James Levine
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
28 March 1992
Metropolitan Opera House New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasBernd Weikl
TiturelJan-Hendrik Rootering
GurnemanzKurt Moll
ParsifalSiegfried Jerusalem
KlingsorFranz Mazura
KundryWaltraud Meier
GralsritterPaul Groves
Jeffrey Wells
New York Times

A ‘Parsifal’ at the Met With Meier and Jerusalem

“Parsifal” is an opera that is also a ceremony. Wagner called it a “stage-consecrating festival play”: its tale of ritual threatened and ritual restored was itself meant to be a ritual, consecrating Bayreuth as a shrine in a renewed religion of art. To a certain extent, every opera house that now puts on this massive work must approach it in the same spirit, as an induction into another world, a timeless realm once claimed by religion. Its stage actions are meant to inspire an esthetic transformation in the audience; the true Grail of “Parsifal’ is meant to be the music. That is why, when James Levine entered the pit to begin the season’s first performance of the work at the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday night, the house was in total darkness. There was no applause even when he was finally illuminated, his hands outstretched for that first haunting statement of languorous yearning. I can’t say that the impact of the following 5 hours and 45 minutes quite reached the realm of transcendental ritual: there were too many moments when Mr. Levine, as extraordinarily attuned to the music as he was, let its breathing become automatic. And there were too many moments of earthbound dramaturgy. But this was an unusually fine performance with a first-rate cast. If it didn’t transport, it did at times transform. In the second act, for example, Waltraud Meier, bringing her acclaimed performance as Kundry to the Met for the first time, was seductive and gentle in her first approach to Parsifal, holding in reserve a strength and determination that gave her singing an eerie calm. That calm was broken by Siegfried Jerusalem, who also brought his rare abilities to the Met for the first time in the opera’s title role. He was deliberately callow but entranced by this encounter, giving his focused heldentenor an aura of unexpected vulnerability. As their vocal dance reached its climax in the revelatory kiss (a sort of sardonic inversion of the consummation envisioned in “Tristan”), Kundry’s torn feelings and Parsifal’s awakenings marked one of the dramatic high points of the evening. This wasn’t a matter of ritual performance; it was human enactment. That element of character came to the fore again and again in the singing. Kurt Moll as Gurnemanz was too stolid for my taste during much of the first act, but nuances developed in his sure-pitched performance later in the evening, so weariness and pain could be heard mixed with the singer’s natural authority. Franz Mazura’s Klingsor was an effectively melodramatic villain, his voice suffused with malevolence. His cry of “Furchtbare Not!” mourning his own fate, was a sneer of pain. As Amfortas, Bernd Weikl also distinguished himself. Meanwhile, Mr. Levine, taking unusually slow tempos, particularly in the first act, created a transparent and carefully controlled orchestral foundation, often lovely, sometimes distinguished in its insight. The problem, though, was that the effect of the whole did not really match the level of its details. And here the fault was partly in Otto Schenk’s 1991 production and Gunther Schneider-Siemssen’s sets. This production attempted to be almost religiously traditional about the drama. Kundry even used her hair to wash Parsifal’s feet, per Wagnerian instructions. But the production was also close to kitsch in its style. The bare-breasted flower maidens frolicked in an autumnal wood rather than one about to blossom, but the entire scene seemed transported from an academic 19th-century painting of classical nymphs. Klingsor’s props included a cheap-looking illuminated globe and a sci-fi metalic apparatus mounted on a tripod. The meadow was outfitted with wire flowers. Anointments with water and balm were plentiful. The assemblages of the knights — here looking more like monks — were literal, studied and deadening. When their hands reached up in waves to touch the spear as it was carried around the stage, acting like beggars straining for alms, it seemed a satire of faith healing. The problem was not the production’s alone. Kitsch is a sentimental imitation of art, a belated attempt to evoke its power without its demands; it relies on cliche and convention. Wagner was being kitschy about religion, reducing its doctrines to notions of sexual renunciation and curative ritual, fetishizing objects like the spear and the Grail. Too much stilted invocation of that ritual on stage and Wagner’s own dramatic kitsch becomes hard to take. There is good reason for the long tradition of abstraction in staging “Parsifal.” As for the music, it is the opera’s curative answer to its own kitsch, demanding attention, devotion, practice and concentration; it is Wagner’s restoration of ritual in sound. And there, Mr. Levine permitted no sentimentality or kitsch; the performance was good enough to be much more than ceremonial.

EDWARD ROTHSTEIN | March 14, 1992

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 590 MByte (MP3)
Matinee broadcast
A production by Otto Schenk (1991)
Also available as commercial DVD release