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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 4 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 40
Unattractive sets undercut superb cast in Salzburg Parsifal
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Unattractive sets undercut superb cast in Salzburg Parsifal

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

WAGNER: PARSIFAL OSTERFESTSPIELE SALZBURG (2013) (Deutsche Grammophon Blu-ray)

Even for a confirmed Wagnerite, Parsifal is daunting. This live performance on Blu-ray disc is 4 hours, 2 minutes long. (In the theater, add two 25-minute intermissions, and you have one lengthy evening.)

Given its length, very little happens. In Act One, an ignorant fool (Parsifal) stumbles upon a community of monkish Christians who guard the Holy Grail. He is confused by their ritual and worship of this relic. In Act Two, he discovers a bunch of attractive women who are under the spell of the devilish Klingsor and who try to seduce him. Strangely obsessed with the memory of the wounded Amfortas, leader of those monks from Act One, he has internalized their concept of spiritual purity vs. bodily sensuality. Thus he rejects their advances, especially those of the sublimely strange Kundry, magically subdues Klingsor, and walks off with the spear that pierced Christ on the cross and gave Amfortas his never-healing wound. Act Three finds our hero returning to the monks with the spear, with which he cures Amfortas and becomes their new king, thus revitalizing and saving the community.

Wagner's music is gorgeous throughout but generally very, very slow. This lethargic pace and the relative lack of action leaves a whole lot of room for modern stage directors to conjure up something for the audience to watch. I've seen exactly two Parsifal productions that succeeded in spellbinding me for all four hours: Harry Kupfer's in Berlin and the recent Met production (Live in HD and about to be released on Blu-ray). Unfortunately, the disc at hand seemed awfully slow going.

The fault lay not with the singers, nor with the Staatskapelle Dresden orchestra as conducted by Christian Thielemann. Those who saw Johan Botha's performances as Radames and Otello (both Live in HD from the Met) will not be surprised that the role of Parsifal seems vocally easy for him. Botha's immensely round body and less-than-lovely face somewhat detract, but he moves well and wisely opts for the less-is-more mode of acting. His attractive voice and fine musicianship more than make up for the visual minuses.

Tackling the roles of both Amfortas and Klingsor, Wolfgang Koch is more than up to the tasks, all the while singing with substantial power and smooth legato. Equally fine is the Kundry of Michaela Schuster; her soft singing as she tries to seduce Parsifal is especially lovely. I was, however, a little disappointed by Stephen Milling's Gurnemanz. His appearances in Seattle impressed with the power of his voice, as well as by his fine acting. Here, perhaps because of the extreme length of the role, he seems to be saving the voice and does rather too much soft singing. (One wishes his body mic had been turned up a little; some notes disappear entirely.)

So, what's wrong with this disc? First of all, the sound is not quite state-of-the-art. The DTS HD sound lacks airiness, often approaching a very good mono. The second problem for me is the stage production itself. Some things work very well. The two Christ figures, the first of which only Kundry can see, underscore as silent actors the emotions of several scenes. But the extremely spare and bland sets get tiresome, and the whole effect lacks punch. The Met's recent production, soon to appear on PBS and on disc, is a superb example of how powerful this opera can be. One need not be Christian to fall under its spell.

Only if you particularly like modern weirdness of the kind currently popular in Europe do I recommend this disc, with the caveat that the sound is only very good, not the very best. There are no extra features on this Deutsche Grammophon disc.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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