Parsifal

Antonio Pappano
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Date/Location
11 December 2013
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast
AmfortasGerald Finley
TiturelRobert Lloyd
GurnemanzRené Pape
ParsifalSimon O’Neill
KlingsorWillard W. White
KundryAngela Denoke
GralsritterDavid Butt Philip
Charbel Mattar
Gallery
Opera News

An Ebola outbreak would not have been on many people’s minds when this Stephen Langridge production was new in December 2013, but today the images are eerily prescient. Amfortas spends much of the opera in a hospital bed in a glass cube resembling an isolation ward. Later, during Gurnemanz’s narration, the bed serves for reenactments of Kundry’s seduction of Amfortas and of Klingsor’s self-castration. By the end of Act I, the cube also seems to be the Grail itself. It contains an adolescent boy in a Christlike loincloth, and Amfortas’s task involves piercing the boy’s side until he bleeds. (Parsifal instantly feels empathy with the boy. Surely the point of the scene is that at this early stage he is unable to.) Suffering and death are everywhere. Amfortas, who is able to move about with two orderlies in Act I, needs a walker in Act III. Parsifal, intellectually blind, is literally blinded by the spear at the end of Act II. In the Grail ceremony, the knights painfully inject themselves by syringe. Kundry has a recurring silent scream, seen also on video and mimicked by the Flowermaidens. Titurel is in a wheelchair in Act I and returns as a mummified corpse in Act III. Klingsor’s knights all receive the Amfortas wound. 

Langridge’s production, designed by Alison Chitty, is intellectually sound in the way it addresses this aspect of Wagner’s libretto, and the treatment of Kundry’s story in Act II is especially good. Initially she is not out to ambush Parsifal like a bad Carmen; she trusts her powers enough to let him come to her, since she has never failed at this task. But from the moment she kisses him she understands that she has lost, and she plays the rest of the scene out of spite, rather than as an attempt to turn the tables. But Langridge only once engages with Wagner’s music in any meaningful way, when Klingsor’s sudden pounding of the spear on the ground dismisses the Flowermaidens.

Perhaps the stage direction contributed to Antonio Pappano’s undistinguished account of the score. Pappano is definitely an Act II conductor of Parsifal, engaged by the energetic, vibrant music of Klingsor and Kundry and capturing the sickly, wienerisch quality when Parsifal makes the connection of Kundry’s kiss to her seduction of Amfortas. But he allows the ceremonial music to deflate into mere accompaniment. He turns bouncy in the transformation music of Act I, where Wagner asks for “full of longing”; the music is undifferentiated when the Grail is uncovered in the outer acts; and there is an emptiness under Parsifal’s “Nur eine Waffe taugt.” 

Three of the singers give highly individual performances, indeed performances that could have come from no one else. Angela Denoke is very much a soprano Kundry, which pays dividends in her bare wisp of beautiful tone for “Ihr kindischen Buhlen” and in the lightest, most playful start imaginable to “Ich sah das Kind.” She’s very feminine and very powerful as needed. Gerald Finley gives an intensely human account of Amfortas, tender toward Kundry in Act I but allowing the orchestra to provide the beauty when his words are stern. René Pape tightens his lock on the role of Gurnemanz, so masterful that he threatens to walk away with any production not as strong as he is. Simon O’Neill, too burly in appearance for Langridge’s conception of Parsifal, tends toward thin tone in Act I when he tries to sound boyish, but he certainly rises to “Amfortas! Die Wunde!” in Act II. 

The picture quality and the camera work are excellent, but the production and the conducting keep this from being a primary recommendation for the opera. That decision, anyway, awaits the long-delayed DVD release of Stefan Herheim’s 2008 Bayreuth mounting.

WILLIAM R. BRAUN | March 2015 — Vol. 79, No. 9

The Telegraph

Wagner’s opaque opera resists interpretation, as usual, but the musical quality of this production is as clear as day

Several bemused Telegraph readers accosted me after this performance and flatteringly said that they hoped my review “would tell them what it was all about.” Alas, I’m not sure I can oblige.

Parsifal is, for a start, the most elusive and illusive of texts: a hall of dark mirrors, where meanings and identities implode or dissolve, stretching into infinity. Stephen Langridge’s new staging fares no better than its recent Covent Garden predecessors (directed by Terry Hands, Bill Bryden and Klaus Michael Gruber) at iluminating a path through the murk.

It is set in a forest clearing, designed by Alison Chitty. In the centre is a large white cube, framed by screens which are sometimes translucent, sometimes opaque, inside which the tormented Amfortas lies on a hospital bed. Gurnemanz appears to be some sort of physician, but there is no other indication as to what unites the Grail Brotherhood – its members are simply identikit men in cheap business suits.

During Gurnemanz’s narration, the cube also gratuitously displays tableaux illustrating the back-story (Kundry seducing Amfortas, Klingsor’s castration and so forth) and at the climax of the first Act, it reveals the Grail not as a chalice, but as a Christ-like pubescent boy in a loincloth, whom Titurel stabs in the abdomen. Mobsters armed with pistols stigmatize themselves and rush off into the forest: why?

Klingsor’s magic garden is no such thing, and his flower maidens are night-club floozies. After his revelation of compassion, Parsifal is blinded. He makes his way back to the clearing, where he redeems a Brotherhood turned ragged, proletarian and mutinous. When the healed Amfortas walks off into the sunset with Kundry (not Wagner’s idea), the final image inside the cube is of the hospital bed lying vacant.

None of this convinces: we are left knowing nothing about the Brotherhood’s moral character and there is no sense of the natural world. The overall effect is clunkingly clumsy – Langridge tripping up on his own pretensions – and devoid of the numinous radiance that permeates Antonio Pappano’s shimmeringly beautiful and deliquescent conducting

René Pape’s Gurnemanz is magnificently sung: nobly authoritative, but never pompous or barking, and despite indignities heaped on him by the production, Gerald Finley makes a compelling Amfortas.

Angela Denoke is dramatically electrifying as the chameleon Kundry, even if the end of Act 2 defeated her vocally; Simon O’Neill’s Parsifal, on the other hand, was fully equal to Wagner’s demands, but cut a prosaic figure on stage. An excellent supporting cast and chorus as well as the ravishing orchestral playing boost my rating: that fourth asterisk reflects the performance’s musical quality, not the over-egged production.

Rupert Christiansen | 01 Dec 2013

MusicWeb-International.com

In the first thirty years of LP recordings, there were only three commercial recordings of Parsifal and two of those came from live performances at Bayreuth. In the last two years, prompted no doubt partly by the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth, I have reviewed no fewer than four video presentations for this site of the composer’s final work for the stage. All four have been very different from each other in their approach. Of those four I have no hesitation in dismissing the recording from the Brussels Monnaie Theatre conducted by Harmut Haenchen where the production simply failed to match up to the score in too many ways to define. Nor was I overly impressed by the version from the Baden-Baden Festival conducted by Kent Nagano where Nicholas Lehnhoff’s original ideas frequently obtruded into both the musical and dramatic sense of the action. Since neither of these versions was musically impeccable either, I would not commend either to potential purchasers.

  This production of Parsifal by Stephen Langridge given at the Royal Opera Covent Garden last year during the Wagner bicentenary is a decided cut above either of these – both musically and dramatically – and although, as Gerald Finley notes during a brief interview given on the second disc, it is a ‘modern’ production, its purpose is clear and valid.

  Stephen Langridge makes a brief appearance in the same documentary, but he also explains his approach to the score at greater length in a booklet note. He has decided in his presentation of Parsifal to concentrate on the suffering and redemption of Amfortas, and on the recovery of purpose and meaning in the rituals of the Grail Knights. Both of these are essential elements in Wagner’s ‘sacred festival drama’, so there is no question here of superimposing on the work meanings that were foreign to the composer’s mind. They do have quite a substantial effect on the way in which we are asked to view the action.

  The concentration on Amfortas’s suffering begins even during the opening Prelude. As the music moves onto the themes associated with this, we see Amfortas isolated in a hospital bed surrounded by anxious doctors wearing hospital masks. This seems a little odd, as Amfortas’s wound is specifically a physical one and not bacteriological; one could I suppose argue that the moral corruption spreading from the wound could be infectious to those around him. This bed forms an omnipresent background to the action, sometimes vanishing from sight only to reappear again – as, for example during the Prelude to Act Three – in order to keep Amfortas’s plight in our minds. The screens surrounding the bed also are employed to accommodate projections of images from the ‘back story’ of the opera – and Heaven knows, there are enough of them. This does have an advantage in providing something for the viewer to look at when the stage action grinds to a physical halt. The emphasis on Amfortas continues right through to the final curtain, when Parsifal completely withdraws from the action to allow for a reconciliation between Amfortas and Kundry … whom he now encounters for the first time since his downfall. This is a perfectly valid way of viewing the meaning of the work, and an emotionally satisfying one at that; but unfortunately it completely fails to measure up to the music of religious transcendence that Wagner has provided for his conclusion.

  It will be gathered from the foregoing that this is a modern dress production, which is deliberately proposed by both the producer and the designer Alison Chitty as a means of making the drama register with modern audiences. One could argue about whether period costumes necessarily make dramatic action irrelevant in the modern day, but that is not really the point at issue here. The greater difficulty arises in the modern parallels that the audience is asked to draw between the community of the Grail Knights and their modern equivalents. Here they have an uncomfortable feeling of a board meeting of City bankers, led by a chairman — Robert Lloyd as Titurel, in the inevitable wheelchair — whose only means of maintaining his existence is through the Grail ritual. At this point the feeling of discomfort topples over into repulsion, as the Grail itself is symbolised by a pubescent and clearly distressed boy who is asked to impersonate Christ on the Cross and whose side is pierced by Amfortas in order to provide blood for the Knights and which Titurel eagerly licks up. No wonder Parsifal looks so distressed. In the final Act the boy reappears, now considerably aged, and the Knights seem almost ready to perform a human sacrifice on him before Parsifal intervenes. Given the level of degradation to which these Grail Knights seem to be willing to sink, the viewer is left wondering why on earth anyone should consider them worthy of redemption in the first place. This renders Parsifal’s whole quest rather meaningless.

  There is one other element of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk which is missing here – as it was in Lehnhoff’s production – which is the healing element provided by the natural world. Indeed this element provided one of the most central impulses to Wagner’s inspiration, as he described in his memoir of a Good Friday morning when the sights and smells of the spring meadow spurred him on to the writing of the opening scene of Act Three. This is not the only point where images of nature are central to the symbolism of the action. We are given a very effective animatronic swan — which actually appears to expire on stage — but otherwise, apart from some cursory flowers, nothing at all from the environment which surrounds the characters and of which they frequently sing. The trunks of the trees which do service in Acts One and Three are totally devoid of any foliage or sign of living growth. Indeed the colour green is almost entirely absent from the stage; there’s not much blue either. In this, as in many other aspects, a model is provided by the Wolfgang Wagner production from Bayreuth which I reviewed earlier this year and where the elements of the natural world — although stylised — were given their full due.

  Other aspects of the production, on the other hand, work well. Lawrence manages to get a real sense of interaction between his characters and gets full dramatic impact from this. Nor do we ever get – as is unfortunately all too often the case in the work of other producers – interaction which goes against what the music is telling us. This is a musically responsive production even when it contradicts Wagner’s own stage directions. Klingsor, for example, does not vanish at the end of the opening scene of Act Two; he remains on stage to orchestrate and direct the actions of the Flower Maidens when they attempt to seduce Parsifal. It is with a gesture of the Spear that he beckons forward Kundry at the moment he deems the time is ripe. Kundry’s curse on Parsifal at the end of that Act strikes him with blindness, and it is not until well into the Third Act that she lifts the curse, so that the first sight that greets his eyes is the Good Friday flowers blooming in the meadow — or not, as the case may be. The music here has the sense of delight and realisation which fits the moment perfectly even if it is not what Wagner had in mind. There are many other such touches: the shy glances between Parsifal and the Grail child, where Parsifal finds his sympathies engaged, constitute just one effective example. Although Mike Ashman in his production for Welsh National Opera (never filmed) used the same music for an exchange of looks between Parsifal and Amfortas, which was even better.

  In all, this is a well-thought-through production whose ideas don’t fight against the music, and as such far superior not only to the versions I mentioned earlier but also to the Hans-Jürgen Syberberg film where Parsifal’s kiss causes Kundry to change sex. Other video versions I have seen – an earlier Wolfgang Wagner production from Bayreuth, which was drab and simply dull, and the Metropolitan Opera version conducted by James Levine with some unsatisfactory elements in the casting – were comprehensively trounced by the later Wolfgang Wagner DVD released earlier this year, and to which I gave such a warm welcome. I was pleased to see has been echoed in other quarters. That version would still remain my preferred Parsifal for viewing but this one runs it a close second and is certainly a more dramatically engaging one in places.

  In musical terms, too, this is a simply excellent performance. The chorus and orchestra give their all for Sir Antonio Pappano, and although his reading may lack the original insights – some might call them quirks – that Giuseppe Sinopoli obtained at Bayreuth, it has plenty of power when required. It rises to all the emotional climaxes with full weight and does not stint the spiritual dimension that some conductors have so comprehensively attempted to strip from the work. My only criticism, as so often before, regards the bell effects employed in an attempt to satisfy Wagner’s demands for deep cathedral bells from above during the scenes in the Grail Temple. It may be of use to repeat here some of what I said about the bells used in Haenchen’s recording, which claimed to be using Wagner’s original instrumentation: “Wagner himself had a ‘bell machine’ made by Steingräber which looks rather like a snooker table with its insides removed — it can be heard on Solti’s Decca recording. What we are given here are a combination of ordinary tubular bells — which are some three octaves too high — together with some sort of bass reinforcement which may or may not be the Steingräber bell machine. This simply throws the whole of Wagner’s orchestral textures out of balance, with the high bells dominating the sound in quite the wrong sort of way. To my mind the best modern solution is the patented synthesised tape by Eckhard Maronn and Rainer Hecht of Hamburg, which produces exactly the right sort of effect. It was first used at Bayreuth by Horst Stein in 1976 and on Reginald Goodall’s recording for EMI in 1983. I don’t know why it wasn’t adopted here.” Well, that is not what we get here either. There is a deep bell effect — which may be the Steingräber machine, but sounds rather like a piano — which is reinforced with gongs and a set of what sound like very large tubular bells. This sounds better than Heinchen’s tinny instruments but is still at least an octave too high.

  The greatest strength of this performance, however, lies in its singers. The longest solo role in Parsifal is that of Gurnemanz and this is a role that René Pape might have been born to sing. Too often the part is cast with elderly Wagnerian bass-baritones who have to a greater of lesser extent developed wobbles and often have trouble with the higher-lying notes to boot. Pape is rock-steady throughout, and with his recent experience in the role of Wotan he can manage the higher passages without any sense of strain whatsoever. Nor is this the only merit in his assumption of the part. He points the text throughout with an exquisite sense of meaning and delicacy where required. Just to listen to his delivery of the rhymed couplet “Durch Mittleid wissend” could provide an object-lesson to any rivals which could last them for their lifetimes. He shades the long sustained notes during the Good Friday music, which are so often bawled, with a natural sense of line which is so totally satisfying as to defy criticism.

  Graham Finley, with much less Wagnerian experience, is similarly balm to the ears as Amfortas. So often the role is taken by heavy Wagnerian voices in the mould of George London on both the earliest commercial audio sets. The result is hectoring – demanding mercy on the character’s suffering rather than beseeching it. Here Finley shades the text with real understanding, and he also manages credibly to suggest the aging of the suffering Grail King between the first and last Acts. By his side Robert Lloyd as his father – brought onstage during Act One contrary to Wagner’s specifically stated directions – still has the firmness of projection that the role demands, but his dramatic portrayal of the aged monarch with his trembling hands also now unfortunately extends to some unsteadiness of the voice on sustained notes.

  The flower maidens in Act Two are a well-integrated bunch of voices, although their portrayal as a collection of good-time night-club hostesses is perhaps a little too obvious. I remember the first Parsifal I ever attended at Covent Garden (conducted by Sir Reginald Goodall), when the voice of the young Kiri te Kanawa riveted the audience. There are no obvious Dame Kiris here, but the singing is nicely shaded nonetheless and never shrill as it can sometimes be. The two Knights, here portrayed as concerned doctors overseeing the treatment of Amfortas, do what little they are given to do well, and are more dramatically involved than usual. The four Squires are also a nicely blended bunch, although Sipho Fubesi lacks the sense of sheer spitefulness that his character ideally demands. Willard White as Klingsor is powerful and commanding, interacting well with Kundry and even managing to make the end of the Act — when Parsifal physically wrests the Spear from his grasp rather than having it miraculously delivered into his hands — look credible.

  Which brings me to the two leading singers. I commented favourably upon Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund in Daniel Barenboim’s La Scala Ring last year. At the same time I noted that he was clearly suffering from laryngeal problems that affected his performance adversely. I also observed that his voice lacked “romantic ardour”. I am pleased to be able to report that this perceived lack clearly stemmed from his indisposition, since there is plenty of romantic sweetness of tone and warmth to be found here. He may not look particularly well-suited to the role of the starving woodland waif forced to the expedient of shooting swans for food — has anybody ever managed that aspect of the role better than Warren Ellsworth? — but his acting ability is sufficient to make the viewer overlook that drawback. His singing is fully engaged and dramatically able to ride the storms that Pappano conjures up from the orchestra pit. By contrast with Poul Elming’s converted baritone in the Bayreuth video, O’Neill is more naturally suited to the tessitura of the role. The occasional sense of strain that one finds in Elming is completely absent. His delivery of the climax of Amfortas! Die Wunde! is simply thrilling, both as a musical and as a dramatic experience.

  Even more dramatically thrilling is Angela Denoke as Kundry. Unhelpfully making her first appearance in a bald skull-cap — which looks like something out of the first Star Trek movie — she nevertheless seizes every dramatic opportunity which the role gives her and there are plenty of them as well as reacting superbly to the other characters during her long mute appearances in Act Three. The back of the box quotes the reviewer from the Daily Telegraph describing her as “dramatically electrifying” and that just about sums up her performance. I am slightly less sure about her musical handling of the role. She has the guttural low notes required for the contralto-like passages in Act One and the beginning of Act Two although she resorts to Sprechstimme on one occasion. She is decidedly less comfortable in the upper reaches of her duet with Parsifal, approaching high notes with a degree of caution and sometimes delivering them with a sense of abandon which sounds positively dangerous. She is far from negligible in the role, and a great deal better than many of her rivals on disc. However the sheer Wagnerian heft is clearly taxing her in a way that Linda Watson — on the Bayreuth video — finds more natural.

  The audience at the end is rightly enthusiastic. At the beginning of Act Three, just before Pappano begins to conduct, there are a couple of hecklers but I cannot discern what they are shouting and I really can’t see what they had to complain about. Could they not have been edited out, however? – the recording derives from three different performances. The performance is spread over two Blu-Ray discs — Bayreuth managed with one — each of which promises extras; but in the event these consist of production photographs only, with the brief documentary featuring rather short interviews with the performers provided on the second disc. The subtitles are excellent, avoiding the solecisms and misprints which disfigured both the Lehnhoff and Haenchen videos. There is however no listing of tracks in the booklet.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

The Spectator

Parsifal has anxiety, rage, near-madness — unfortunately the Royal Opera’s version doesn’t

Debussy’s description of the music of Parsifal as being ‘lit up from behind’ is famous; less so is Wagner’s own remark to Cosima that in his last music drama he was trying to get ‘the effect of clouds merging and separating’. The scoring of the music, especially in the outer acts, is so extraordinary that even people who are repelled by the subject matter of Parsifal, such as Nietzsche, are still overwhelmed by its beauty, which uniquely combines sensuousness and spirituality. It’s a beauty that has to cope with and contain a very great deal of pain, more even than Act III of Tristan. Even the quasi-liturgical unison opening bars of the Prelude soon become, when harmonised, a warning of the suffering to come; while the closing section of the Prelude led Nietzsche to write to a friend that it had ‘a penetration of vision that cuts through the soul as if with a knife’, and even in the most serene passages of the score there are unexpected jagged edges, sudden sforzati, harmonic lurches that remind us that peacefulness and repose are never states we can be confident of resting in; while the two stretches of Transformation Music, the first in particular, take the expression of pain to its absolute limits, a final place which has no rival in any art. None of this existed in the first night of the new production of Parsifal at the Royal Opera. The orchestra played magnificently, and it was evident that Antonio Pappano had rehearsed the work with enormous care. What was equally evident was that it found him quite out of his depth. The music proceeded on its nervelessly lovely way without a hint of anxiety or disquiet, let alone rage and near-madness. Blending and precision seemed to be its sole aims, often too insistent a precision, like a pianist with a staggering technique playing a late Beethoven sonata note-perfectly and with no awareness of its content. To achieve such clarity and poise Pappano needed tempi that were slow, which in this case meant without momentum. The tempi that Mark Elder achieved in his Prom performance of Parsifal were similar, but there hardly one of Wagner’s points was missed, and, despite the partly inadequate cast, that performance will remain in the memory as one by which all others are measured. I write about the musical side at such length because I have found that I can bear almost any production of Parsifal if it is well conducted and tolerably sung, but if the musical account is as inadequate as it was at the Royal Opera nothing can redeem the work from seeming pretentious and largely unintelligible posturing. Unfortunately, this production, like the last three of the work at the Royal Opera, was wanting in most respects. There is a permanent set, a hospital room with a bed, glass walls and steel frame, positioned in the centre of tall columns that pass as trees or the structure of a temple. White and black are the only colours of anything, except for the occasional slight reddening of the backcloth. Light-grey suits are the order of dress, as they are the fashion for operatic presentations of religious orders this season. The cast looks distinguished, but in the event only one performer makes a truly deep impression: Gerald Finley in his second Wagner role, as Amfortas. Never abandoning his beautiful tone, he presents as vivid a portrayal of this figure as any I have seen, though it is largely wasted in the context. He lies in the bed writhing during the Prelude, ministered to by masked, gloved, syringe-wielding male nurses. René Pape is Gurnemanz, pouring out a stream of luscious though surprisingly quiet tone, which perfectly matches the event-free accompaniment. In Act III he tries to enact elderliness by walking stiffly, but it doesn’t work, and otherwise acting seems none of his business. The Kundry of Angela Denoke, like Finley’s Amfortas, would in the right setting be a fine portrayal, but goes for little in Act II, because though she is striking in the hideous scene with Klingsor, brilliantly eerie Willard White, she otherwise has to contend with Simon O’Neill’s Parsifal. He is an undependable artist, and for most of the time his voice was at its tightest, and seemingly indifferent to the text, while mainly he, like his mentor Gurnemanz, abstains from any attempt at acting. Only for his last solo, ‘Nur eine Waffe taugt’, did he remind us of what he can do on a good evening, and if he is involved. Surely Stephen Langridge, who is the director, could have expended some energy in getting this set of artists, and the rest of the cast, to look as if they cared about one another. The most vibrant figure, paradoxically, was the Titurel of Robert Lloyd, providing the evening’s only frisson. Langridge, as we know from other productions, especially The Minotaur, can bring seemingly remote figures to vivid life. Here he was more concerned to have a swan, which twitched for a long time after flopping to the ground, and to have the Grail as a loincloth-wearing boy, from whose side Amfortas drew blood in Act I, and who made a more mature brief appearance near the end of Act III, before Amfortas and Kundry wandered off slowly into the wings, hand in hand, to an unclear destination.

Michael Tanner | 14 December 2013

Classical.net

Regular readers of Classical Net who have followed my Wagner reviews over the years will know that this iconic composer’s operas have been, especially in the last decade or so, routinely subjected to updated or reinterpreted stagings. In extreme cases, like the 2008 Bayreuth production of Die Meistersinger issued on Opus Arte, the story is changed into something entirely at odds with Wagner’s. Ironically, that Bayreuth effort was a production of Katharina Wagner, great-granddaughter of the composer, who turns Wagner’s art against him in the production by tying him to Fascism and the Third Reich (even though he died a half century before Hitler’s rise). Although some might argue that Wagner deserves such treatment (he was vehemently anti-Semitic, after all, and his ideas and operas may have had some influence on the Nazis), the point is artistically moot, because in such instances you’re watching, in effect, a different work. It’s almost like taking Tristan und Isolde and changing it into Bonnie and Clyde.

This Royal Opera production of Parsifal by Stephen Langridge doesn’t change the story in that kind of radical manner, but there are nonetheless some striking liberties taken. As the attire and modern-looking sets attest, we’re updated to current times – not necessarily a bad thing in the right production. Speaking of attire, the garishly mini-skirted and sexually aggressive flower maidens attempting to seduce Parsifal in Act II impart a colorful but overly anachronistic character to the scene. Indeed, in an opera dealing with the Holy Grail and all sorts of theological and moral issues, Las Vegas style hooker-types don’t fit in well – or maybe they do fit in well, but just seem out of place. Hmmm… A few other things are a bit odd too. When Kundry first appears she is bald – yes, bald – but otherwise feminine looking. As the opera progresses she grows hair, which I suppose symbolizes her gradual return to dignity and humanity. In Act I the wounded Amfortas lies in his sick bed in a sort of hospital-room cubicle at the center of the stage and is attended by a score of white-coated, surgical-masked healthcare workers. The sense of isolation created by this cubicle obviously suggests alienation. But some in the UK actually saw this as some kind of statement about the National Health Service! The castle of the brotherhood of the Holy Grail has a sterile space-age look, and the Holy Grail is represented by a young boy, who is wounded in the side by Amfortas, apparently to make him a symbol of Christ. Yes, it’s a modern and arguably somewhat confused or overly ambitious take on the opera, but the story essentially remains intact, and in the end holds together rather well.

But, you ask, how are the singers? René Pape is simply excellent as Gurnemanz, both vocally and dramatically. Gerald Finley as Amfortas is perhaps on his level too: vocally he is excellent; dramatically he is even better than excellent. When he comes on stage in the last act using a walker and then later sings over the corpse of his father, he is totally arresting. Bravo! Simon O’Neill as Parsifal also turns in fine work. Angela Denoke has a strong stage presence and a good sense for drama: when she is bald or wearing a garish red-haired wig she is able to make her appearance seem less a distraction than I could ever imagine. That said, her vocal assets won’t match those of Waltraud Meier in the role of Kundry, but she is nevertheless quite fine. I should mention that at the end of the opera Denoke transforms into a blond – more symbolism! Are blondes more moralistically pure or consequential? The rest of the cast is generally convincing.

Sir Antonio Pappano leads a reasonably strong performance from the pit. The orchestra and chorus perform admirably under his direction. Pappano has been criticized for his uneven sense of line in Wagner operas, but here, with generally expansive tempos, he makes a rather good case for his approach, even if he is not always fully convincing. In the last act, for instance, his pacing was perhaps a bit too deliberate in places. The sound reproduction, camera work and picture clarity are all first rate. As for recommendations… I have reviewed two other video performances of Parsifal here at Classical Net: the excellent if somewhat strange Kent Nagano-led effort on a BBC Opus Arte DVD, that featured Waltraud Meier as Kundry (BBC Opus Arte OA0915D), and the Wolfgang Wagner production on a Unitel Classica/C Major Blu-ray disc led by Giuseppe Sinopoli (Unitel Classica/C Major 715804). Both were very fine efforts, with the Nagano having an edge musically and the Sinopoli having the better production. This new effort compares favorably with the other two, owing in large part to the excellent performances by René Pape and Gerald Finley. By the way, the bonus feature not only includes interviews with Pappano and O’Neill on the second track, but commentary by Finley, Pape, Denoke and others on the first, as well as rehearsal scenes. For Wagnerians, this Parsifal is a worthy acquisition.

Robert Cummings

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