Wagner's Parsifal on DVD

Wagner’s ultimate masterpiece: Parsifal on DVD

Three more or less recent DVD releases of Wagner’s Parsifal honor the 200th anniversary of the Master’s birth.

I know that moment has passed. So therefore take this review of Parsifal to honor of his 202nd anniversary. And even that day has passed…but today is my dear William Butler’s merry unbirthday: he’s 3½.

OperaMetro strongly recommends the Sony Classical Blu ray DVD of Parsifal, which is the Metropolitan Opera’s 2013 matinee HD telecast, recorded live from the stage that spring when it was new. I reviewed it at the Met and we also saw it in HD. Though not without its flaws, this production, conceived by François Girard with sets by Michael Levine, is deeply affecting, as a great Parsifal performance should be.

But hold your horse, Pancho: the Deutsche Grammophon DVD of the Met’s Otto Schenk, Günther Schneider-Siemssen, Rolf Langenfass production of Parsifal, taped and telecast in 1992, is an equally strong contender. It is musically superb and deeply affecting, but even more so because this crew follows Wagner’s scenic and dramatic requirements fairly closely. In fact I’d go so far as to say unequivocally that this 1992 Met Parsifal is probably the best bet as a first plunge into Wagner’s unique music drama. For that matter, one’s first dip into the magic of Wagner’s Ring should be the Met’s production by the same team, also on DG DVDs. It too sports a first rate cast, under the baton of James Levine. The Ring was recorded at the Met over two seasons, Die Walküre in spring of 1989 and the other three in the spring of 1990. Both of these sets really should be remastered, enhanced and released on Blu ray by now. But I digress.

Jonas Kaufmann in the Met's 2013 Parsifal

Jonas Kaufmann in the Met's 2013 Parsifal

The strength of the Met’s 2013 Parsifal lies in the performances on stage and in the pit. The musical aspects are simply overwhelming: Daniele Gatti’s reading of Wagner’s magnificent score, the intensity of his concentration, the playing of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the soloists, and the contributions of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, all are superb. The sheer sound of the orchestral transformation from Scene I to Scene II of Act III made one shudder deeply and lingered as a sonic aura with me for weeks after the HD telecast.

My read on François Girard’s conception is that an androgynous urwelt, in which men and women freely co-mingle and are equal, is, for some reason one can only guess, artificially split into factions. This happens during the Prelude. True to the sexual restrictions pervasive in conservative religious sects, the women remain cast off in the dark to the left while the men, the faithful, shed their dark jackets to reveal white shirts, thus showing their obedience to conformity, their rationality (light over dark), perhaps also their ‘purity.’ The women will remain segregated by a jagged fissure across the stage which becomes more blood red and widens gradually as the Act progresses. The men, now ‘safe,’ hunker down in a tight worship circle, rather like covered wagons under attack; empty rituals render them oblivious to the threatening clouds. Gurnemanz, sans the hermit robes, emerges from this circle to recount the immediate history of the troubles; Kundry blows in as more dark clouds scud across the back drop; an anguished Amfortas lurches forward in real pain. And then Parsifal, a pure but shy fool enters. The first half of Act I is both moving and troubling.

But while the performance keeps rolling along musically and dramatically, Michael Levine’s sets, to my eye, ignore much of the magic explicit in the score and Wagner’s stage directions: the transformation from the forest (What forest? Looks like a mudflat.) to the Temple of the Holy Grail (What temple? Still looks like a mudflat.) is a scenic non-event, save a change from the interesting clouds to a relatively uninteresting backdrop. Wagner’s carefully crafted orchestral and scenic moment is missed. Weak, Michael, very weak.

Worse, there is no Good Friday Zauber on stage and no scenic transformation to a final scene of Act III. The Met’s 2013 production begins the Act with open graves in the mudflat; in Parsifal’s absence the order is dying; there is death in the air: you can almost smell it. Effective enough, this certainly fits the mood of the beginning of the scene. Parsifal begins the redemption of the order by bringing Kundry across the fissure that separated the women from the men. It is an important dramatic touch.

But the Good Friday Spell should confirm musically, dramatically, AND scenically that Parsifal, who has recovered the sacred spear, will indeed follow through, as prophesized, to save all from extinction. He is ‘crowned’ by Gurnemanz; his feet are cleansed by Kundry; the air of life now is everywhere around them: the spring sunlight, grass, the flowers in bloom, causing Parsifal to comment, Wie dünkt mich doch die Aue heut so schön. Which means it’s glowingly beautiful, as is the music.

Wagner didn’t write page upon page about the idea of a Gesamtkunstwerk* just to practice his penmanship (and from the number of pages he wrote out by hand, I’ll bet he got quite good at it). Either way, apparently Michael Levine did not read them. One doesn’t have to be synesthetic to sense that even the basic color scheme of the scene in Act III of the Met’s 2013 Parsifal is all wrong for the music. More like Wie dünkt mich doch der Schlamm heut so schön. Which means it’s a mudflat.

The Good Friday scene was my phenomenal point of entry** for Parsifal, the point at which the music first entered my psyche in a deep way, so to drop this ball is a major fumble, certainly for me. Want to see it done right? Go directly to the Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen production of Parsifal at the Met, telecast in 1992. More on this below.

Like many operas, Parsifal is one of those “problem stated in Act I, struggle in Act II, resolution in Act III” kind of stories. Let’s cut to the struggle: Act II of the 2013 Met Parsifal is just bloody. Bright red everywhere. The Flower Maidens splash around on a floor inches deep in ‘blood,’ so their white gowns get trimmed with red stain. The set for this Act shows dark rock walls forming a V which, without too much of an interpretive stretch, mirrors a mother’s legs in stirrups with a view from within the vaginal canal looking out through a wall of blood into a delivery room, as if Parsifal’s exit from the Act is his rebirth into the world about to be reshaped by his recently gained wisdom, he having just rejected the advances of that miserable slut Kundry and retrieved the Holy Spear, not to say ‘caught,’ as in Wagner’s stage directions, because the flower girls just more or less pass it to him in this production, replying to his request that they do so by saying "Yes. And take it with you."

Perhaps I’m reading too much into Act II.

Happily there are considerable musical and dramatic coups in the Met’s 2013 production to make it competitive: Daniele Gatti is mesmerizing in the pit; the cast sports the excellent Jonas Kaufmann is an introspective, very soulful Parsifal; the excellent René Pape is a younger, more virile Gurnemanz; Peter Mattei is a superbly tortured Amfortas; Katarina Dalayman is a straight forwardly anguished Kundry. These are exceptional performances, all told.

Placido Domingo and Jessye Norman in the Met's Otto Schenk Parsifal

Placido Domingo and Jessye Norman in the Met's Otto Schenk Parsifal

I need not go into too much detail about the Met’s previous Parsifal. This production premiered in 1991 with Placido Domingo and Jessye Norman and continued to run for over two decades. Most likely my local Wagner fans have seen it in the house or on PBS. The cast from the 1992 telecast, now on DG DVD, stars the intelligent and solid Siegfried Jerusalem in the title role. In retrospect, he pretty much makes the best out of everything he does. Waltraud Meier is a justly celebrated Kundry (and Isolde, Fricka, Venus, Waltraute…the list goes on). Kurt Moll and Bernd Weikl are also excellent in the lower voices. Franz Mazura is maligned Klingsor. It is movingly, elegantly and traditionally staged; Parsifal actually ‘catches’ the spear; the Good Friday scene is magical; James Levine and the Met Orchestra clearly connect with this opera.

The two other DVD releases of Parsifal discussed below are certainly competitive, musically speaking, but each, more often than not, is on the side of “odd” scenically, even absurd, and confusing or just aimless dramatically.

The Romeo Castellucci production at La Monnaie De Munt, filmed in 2011 and available on 2 BelAir DVDs, is, well, interesting. It’s quite good musically under the sure hand of Hartmut Haenchen, as was his complete Ring from the same theater in previous years. He has a knack for articulating inner voices in the orchestra and giving it drive. The singers are engaging: this performance will serve as a very listenable soundtrack.

Romeo Castellucci's Parsifal

Romeo Castellucci's Parsifal

But as a film to be watched, Castellucci’s images and ideas may give one pause: for starters, there’s a large yellow snake writhing around on a hook during the prelude to Act I. Could be the Serpent from the Garden of Eden…or maybe just a slimy old yellow snake, who knows? Warning for ophidiophobics: the snake shows up again, though still not as a singing part.

The first act takes place in a very very deep forest, so deep in fact that ‘very dark’ is the phrase you’re looking for. Very dark, as in ‘black screen’ very dark. You’ll think your screen died. Could be the ‘darkness of ignorance?’ Or like before Adam and Eve attained the knowledge of Good and Evil? I don’t know. Regardless, often it’s not much to look at. Occasionally daylight breaks through in the background. The trees move (mimes in forest garb, at immense cost both in costume and personnel) and even Gurnemanz (Jan-Hendrick Rootering) is covered in leaves. Kundry (Anna Larsson) is not particularly sensual, though agreeable in voice; Parsifal (Andrew Richards) is a reasonably well trimmed preppy who just wanders in. The swan he supposedly killed has been dead for years it seems.

The brush clears for the big transformation scene in Act I. In odd places there are titles about poisonous substances and political graffiti on the powdery backdrop in Act II. Klingsor stands on a podium and ‘conducts’ the orchestra. Bizarre yes, but why not? He’s a strange fellow after all.

However, things get pretty quickly R-rated in Castellucci’s Parsifal when the flower babes appear in Act II. As an aside to the plot: Parsifal, pure fool that he is, can keep his virginity is safe as long as he stays in the Forest around the Temple of the Holy Grail. His mother warned him about the dangers of battle, but seems to have gone mute on the dangers of designing women. Alas, in the second Act, he wanders into the Tiefland of corruption, temptation, the evil castrato Klingsor (in body, obviously not in voice…we know this from the text) and (gasp!) NAKED WOMEN.

The Flower Maiden scene in any Parsifal begs for seductresses. It was already seductive musically at its premiere at Bayreuth in 1882; in fact, Kundry is arguably the most seductive of Wagner’s women. We’d be shocked by a Tannhäuser in which Elisabeth or Elsa in Lohengrin does things Kundry has ample room to do in her stage directions. Like run around the garden stark naked. Room for it in theory; however, fear not, no Kundry does this in any production here discussed.

In the Met’s 1992 Flower Maiden scene the girls move around and writhe a bit, the pretty ballerinas up front, older chorus regulars more in the background, all relatively clothed; in the Met’s 2013 Flower Maiden scene the Maidens wear long ballet skirts, like from a production of Act II of Giselle, but they too stayed fully clothed.

Not so @ la Monnaie 2011: nothing like a few powdered semi naked women to change the temperature of this act! Four quick points here: 1. Kundry, who, as scripted, is the chief seductress of the lot after all, will remain fully clothed and stoic while the powdered semi naked flower maidens, dancers all, pose and contort themselves about the stage. They don't get too naughty with our hero, however; 2. there is a projected sequence which shows Parsifal acting out a wild physical fantasy with Kundry. This fantasy apparently lurks in his unconscious beneath that suave, relatively stoic stance of his. It’s a nice effect, quite interesting conceptually, actually welcome, since most Parsifal/Kundry seduction duets are never raw; 3. Parsifal here doesn’t catch the spear. Actually there is no spear. But rather he breaks Klingor’s magic by releasing a powdered semi naked woman who, for most of the Act, has been tightly bound in rope and suspended about five feet above the stage in a contorted position that practically stopped my circulation, let alone hers. Bet she was glad this was the shorter second Act, not the much longer first Act and that Parsifal had paid attention during his scout training about knots.

And then 4. whereas the Met’s 2013 Act II alludes scenically to a vagina, and at that it's just my interpretative slant, the Monnaie production has a real one right there center stage (complete, of course, with its powdered naked owner lying supine on a white pedestal). Right there. Which means this Parsifal should be rated X and your youngsters should not see it unless accompanied by a parent.

The Good Friday Spell here is also disappointing scenically. In sum, there are many disjointed images to sort through in this Romeo Castellucci production. If the conceptual formula for their sum isn’t obvious at first acquaintance at least the images are thought provoking and it may come together later.

Conductor Christian Thielemann is the chief draw for the last Parsifal production here discussed, but his cast also contributes much toward the total sound picture. Performed at the 2013 Salzburg Easter Festival and released by DG on Blu ray, Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden give a glowing rendition of Wagner’s magnificent score, even more so in its enhanced sonic format. Reigning Wagnerian heldentenor Johan Botha is clean and shining in tone, the role of Parsifal fitting him vocally like a glove. Michaela Schuster is a solid Kundry; Stephen Milling is Gurnemanz; Wolfgang Koch does a sort of Jekyll/Hyde thing of being Amfortas yet singing the music of Klingsor, as if Amfortas were under Klingsor’s spell.

The production was conceived by Michael Schule, with sets and costumes by Alexander Polzin. Act I is a clean shiny space with clear plastic tubes as trees. The characters wear dirty white garb, save Parsifal whose dinner jacket has a sort of peacock green camouflage look to it, which, when you think of it, is really counterproductive when the trees have clear plastic tubes for trunks and no leaves to speak of. Plus, he’s a big guy. For reasons unknown he has a gaggle of young men following him. Occasionally, wandering through the same forest, we see a bare chested Christ figure wearing a crown of thorns, perhaps to remind us that Christ is everywhere and also to put an image on stage to the allusion in Act II that Kundry in one of her incarnations was present at his Crucifixion. Also the Easter Festival at Salzburg.

Act II shows a platform with statues and the heads of statues. Klingsor, one gathers, is actually the height-challenged individual, mimed by Rüdiger Frank, silently dishing out magical commands to Amfortas(?) and Kundry. Or is this Amfortas character Klingsor’s nameless field commander? Does it matter that the same singer sang Amfortas in Act I…can’t figure it out.

In general the Flower Maidens here are comely, particularly the front row who are attractive, fully clothed, if looking a bit like sorority co-eds or baton twirlers in a parade. They’re captivating enough to interrupt the young men (with Parsifal) as they, the men, inspect the statues. Klingsor watches it all from above, like the ‘brain’ of a large sculpted head. There is a spear, but Parsifal just takes it out of Kundry’s hand. I won’t waste space discussing the Good Friday Spell: it’s bright, it’s white, it’s plastic…bottom line, there’s no magic to this production. Nice sound track.

Stick with those recommended. You won’t be disappointed with either video from the Met. Truth is, the musical and dramatic aspects of the Met's Parsifal from 2013 on Sony Classical Blu ray are so huge you'll ignore the scenic issues by the third viewing.

Gesamtkunstwerk is a big concept, not just a big German word. Literally translated as 'complete work of art,' Wagner uses it to describe the music drama, which is the end product of the creative process. In his mind, a music drama has to be more than just an opera in which singers on stage pour out the vocal lines over the music written by the composer to a text supplied by the librettist. Beneath all of these surface manifestations must lie the drama, which originates from the deeper regions of the creative mind; all aural and visible aspects merely serve to communicate that drama from its creator to a receptive audience. Easy for him to say because he wrote his own texts, but he also followed through by writing his own music and (so the story goes) seeing to every aspect of the staged production, including sets and their color scheme, lighting, the costumes, the positioning on stage of the singers, their gestures, expressions, and all other forms of body language, and so on. It has to be complete. The Festspielhaus at Bayreuth, built according to his wishes, was structured so as to enhance one's focus on the drama and remove all distractions; the timing of a performance at Bayreuth was such that audiences had ample opportunity to rest and relax in between the long acts, so as not to tire. It's a big concept.

** More on the concept of phenomenal points of entry can be found at the top of the page Addenda. And below that will be more on the concept. Not yet though.

Enjoy Parsifal. It is possibly one of the greater musical experiences in the repertory.