Prime Parsifal

Review by: Robert Levine

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Precisely why it has taken 20 years for this production from the Berlin State Opera to appear on DVD is anyone’s guess, but along with the Kent Nagano/Nicholas Lehnhoff performance on Opus Arte it is a must for those who love this work. Both performances have in common a rejection of the opera’s spirituality (Lehnhoff’s concentrates on the meaningless but emotionally overwhelming ritual in a gray, barren, post-apocalyptic landscape in which the people simply do not know where to go).

In this production stage director Harry Kupfer sets the work in a metallic, protected future in which to get “elsewhere” one must pass through a gigantic, circular door that looks for all the world like that of a gigantic bank vault. Slivers of bright steel are used as tables, a bier, and general playing spaces. (The sets are designed by Hans Schavernoch.) It is a cold, dark world and the only salvation is the interaction between people. Only in the transformation scene in Act 3 does the silver reflect the sky, and then quite beautifully.

The Flowermaidens appear only on TV screens that emerge from the ground; they offer no warmth or humanity. The Grail Knights are obsessive and joyless; they barely notice Parsifal when he appears in the third act. Kundry does not die at the end; she, Parsifal, and Gurnemanz separate themselves from the knights and their compulsive suffering. Like the interpretation or not, it’s pretty riveting, due mainly to the commitment of the cast to character and to superb singing and playing.

Poul Elming, a strapping Danish baritone-turned-tenor, is remarkable in the title role, his concentration and reactions on a par with Vickers and the voice in pristine shape. Kupfer demands that he, as well as Kundry and Amfortas, spend a great deal of time thrashing about on the floor, and he manages to keep his dignity while doing so. Waltraud Meier remains the Kundry of our time, and this, her third DVD, is her best. The voice is at its freshest, she looks gorgeous, and her mood-swings in Act 2 are terrifying. This act is filled with creepy action, with the two principals in a life-changing, emotional tug-of-war, and Meier doesn’t miss a trick, from cajoling to weeping to self-loathing to cruel seduction.

Equally fine is the understated performance of John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz, early in his career and in his vocal prime (with only a few Wotans under his belt). His is a magnetic portrayal, all too human and understanding, caring about details, offering his narratives with feeling and concern. Falk Struckmann’s Amfortas is agonized, and he almost sings himself to death; the voice frays noticeably in the last act, but this is dramatically acceptable. Günter von Kannen’s Klingsor is as ugly a portrayal as his Alberich—and this is meant as a compliment. Fritz Hübner’s Titurel is good enough.

Daniel Barenboim’s affinity for this music is well known from his 1990 Teldec recording; here he takes 11 minutes off that reading with no loss of gravitas. He leaves plenty of room for the drama to unfold, and dramatic it is—as with Kupfer, he sees this as a story of people, not a parable, and Barenboim aims for and reaches the work’s humanity without sacrificing grandeur. The Staatskapelle Berlin plays pointedly and with grand sweep. Even if you own the brilliant Nagano set, this one is a necessity and beats the Nagano by a small margin for first choice. Picture and sound are superb; subtitles are in English, German, French, and Chinese. Magnificent!



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This one; Kent Nagano/Nicholas Lehnhoff (Opus Arte)


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