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Monday, May 30, 2011

Recordings Review: Sir Reginald's Grail Quest

Parsifal from the Welsh National Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The original cover of this Parsifal with a photo of Act I, Scene II.
Photo © 1984 EMI Classics/Welsh National Opera.
This Parsifal presents the rare opportunity to hear Wagner's final opera as interpreted by the late Sir Reginald Goodall, the most important British Wagnerian of the late 20th century. His English-language performances of The Ring and The Mastersingers at English National Opera sparked renewed interest in the composer in Britain. This performance (recorded at the Welsh National Opera in 1984) offers the rare opportunity to hear this conductor leading Wagner's final opera in the original German.

Sir Reginald favored slow tempos, especially in this most mystical of Wagner's operas. The Prelude to Act I flows organically, and clocks in two minutes faster than James Levine's Bayreuth recording. The firestorm of orchestral effects that opens Act II is presented with deliberation, with the notes spread out to lend equal import to the pauses in Wagner's score. The Act III prelude is slow too, but that's to be expected.

This is a sensuous Parsifal that pulls the listener deeply into the opera. Sir Reginald recreates shimmering orchestral textures in the forest scenes of Act I and III. You can hear the lap of water in Amfortas' bath, and the shuffle of shadows and sunlight through the woods surrounding Montsalvat. In Act II, the (very slow) waltz of the Flower Maidens drips with seduction. The march of the Grail knights, with the Welsh choristers bringing weight to their choral parts is impressive in the first and third acts.

When this recording was made, Donald McIntyre was the biggest star in the cast. He sings Gurnemanz, the exceptionally long-winded knight of the Holy Grail. Since this character has about 30 minutes of expository music to sing (at a very slow tempo) he'd better have a nice voice. The New Zealand-born bass-baritone and Bayreuth veteran meets this requirement. He is both compassionate and curmudgeonly, injecting a real note of awe into his account of the Grail, the Spear, and the early days of the brotherhood.


It is fascinating to hear Waltraud Meier's early portrayal of Kundry, a role that she would come to own in the course of an international career. Kundry is both victim and villain, an accursed wanderer who seeks redemption but also works against the Grail knights as an agent of the evil magician Klingsor. Ms. Meier is more subdued here than on later recordings, curling her voice tenderly around "Ich sah das kind" in the second act and turning viperish when she tries and fails to seduce Parsifal.

The rest of the cast is adequate. Warren Ellsworth is an enigmatic Parsifal, who does not sound particularly enlightened following his encounter with Kundry. The role is clearly too much for him, and his top notes sound threadbare at the end of the opera. Philip Joll has an irritating tendency to rrroll his r's as Amfortas, but brings appropriate pathos to the suffering Grail king. Nicholas Folwell is a snarling Klingsor. David Gwynne makes the most of his brief appearance as Titurel, sounding appropriately dessicated.

This recording was made at the height of the CD boom, and its reappearance on four discs (packaged with a fifth CD-rom containing libretto, translation, and texts) is a welcome one. However, it should be noted that a remastering error exists on the first disc, with the last few seconds of "Der reiner tor" snipped off by some over-eager engineer. Hopefully, this problem will be corrected on future pressings.

For more about Parsifal on CD, check out this Superconductor guide to Parsifal recordings.

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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.