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Thursday, March 13, 2008

DVD Review: Night Of the Comet

The post-apocalyptic Baden-Baden Parsifal.
by Paul Pelkonen
Gurnemanz (Matti Salminen) presides over the devastation in Act I of Parsifal.Image © 2006 OpusArte/Baden-Baden Festival
The composer Richard Wagner once said, "Children, go do something new!" This new 3-DVD set, which captures Nikolaus Lehnhoff's remarkable production of Parsifal, filmed here on a good night in Baden-Baden takes the composer at his word. Lehnhoff is not the first director to stage a post-apocalyptic version of the Grail legend, but this desolate production (also seen at Covent Garden and the San Francisco Opera) is chillingly effective.


In this version, the Grail brotherhood is struggling for survival in a barren landscape, after some disastrous event (possibly a nuclear explosion, possibly a Tunguska-like comet impact) has destroyed their natural environment. Amfortas (Thomas Hampson) is their tortured, bandaged leader, suffering from wounds that will never heal. The real power of this order is Gurnemanz, (the great Matti Salminen) who is desperate to cure Amfortas before it is too late. Enter Parsifal (Christopher Ventris) who blunders onto the path of self-discovery.

Everything is "wrong" with this universe. The walls curve at odd angles. The Flower Maidens are strange botanical (mutants out of H.P. Lovecraft?) but eerily similar to what Wagner originally planned. Kundry's Act II entrance is from within a gigantic seed pod. At the climax of the opera, Klingsor and Parsifal grapple for the spear. In the finale knights appear as mindless zombies, and then as mummies stuffed into craters. Finally, it is Kundry who leads the knights out of this hell-world, down a railroad track leading into infinty.



Flower girl: Waltraud Meier as Kundry attempts to seduce Christopher Ventris' Parsifal in Act II.
Image © 2006 OpusArte/Baden-Baden Festival

Kent Nagano conducts a brisk reading of the score, emphasizing Wagner's unique orchestral textures without dawdling or dragging out the evening. He is aided by an excellent cast. Christopher Ventris has a fine, ringing tenor and is a better actor than most who take on the role of Wagner's holy fool. Opposite him, Waltraud Meier's Kundry is a familiar figure to Wagner aficionados--this is her FOURTH video performance of the role and her ninth (tenth?) recording. She's still gorgeous, sings beautifully, and perfectly understands her character's blend of desperation and moral ambiguity.

The strongest performance here is Matti Salminen as Gurnemanz. His portrayal of the gregarious Grail knight is authoritative in manner and powerful in tone. His smooth, dark bass resonates through the music, conveying his character's rock-solid faith. Thomas Hampson is the opposite--introverted, injured and obsessed with death. His performance is painful to listen to as he captures each moment of Amfortas' anguish, Yet he is also noble and proud--and tht has made him blind to possible salvation. Finally, Tom Fox is a powerful, predatory Klingsor, making the most of his two short scenes.
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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.