresting Parsifal and Kundry are able to do much to save an intrinsically flawed and – dare one say it – foolhardy enterprise. More’s the pity.

Antony Bye

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476 kbit/s VBR, 44.1 kHz, 963 MByte (flac)