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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Recordings Review: Ah, For the Last Time!

Plácido Domingo reaches for the Grail in Vienna.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Placído Domingo and Waltraud Meier in Parsifal.
© 2005 Wiener Staatsoper/
Deutsche Grammophon/Vivendi Universal
Placido Domingo and Waltraud Meier are no strangers to the complexities of Wagner's Parsifal. The tenor has been singing this role for many years now, performing it all over the world and recording it with James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera. In this superb live recording, made in June 2005 at the Vienna State Opera, Domingo gives a definitive performance. And he sounds pretty good for a singer who was 65 when this set was made.

Yep, you read that right.

From his entry in Act I this is a first-class reading, nuanced, textured, and filled with understanding of the holy fool's path toward wisdom. Even though he sounds like he's pushing it at the start of the Good Friday scene, the performance comes off as the character's exhaustion, not the singer's. Besides, he gets better, pulling out magnificent tonal resources and bringing the opera to its glorious climax through sheer vocal; ability.

Waltraud Meier, on the other hand has recorded this opera four times now, and that's not counting three versions available on video. Her Kundry is the best you are going to see--no singer today has the understanding of this character's schizoid existence. She goes from penitent, to whore, to demoness, and back to penitent without missing a note--every moment is underpinned with deep psychological experience and beautiful mezzo tones. Even her blood-curdling screams (in the second and third acts) sound good in this version.

The rest of the cast is strong. Falk Struckmann's Amfortas (he's also been singing the role for a long time) has its admirable qualities, but the baritone is better known for his acting than his singing. Still, this intelligent reading drips pathos.

Franz-Josef Selig is a stellar Gurnemanz, not quite as heavy a voice as one often finds in this role. He does a great job with the interminably long Act I monologues. He has a small vibrato which is a welcome change from stentorian readings of the part. Wolfgang Bankl is an appropriately anguished Klingsor, making the most of this briefest of bad-guy parts.

Christian Thielemann's conducting and control in this performance brings a fresh approach to Parsifal. He hits the middle ground between magma-like slowness (Levine) and quicksilver speed (Boulez), producing a balanced, consistent reading that does not shift speeds at random. The Vienna forces play their guts out here, with particularly strong brass, precise woodwinds and that famous, rolling string sound that engulfs the listener in waves of Wagnerian tone. The recording is fresh and crisp, with a very polite Viennese audience that knows that the best time to cough in the opera house is when the orchestra is blasting away.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.