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Friday, July 1, 2011

DVD Review: The Grail, Unveiled

Linda Watson and Poul Elming in Parsifal.
Photo © 1998 Bayreuth Festival
Sinopoli's Classic 1998 Parsifal Escapes the Vault.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
This 1998 Parsifal stands at a crossroads, between the halcyon days of big-budget opera recordings made at Bayreuth and the collapse of a record industry no longer willing to make new recordings. As such, it is the last such video made at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus for ten years.

It is also the last to be conducted by Italian maestro Giuseppe Sinopoli, who suffered a heart attack in 2001 while leading a performance of Aida in Berlin. Although it was made 13 years ago, this release in May of 2011 is its first appearance in any recorded form.

More importantly, this is a visual and aural record of Wolfgang Wagner's final thoughts on this opera. The composer's grandson had a traditional view of Parsifal, something to be treasured in these days of bizarre regietheater stagings. Wolfgang combines ideas from his grandfather's own 1883 staging and concepts first introduced by his brother Wieland at the 1951 reopening of the Festspielhaus following World War II.

Giuseppe Sinopoli was known for his idiosyncratic conducting style with an iconoclastic approach to tempos and an ear for detail. Here, the late maestro leads one of the slowest Parsifals on record, beating James Levine's 1985 recording by a whole two minutes. This is in keeping with Wagner's own approach to the opera. At the final 1883 performance, the composer took the baton from conductor Hermann Levi and led the third act--and it was very slow indeed.

Mr. Sinopoli is blessed with a decent, well-balanced cast. Poul Elming (Parsifal) and Falk Struckmann (Amfortas) make their second home video appearances in these roles. They had filmed the opera together in the Harry Kupfer staging in Berlin. (Sadly, this is not yet available on DVD.) Mr. Elming had not yet lost the bloom on his top, although he pushes a little during "Nur eine waffe tag." The Danish tenor also looks the part, fresh-faced and boyish at his entrance, and haggard in Act III. Mr. Struckmann looks haggard throughout, the picture of suffering, superbly sung.

Hans Sotin had been singing Gurnemanz at the Festpielhaus for about 15 years when this performance was filmed. The voice is slightly worn but the singer's experience and thorough understanding of the role make his narratives into fascinating listening. Linda Watson is an adequate Kundry, who does not penetrate the mystic hysteria of this unique character. Ekkehard Wlaschiha is a nasty Klingsor, who looks like his about to fall off his little onstage elevator. Matthais Hölle is a stolid, unyielding, and invisible presence as Titurel.
The late, brilliant Giuseppe Sinopoli.
The wealth of orchestral detail is belied by the simplicity of this staging. Wolfgang Wagner presents the opera in a plain black space, with the acting surface dominated by a labyrinthine pattern on the floor. The set consists of four rotating units, which alternate between glowing Star Trek crystals and a set of claustrophobic reversed staircases for the vault of the Grail Temple. This austere approach makes this an excellent first Parsifal to watch before delving into the (brilliant) weirdness of directors like Harry Kupfer and Nikolaus Lehnoff. The sets accompany the performance, without dominating the opera.

The choral singing is very strong, and the Festival orchestra plays superbly, taking advantage of the fact that this opera was specifically written for the unique acoustics of Bayreuth. The Act II chorus of Flower Maidens and the Act III Good Friday Spell are led very slowly indeed, and the gradual approach offers the listener a wealth of sumptuous detail. Scholars of this unique opera may also hear ideas that were previously buried, like the Klingsor motif hiding (in a major key) underneath the final workings-out of the Grail theme at the end of Act III. That alone makes this recording worth adding to any collection.
Don't believe the hype: watch this trailer, which is four hours and 27 minutes shorter than the opera.
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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.