Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lehnhoff's Beautiful Take on Parsifal

Where to start. I’ve had this DVD set for a few years now and keep coming back to it as my Parsifal of choice. First off, Matti Salminen is simply terrific as Gurnemanz. While the voice may be a hair less gorgeous than 20 years ago it is wanting for nothing. Salminen remains a formidable stage presence and his grasp of Gurnemanz is complete. Even a slight grandiosity and arrogance in Act I cannot diminish the role's sincerity. Even as he watches the Grail Ceremony this Gurnemanz gives off an aura of superiority - even over Amfortas and Titurel. His transformation in the third act - fervent, wise fervor and in his wisdom, possessor of a truly inspiring humility and sense of order. It is a miracle of a performance . . . just amazing from every aspect.

Christopher Ventris is the most remarkable Parsifal I've encountered and plays him exactly how I've always felt the role should be played. This Parsifal is a wild child/animal boy in the extreme and Ventris looks terrific in his amalgamation of skins, sticks, enormous leather breeches, face paint and thick-as-rope coils of dreadlocks. Initially I had reservations about his sound - light textured . . . almost boyish - but my, oh my how this singer captures this character in every nuance and gesture, facial expression and body language and movement. Indeed Ventris's rare physicality almost defines the role in its totality. Where most Parsifals in the Act I Grail ceremony are directed to remain still and out-of-the-way, this Parsifal is climbing over every surface of the stage, examining everything and everyone: entranced, amazed and full of awe at the wonderment of all he is experiencing. I can't imagine Ventris's Parsifal being bettered.

Later, following "The Kiss" we witness Parsifal's shock and Ventris makes it a palpable experience of shared epiphany. All is made clear and he knows what he must do and the direction life now takes him. This is, of course, all there in Wagner's score, but Ventris, almost more than any Parsifal I've heard or seen, gets this across and it's an emotional, cathartic moment.

I've always felt that after his feet have been washed in humility by Kunrdy, Parsifal must remain barefoot for the balance of the opera. Too many Parsifals (including the Met's) don him in kingly/priestly garb, and I find this the wrong direction for this character. I've always believed Parsifal should be almost bared at this point - bringing a true sense of humility and openess as the realm of the Grail moves into another dimension, another "being." That Ventris, stripped of armor, and barefoot enters the temple and performs the rites this way is EXACTLY right! (Siegfried Jerusalem's early Bayreuth Parsifal in the late 70's also remains barefoot for the ceremony).

Waltraud Meier knows Kundry better than any singer alive. It might even be called her signature role. While the very top of the voice can be a little wild - tight and constricted - it is only those notes - which she still can it. Actually the upper range of her voice works well and, as already stated, she knows what this character is all about.

A giant giant eggshell/cocoon apparatus comprises the first part of Kundry's costume which dominates and then transmogrifies throughout Act II. Next is an 18th century looking gown, which leaves her inert and unable to move - which is finally shedded revealing a simple (and sweat stained) shift laying Kundry down to her bare essence. Powerful, powerful imagery.

Tom Fox's Klingsor is creepy, larger than life - almost Kabuki in its intensity. Suspended - balanced in some bizarre glass circle above the stage it lends a really sinister air to the proceedings.

Thomas Hampson is just a touch light of voice for Amfortas - but for once, it doesn't matter a whit. He is inside this role and I couldn't keep from crying at the torture - this eternal night of woe this King must endure. Hampson brings a sense of tragic horror to the role that adds yet another layer to this complex character. His sense of wonder and release, finally able to die at peace, released from the curse of his wound is profoundly moving.

I found myself crying - as I have since my first Parsifal at 14 years old. But this time by the end I was sobbing out loud. I probably would have held it together seeing this in the theatre, or in the company of others, but I'm glad I got to watch this all by my self and fall apart just as this work demands of me.

Nagano leads such a magnificent performance with nuances and shading that are rare indeed, not just in Parsifal, but in any work. The responses from the chorus and orchestra - the differences between even pianos and pianissimos is astonishing and add a gauze like delicacy in sections that make the score all the more moving.

I usually prefer my Kundry to die. I don't think it's a Victorian "judgment" call - it's what she wants. It's what she's waited for for centuries. Release and to sleep without waking.

I like the direction Lehnhoff takes this production. There is a sense of having to move on to keep the brotherhood of the Grail alive. We can sense the fetid stagnation of the present condition of the Knights. In the Act I ceremony the contrast between Parsifal - so youthful, so alive - with the Knights grey and stiff, could not be more vivid. Yet, the Grail sustains them still and the beauty of the ritual remains evident and enthralls Parsifal - even without his understanding.

Kundry does not die here, but rather leads Parsifal, and eventually we see the Knights, one-by-one following them down abandoned railroad tracks into the unknown, a procession into another realm, another order as Wagner's postlude offers promise, hope and redemption. An utterly beautiful ending which makes great dramatic and philosophical sense.

How special and rare it is to experience a production of so familiar a piece that continues to work on such a cathartic and profoundly emotional level - yet equally challenges and stimulates the mind as to its meanings.

This is easily one of the finest, best produced and most satisfying opera on DVD I possess.

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