Parsifal

Iván Fischer
Kinderkoor de Kickers
Koor van de Nederlandse Opera
Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest
Date/Location
June/July 2012
Muziektheater Amsterdam
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast
AmfortasAlexander Marco-Buhrmester
TiturelMikhail Petrenko
GurnemanzFalk Struckmann
ParsifalChristopher Ventris
KlingsorMikhail Petrenko
KundryPetra Lang
GralsritterJean-Léon Klostermann
Roger Smeets
Stage directorPierre Audi (2012)
Set designerAnish Kapoor
TV directorMisjel Vermeiren
Gallery
Musicweb-International.com

Musically – and, particularly, orchestrally – this Parsifal is very fine. Once a year the regular orchestra of the Dutch National Opera steps aside for their neighbours at the Concertgebouw, and the results are normally magical. So it proves here. This is fine a Parsifal as any you’d hear in Dresden or Vienna, two other cities where their principal orchestra also plays in the opera pit, and in some ways it surpasses them. The Concertgebouw play the score as though from the inside out, repeatedly illuminating or bringing to birth new details in the score that you always knew were there but to which you’d seldom paid much attention previously. The sound overall is gloriously ripe and full of body, and you get that at its best in the purely orchestral moments. The Act 1 Prelude sounds shudderingly good, with rich strings and strong, powerful brass that don’t assert themselves too much, creating an overall sound picture in which to wallow. Furthermore, the Act 3 Prelude conjures up new visions of loss in the sound of the violins, frustrated yet also full. Likewise, the Act 1 and Act 3 Transformation Musics build in power to huge climaxes, and it’s here that you get a really good sense of Iván Fischer’s grip on the score. He doesn’t hang around and, indeed, is alarmingly fast in the Act 3 Prelude, but elsewhere his approach could better be described as refreshingly nippy, something which keeps the drama going through the otherwise fairly static scenes in the Grail Temple or the Magic Garden.

The singers are mostly old hands in their roles, and their experience reaps rich dividends. Christopher Ventris can no longer pull off the young innocent look, but his voice has deepened and enriched over the years so that he now sounds about as fully rounded as it’s possible to get with this part. Others may long for more of a contrast between the fool of the first half and the hero of the second, but I enjoyed his overall bronzed tone which serves the music very well. Petra Lang has had her moments of vocal crisis in recent years, but the role of Kundry suits her voice very well, the histrionics of the character playing off the extremes of the voice, and she holds nothing back in her vocal and dramatic energy. Falk Struckmann has been an Amfortas in the past, and his Gurnemanz bears great wisdom. The gravelly nature of his voice is less pronounced here and, in fact, helps to add to the character’s weight and distinction. He is very convincing in the long narrations of the first act, and rises with aplomb to the climax of the anointing and the Good Friday music. Alejandro Marco Burmeister makes for a deeply vulnerably Amfortas, fully living the character’s pain, both visually and aurally, and he manages to make him sound both noble and vulnerable; an excellent portrayal. Mikhail Petrenko is a nasty Klingsor, full of malice but also a sense of wicked glee that really works for this character. He also sings the part of Titurel but does so invisibly off stage, so I imagine it was probably the director making good use of his cast rather than making a dramatic point.

But it’s that director that causes this film’s problems. It’s not that there’s much to object to in Audi and Kapoor’s vision: it’s just that so little happens! There are promising visual ideas in places, such as the lurid reds and dark blues that characterise much of the action, and I liked the huge discs that dominate the picture in the second and third acts. However, I’m totally at sea as to what Audi was trying to say, or even whether he was trying to say anything at all. We get hints of the knights as builders in the first act and religious fanatics in the third, while Kundry and Klingsor are suggested as mirror images of one another, but none of this really goes anywhere, and much of the action is so static as to be soporific. That’s particularly true in the Act 2 scene between Parsifal and Kundry, as well as with the opening scene of Act 3, both of which really dragged for me and just didn’t keep my attention. Furthermore, Kapoor seems to have blown his set budget on some knobbly (and rather ugly) sets for the first act that reminded me of his Tristan at ENO, making room for nothing beyond the – admittedly effective – giant discs in the second and third acts. It wasn’t enough to get me angry: just to leave me puzzled and a bit bewildered, which is probably worse! Nor did it help that the camera angles often make it a bit difficult to see what is actually going on, and the smoky transformation scenes didn’t do them any favours either.

One quirk of the Blu-Ray sound mix is that I found it clearer and sharper in 2.0 stereo than in the 5.1 surround, which is odd. Otherwise, though, this is a Parsifal to listen to rather than to see. It certainly won’t displace the ultra traditional production from the Met (under Levine on DG) or Lehnhoff’s super Baden Baden production, not to mention the wonderful Barenboim/Tcherniakov production from Berlin, which thrills me every time I watch it. Among more recent versions, I also warmly recommend Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s production from the 2016 Bayreuth Festival (for which I was in the audience). The singing is every bit as good and the production will really give you something to get your teeth into.

Simon Thompson | February 2018

Gramophone

‘I was not thinking of the Redeemer when I created Parsifal’, wrote Wagner. In ceremonial moments stage director Pierre Audi and his team – including artist Anish Kapoor as set designer – rightly eschew any Christian symbolism deriving from latter-day Mass rituals, opting instead (in the first Grail scene) for images of blood and sacrifice. Audi takes a hard but wholly justifiable line with the brothers’ treatment of their failed leader Amfortas. They cannot bear to touch him or to be near him (no litter to carry him to a supposedly healing bath; he has to stagger there), while the final scene shows a right-wing coup with the newly re-armed knights – that’s actually in the production notes for Wagner’s own premiere staging! – attempting to force him to reveal the Grail once more.

Here we are refreshingly light years away from imitations of Siena cathedral or the gardens in Ravello. The first act, like the piece itself, is visually rather crowded with people and props trying to mend things – Gurnemanz’s nightmare of the wounded Amfortas in the Prelude, the carpenter’s shop attempts to make crosses and the rough scaffolding towers which are the beginning (or the remains) of a Grail hall. Acts 2 and 3 are pretty bare so as to focus on the psychology of Kundry and her redeemer/almost-lover Parsifal. This filming spares us what were apparently acoustic blips in Act 2 caused by Klingsor’s large mirror and has the Act 1 transformations (played in the theatre with curtain down) more reminiscent of time becoming space via extra footage of Parsifal and Gurnemanz walking through smoke.

As in his Ring, Audi has achieved performances of exceptional emotional detail from his soloists, none more than Petra Lang’s Kundry, who gives us everything apart from the high tessitura at the end of Act 2 that only Kirsten Flagstad really managed. Her relationship with and looks at Christopher Ventris’s Parsifal in Act 3 bring tears to the eyes – the relationship that can never happen, liberated again in the baptism scenes from over-derivative biblical references. A great achievement for this artist. Ventris too – and bravely – achieves a perfect unmannered neutrality, never rushing in voice or face the revelations that come to him from the Act 2 duet onwards.

The other principals make up a supportive team. Struckmann, an Amfortas on previous DVDs, is a baritonal Gurnemanz, another success for him in older Wagner roles. His controlled suffering and well-worked text make most effect in Act 1 and the final act’s focus on Kundry doesn’t pull emotional attention from him. Marco-Buhrmester manages Amfortas’s physical afflictions with skill and Petrenko (also heard but not seen as Titurel) creates a genuinely spooky Klingsor without recourse to camp or hysteria. All – and the choruses – sing well for Fischer’s careful, expertly played symphonic accompaniment. He does not rely on the massive climaxes of older German masters or their more expressionist colours but manages subtly to up the pace at moments (eg the knights’ Act 1 ‘hymn’ to their bread and wine) where lesser readings might stick.

Well filmed and recorded, this is an essential purchase for Lang and for Audi’s direction, a straight but strong rival to existing competition from Barenboim/Kupfer and Nagano/Lehnhoff.

Mike Ashman

Fanfare

Pierre Audi’s Parsifal was clearly a big event for Dutch National Opera when it premiered in 2012. This video was made during that first run, and its release now coincides with a revival of the production in Amsterdam, and with Audi’s departure from the company; in 2018 he takes over as artistic director of the Aix en Provence Festival.

Audi’s take on Parsifal is low key, with a minimum of stagecraft and an apparent reluctance to engage with the work’s philosophical themes. In an age when directors seem to feel duty-bound to impose contemporary themes onto Wagner, this hands-off approach feels retro, recalling Wieland Wagner in the 1950s. The abstraction is aided by the set designs, from Anish Kapoor, which are scenic for the first act but strictly geometric from then on. (The sets are very close in design to those Kapoor produced for Daniel Kramer’s Tristan at English National Opera in 2016.)

The set for the opening of the first act is a collection of what seem like rocky outcrops. When we come to the Grail Ritual, these rotate to reveal the Grail Knights on wooden scaffold platforms. The earthiness of this scenario, combined with the almost total absence of Christian symbolism, suggests a Pantheist angle. The second act is more arresting visually, with a huge reflective sphere suspended at the back of the stage. Distorted reflections follow the Flower Maidens, Parsifal, and Kundry about, and even the conductor is clearly visible, but, elegant as it is, the significance is never made clear. In the final act, a circular hole in the backdrop takes the place of the sphere, suggesting absence and emptiness at Montsalvat. And indeed the ending of this production is uncompromisingly bleak—after two and a half acts in which religious imagery has been completely absent, the Grail Knights now appear, each with a black crucifix painted on their face, and, although Parsifal accepts the spear and heals Amfortas, the assembled company all eventually wither to the ground, as if in death. It’s a curious ending, and all the more pessimistic for being the only significant directorial intervention in the entire production.

A cursory glance at the box cover suggests that the production features Klaus Florian Vogt as Parsifal, but a closer look reveals it to be Christopher Ventris. He has a weightier tone than Vogt, closer to Peter Sieffert, perhaps, whom he also resembles. Ventris is a competent Parsifal, and has the stamina to see it through, but his voice lacks the character required to make his long narrations memorable. Similarly Falk Struckmann as Gurnemanz, another dependable Wagnerian, though getting on in years, but he too has the stamina for the role. Perhaps both singers can be forgiven for not giving memorable characterizations in a production so notably low on Personenregie. That said, Petra Lang excels as Kundry, here consolidating her reputation as the Wagnerian mezzo du jour. She has an uneasy stage presence, always unsettling the quasi-mystical discourse, even when she is not involved—just the sort of singer a production like this needs. She is in fine voice too, her singing dramatically engaged and always attractive, even at her most bitter and vitriolic. Mikhail Petrenko is luxury casting for Titurel and Klingsor, though the production does little to highlight either character, with Klingsor in particular seeming like an imposter in his own castle.

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has a long and proud tradition of Wagner performance, and the players’ affinity with the music is a real asset here, although this appears to the only complete performance of Parsifal the orchestra currently has in the catalog. Iván Fischer is less associated with Wagner than is his brother, Ádám, but he has an excellent feeling for the music’s drama and scale. Many conductors linger over this score, so it is refreshing to hear Fischer taking brisker tempos, and only very rarely to the detriment of the music’s atmosphere. That upbeat approach also suits the visual style, and the combined efficiency of music and spectacle affords valuable dramatic coherence.

The package includes DVD and Blu-ray discs: Sound and image are good on both, with the Blu-ray notably superior, especially in image. Microphones are positioned at the front of the stage, but so too is most of the action, so the singers rarely sound distant. The camera work mixes close-ups with wide angle, and impressively captures the scale of the second act setting. The set is released on the small Dutch label Challenge Classics, and seems to be the first and only video in the company’s catalog. But their many audio releases always have high production standards, and they have a commitment to the SACD format. Given the excellent production standards here, here’s hoping they have further collaborations with Dutch National Opera in the works.

Gavin Dixon

Opera News

THERE’S GREAT NEWS HERE for Wagnerites, long accustomed to lowering their expectations. One fine video performance of Parsifal would be a treat. But two of them, almost simultaneously? Well, it’s enough to inspire fantasies of a Wagner renaissance. Bayreuth’s latest Parsifal (from 2016) is especially striking; musical splendor compensates for the festival’s customary excesses in staging. The performance has a rare, convincing festival stamp, reflecting wise casting, ample preparation and, at least among the performers, unity of purpose. That’s remarkable considering that the announced conductor, Andris Nelsons, withdrew just a month before the premiere. His replacement, the relatively obscure Hartmut Haenchen—after decades in East Germany and then Holland—proves a revelation.

While the Bayreuth stage is busy with visual references to the Iraq war, vampire-like cults and so on, what we hear is an intimately sung drama, prizing the individual above the group. An unusually fine cast benefits from Haenchen’s palpable rapport and his sympathetic, dramatic shaping of musical phrases. The keynote may be the treatment of Gurnemanz, the opera’s narrator and “Greek chorus.” The deceptively modest portrayal by German bass Georg Zeppenfeld is in fact eloquent, in a style by turns conversational and lyrical/Mozartean. His customary low affect makes the directness at emotional peaks (the Good Friday music, for instance) even stronger—not unlike the conductor’s general approach to the score.

Gone, leaving barely a trace, is the prevailing Parsifal manner of yore—the heavy string vibratos, slides and portamentos, the “spiritual” hush and glacial pacing that signaled awe and reverence. On the other hand, Haenchen’s instrumental articulation is impeccable, as in the expressive rising “journey” sequences in the Act III prelude, each introduced by a gripping sforzando and taut with Sisyphean struggle, as one orchestral voice fights the other.

The stage and pit work hand in glove. In fact, Klaus Florian Vogt has rarely sounded so much like a lyric tenor; he seems freer than usual here to modulate his style and cultivate fine points of hesitancy and wonder. There’s still sufficient force in his outbursts during the struggle with Kundry, and the singer’s youthful presence matches his sensitive vocal coloring.

Brilliant tone and sultry, flexible style make Russian soprano Elena Pankratova a remarkably vital Kundry, well supported by the conductor in her taut, propulsive “Ich sah das Kind” and the elaborate, furious vocal attacks on Parsifal. The pained Amfortas, young American bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, is unusually robust in tone and physique, and the late Gerd Grochowski contributes a resonant Klingsor.

While sometimes overreaching, director Uwe Eric Laufenberg shows respect for the score; in fact, his projections of clouds and mist, along with views of galaxies and our own planet, seem appropriate to the orchestral passages evoking marches, pilgrimage or meandering. The director treats the main characters sympathetically, even as he adds to their pain in rituals and other interactions. Repellant extremes include the spectacle of Amfortas clad just in a diaper and a crown of thorns, bleeding profusely into the communion chalice, and his mute return in Act II for sex and more suffering. But there’s a certain fidelity to the sadomasochistic implications of Wagner’s military-–religious community. Topical references to the current Mideast conflict, however, seem gratuitous.

Viewers seeking a less aggressive staging will likely prefer the other new release, the sober 2012 Parsifal from Dutch National Opera, in which Pierre Audi (now artistic director of New York’s Park Avenue Armory) reduces the action, sets and costumes to Wieland Wagner-style simplicity and timelessness. Iván Fischer, more commonly heard these days in Mozart operas, conducts, like Bayreuth’s Haenchen, in the relatively streamlined modern vein but without the latter’s individualistic focus.

Christopher Ventris (Parsifal), Petra Lang (Kundry) and Falk Struckmann (Gurnemanz) lack the precision and polish of the Bayreuth cast, but they can summon impressive vocal heft. Only Ventris falls a bit short in dramatic commitment. Struckmann, once a convincing Amfortas at the Met and elsewhere, is the lynchpin of the cast, a dynamic marvel with enormous tonal and emotional range, just as effective as Bayreuth’s Zeppenfeld. The most extreme staging gestures concern Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester as an appropriately anguished, limping Amfortas, showing a bit less blood and bare flesh than McKinny. Mikhail Petrenko is vivid in two roles, as Klingsor and an androgynously costumed Titurel.

After Fischer’s enticing recent recordings of Wagner excerpts, with chamber orchestra and a style to match, this full-scale performance seems somewhat less illuminating. But the conductor’s cultivation of darker harmonies in choral scenes and a cumulative intensity of pacing bring the two final acts to compelling dramatic peaks. The performance gains from vivid choral work and details such as the elegant string solo lines in the Parsifal–Kundry confrontation.

David J. Baker | DECEMBER 2017 — VOL. 82, NO. 6

thewholenote.com

German Romantic opera reached its pinnacle under Wagner. Once he found his stride, Singspiels and Italianate number operas would be side-tracked in German-speaking opera houses. Wagner melded mythical stories to seamless, powerful symphonic music in masterpieces including his iconic Ring Cycle. Then Parsifal, Wagner’s final opera, broke that mould, when it was premiered at the second Bayreuth Festival in 1882. The opera – an adaptation of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th-century epic poem Parzival – caused a stir with its depiction of religious fervour, purity of caste and women as sexually depraved heathens. Reactions were confused at first but by 1887 they turned vehement. Still, Wagner remained adamant and, in an era increasingly bereft of sacred experience, he was emphatic in his belief that music dramas should fully absorb audiences in mystical truths.

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s performance of Parsifal, conducted by Iván Fischer is a considerably minimalist production directed by the Wagner expert and director of the Dutch National Opera, Pierre Audi. Produced for television and DVD in 2012, it may be short on the lavish density of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s acclaimed 1982 production. However, with a wooden strut-like framework depicting the castle that houses the suffering Amfortas drenched in his blood, and its preternatural stairway to heaven, an atmosphere of both horror and pity is superbly created. Such spare environs are perfect for the cavernous voices of Titurel, founder of the Knights of the Grail and his son Amfortas, sung by Mikhail Petrenko (bass, who also sings Klingsor) and Alejendro Marco-Buhrmester (baritone) respectively. Falk Struckmann (bass) as the veteran Knight of the Grail, Gurnemanz, rumbles on sublimely too. But the tenor Christopher Ventris’ Parsifal and soprano Petra Lang as Kundry leave indelible marks on both roles.

The magnificent vocal colouring and shifting tonalities in the agony and ecstasy from Act I to Act III is convincingly Wagnerian. More important than that is the transition from agonizing sinful states to depictions of redemption and salvation. Here, in their complete transformation, every principal cast member shines. Anish Kapoor’s set design especially in Act II – where the backdrop of an orb of sorts seems to reflect the depth of the characters’ changing emotions through spectacular lighting by Jean Kalman – is absolutely magical. There are minor fluctuations of volume in the DVD sound, but these are minor irritants. The miraculous translation of the three-dimensional depth of the play onto the flat television screen is a major production triumph.

Raul da Gama | 29 August 2017

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Media Type/Label
Challenge Classics
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1920×1080, 6.8 Mbit/s, 11.8 GByte (MPEG-4)
Remarks
Telecast from the Holland Festival
Also available as broadcast