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
Stage directorOtto Schenk (1991)
Set designerGünther Schneider-Siemssen
TV directorBrian Large
Mostly Opera

If someone had told me this 1992 MET Parsifal was based on the staging of the 1903 outlawed first house performance of Parsifal, as Richard Wagner had banned Parsifal performances outside Bayreuth for 30 years, I would have believed them. So dreary is Otto Schenk´s predictable realism and wishes to realistically transform Wagner´s images, that this production indeed looks 90 years old. Or at least 50..

It is in fact dated 1991, the premiere featuring Plácido Domingo´s role debut as Parsifal and as one of James Levine´s favourite operas this Parsifal has been in the repertoire ever since, featuring a parade of the foremost Wagner singers of the day. This DVD was recorded in 1992, with a cast unmatched at the time.

Now, what is it with the combination of James Levine and Richard Wagner, that doesn´t add up? Which is of course a somewhat unfair comment, since it does add up, just not to the same extent as Levine combined with other composers, such as Verdi, Puccini, Gounod etc. where he is dynamic, engaged, lively, in short: Mostly brilliant. The gleamingly dense Faust he conducted a few seasons back in New York immediately comes to mind.

In Wagner he is the exact opposite: Placid, beautiful, smooth. Is it that he just doesn´t come to terms with the inner structure of Wagner´s works the way he apparently does with Verdi and Puccini?

James Levine´s Parsifal is a slowly moving carpet of smooth, elegant, but also automatic beauty. There is too little glitter, too little drama, too few nuances, no surprises. Perhaps these are artistic choices of mr. Levine´s. If that is the case, I simply do not agree with them. Still, James Levine is by no means a second-rate Parsifal conductor, Parsifal being his finest Wagnerian performance as well, and admittedly there are moments in the score working quite well.

However, for the exceptionally conducted Parsifal, one may want to go elsewhere: For the truly sparkling and beautiful Parsifal, listen to Christian Thielemann. For the dynamic Parsifal, listen to Daniel Barenboim (best live). For the transcendental Parsifal listen to Knappertsbusch (1962 or 1951).

Kurt Moll has a solid and deep, but ultimately not a very flexible voice. He delivers the monologues of Gurnemanz, but fails to tell the exciting story behind them. Siegfried Jerusalem is physically believable as Parsifal, but vocally he seems rather tired, not in good voice and is much better in the Bayreuth Parsifal DVD approximately 10 years earlier.

The young Waltraud Meier is quite possibly the best Kundry in history with the exceptional combination of an unmatched stage charisma and the ability to meet the vocal challenges of the part, with an easily projected top notes as well as superb vocal characterization.

Furthermore, Bernd Weikl is in fine voice as Amfortas and Franz Mazura looks every bit like Klingsor, though vocally he is slightly shaky.

Parsifal is still not well-served on DVD. None of the available versions are whole-heartedly to be recommended, but for another traditional approach, some may appreciate Wolfgang Wagner´s Bayreuth production from 1981, though it looks like a semi-decent copy of one of his brothers productions 40 years earlier and Horst Stein by no means surpasses James Levine on the podium (rather the contrary, as a matter of fact).

Also Lehnhoff´s 2004 Baden-Baden production (with Waltraud Meier, Matti Salminen and Kent Nagano) has some fine moments as well as an interesting stage concept.

As Parsifal is really the conductor´s show, I am still waiting for a Daniel Barenboim-conducted performance to be released on DVD, which is bound to happen eventually.

Regarding the 1903 MET Parsifal production, a revival of one of the acts in a copy of the original staging will indeed be shown at the MET 2009, as part of a gala celebrating the 125th Anniversary of the Metropolitan opera as well as Plácido Domingo´s 40 years with the company.

The bottom line:

Waltraud Meier: 5
Siegfried Jerusalem: 3-4
Kurt Moll: 4
Franz Mazura: 3-4
Bernd Weikl: 4

James Levine: 4
Schenk´s production: 2

Overall impression: 3

11 July 2008

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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