WAGNER: Parsifal

What may startle younger viewers accustomed to the
contemporary shock-jock taste of German opera staging will be the reminder of
how recent that all-conquering trend is: As late as the í80s, Bayreuth
would give you a forest and a temple where a forest and a temple were called
for, a chorus of knights taking holy communion in that scene (by turns, those
not singing are communing), with costumes of an almost embarrassing faux
medievality in unsubtle, stained-glass reds and blues. Is this 1981 or a
misprint for 1881, you may wonder ó though as Parsifal
had its world premiere in 1882, the answer to that should be obvious. This is
a Parsifal very much aware of itself as Wagnerís apotheosis of the
medieval religious ritual drama ó there is no attempt at realism ó higher
matters are on the minds of everyone concerned.

Whether Wagnerís Gothic-revival religiosity appeals to you is not
exactly the point; this production is not intended to convert but, like a
medieval passion play, to proclaim mystical truths to those already
converted. If you believe Wagnerís philosophic/religious mysticism takes a
backseat to his musical achievement, you will have no difficulty enjoying
this Parsifal. If Wagnerís mucking about with race and sacramental
blood and sexual wounds gives you the willies, Parsifal is probably
not for you in any case.

The set for the forest is a Klimtian forest; the Temple of the Grail five
stage-high columns, curved to imply the ribs of a dome, curiously echoed in
some rather threatening structures in Klingsorís garden ó as though to
imply that Klingsor is attempting to create a sacrilegious parody of the
Temple. The Grail manifests magically enough (though its glowing ruby heart
is too obviously an electrical stage trick and would profit from distance)
and the costumes make grand stage pictures from far off. None of the choral
singers are individuals in this story anyway; they represent an archetypal
mob, a backdrop to the symbolic drama in the foreground.

The acting of the principals in that foreground is stately and superb:
either they, or the director, has put them through the meaning of every
phrase of the libretto. The one unfortunate thing about director Brian
Largeís fondness for close-ups is that we can see dry, empty hands when
Kundry washes Parsifalís feet and he baptizes her, also when Gurnemanz
anoints him king of the Grail. We can also see that Randova has not bothered
to make herself appear eldritch in Act I ó which makes it difficult to
understand why Amfortas and Gurnemanz do not recognize her as Klingsorís
houri, and why Parsifal does not know her when he meets her in Klingsorís
garden. Nor does she bother to die at the end of the show, though otherwise
she follows Wagnerís careful directions in fixing her attention.

Horst Steinís measured pace is most fulfilling: we are given a leisured
march through this living ritual dream of a score, and tension arises through
musical not active means. The singing is of a consistently high quality. What
Siegfried Jerusalem lacked in sheer power as a heldentenor (and at Bayreuth,
and in this kinder role, did not need), he makes up in thoughtful acting and
phrasing: he is a puzzled seeker, not so frolicsome as many a Parsifal is
played, but pensive from the first, a fool in his slow understanding but a
mystic in his determination to make sense of what he sees and hears. The
discovery of human pain and guilt that comes to him in Kundryís kiss
intensifies an awareness that was already present, lurking beneath the
surface, and comes out in the final scene as Amfortasís agonized face
smooths itself out, and both agony and crown are transferred to the new
Grail-king. (I also liked the touch of his having grown a beard between Acts
II and III ó and that it is already graying with his comprehension of the

Randova, for whom Kundry was a signature role, sings with a luscious but
little-varied tone in the long scene of attempted seduction. Hans Sotin is a
Gurnemanz who reveals a temper even as he holds it in check, talking with the
pages or with the nameless swan-killing youth or, sternly, to the mysterious
knight (in, admittedly, a weird late-nineteenth century version of a Moorish
caftan) who appears with a spear on Good Friday, but he always sings with
majestic power. Wolfgang Brendel is more internally wracked than hysterical
as Amfortas ó indeed, that internality is a quality of all the characters
in this staging: they are not so much wrestling with each other as with their
own souls and internal demons. The well-named Leif Roar (did he ever sing
with Peter Schreier?) scowls visibly and vocally as a human, rather than
demonic, Klingsor. In terms of luxe casting, giving Titurel to Matti Salminen
makes one gasp.

As ever with old Bayreuth recordings (or programs), it is entertaining to
ponder where great careers began and led: Hanna Schwarz, a splendid singing
actress who would win world-fame as the Fricka of Chereauís Bayreuth
Centennial Ring two years later, sings a page, a flower maiden and
the Voice from Above in these performances; Toni Kr‰mer, who would become a
dull but competent Siegfried, is a Grail Knight.

John Yohalem

image_description=Richard Wagner: Parsifal
product_title=Richard Wagner: Parsifal
product_by=Eva Randova (Kundry), Siegfried Jerusalem (Parsifal), Bernd Weikl (Amfortas), Leif Roar (Klingsor), Hans Sotin (Gurnemanz), Matti Salminen (Titurel). Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival, conducted by Horst Stein. Production by Wolfgang Wagner. Video director Brian Large. Bayreuth Festival June-July 1981.
product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 073 4328 [2DVDs]