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Friday, April 27, 2012

DVD Review: The Vault of Heaven

The Barenboim Parsifal finally arrives on DVD.
by Paul Pelkonen
Femme fatale: Waltraud Meier casts a spell as Kundry in Act II of Parsifal.
Image © Euro Arts/Berlin Staatsoper.
This video of Wagner's Parsifal, shot for Teldec in 1992 at the Berlin Staatsoper is notable for its strong, youthful cast of major Wagner singers and its stark production values. These come from director, Harry Kupfer, a proponent of the "older" school of regietheater, in that his ideas actually work. Mr. Kupfer transport the valued mystic objects (the Grail, the Spear) in a vast subterranean bank vault, a shifting puzzle box with moving walls and a huge vault door predominating the action. 

Twenty years ago, this was one of the first "concept" Parsifals released on home video to break away from the standard image of knights in robes and helmets and flowery tarts frolicking around the opera's clueless hero. Happily, Mr. Kupfer's ideas hold up well. His claustrophobic setting is populated by weak, tottering Grail Knights that treat their daily worship as a narcotic fix. Amfortas (Falk Struckmann) is a haggard mess, with a very visible wound in his side. At the opera's end, he dies, and Kundry lives.

If you're acquainted with this opera, you know that nothing happens for the first half of Act I. Then Parsifal (Poul Elming) blunders into the vault. He is taken to a strange Grail ritual where Amfortas is placed on a sort of metaphorical spear point, and lifted high above the Knights to "trigger" the Grail's magic. Klingsor's realm (on the other side of the vault door) is a mirror image. His "magic garden" is a matrix of CRT screens, populated by vapid models in various stages of undress. At the end of Act II, Parsifal sets off a massive system crash.




The best performance here is Waltraud Meier, caught in her prime as Kundry. Ms. Meier manifests four different faces of this complex character, transiting from an asexual harridan in Act I to a smooth, Salome-like seductive mode in Act II.  and hits the big high notes at the end of Act II with clear, ringing tone. She is well-matched with Mr. Elming, whose clear, if slightly pinched tenor is caught before its rapid decline. She is most moving as the silent penitent in Act III, and her character's altered fate (she survives the opera) seems like a blessing and not a curse.

Gurnemanz (John Tomlinson) is young and bold, kept youthful by the magic of the Grail. Mr. Tomlinson sings the narration with an artless energy, not always pleasing in timbre but conveying the character's good nature and a kind of bluff bravado. Mr. Struckmann is an excellent Amfortas, combining an excruciating physical performance with rich, warm notes. Gunther von Kannen is completely evil, yet curiously noble as Klingsor.

Mr. Barenboim is an acclaimed Wagner conductor, caught here on the flip-side of his successful Bayreuth performances of The Ring. He draws clear, differentiated orchestral colors from the Berlin players, highlighting key phrases in the woodwinds and allowing the brass and strings to express the rich colors absent from Mr. Kupfer's visual palette. The Good Friday scene is magical, with a transcendent joy as you realize that these troubled characters have, at last reached journey's end. This makes the funeral march that follows even more terrifying: Wagner's version of the Dies Irae. The chorus (both the male Knights and offstage Flower Maidens) sing with beauty and meaning.

The longtime absence of this set from home video is probably due to legal issues in the transfer of the Teldec catalogue to its new label, EuroArts. Happily, the deep blacks and bright whites of the original laserdisc image come off cleanly on DVD, with rich tones of darkness set off by the stark lighting. The image never flickers or greys, although the audio recording occasionally overloads its own balance levels, causing unwelcome distortion at climactic moments in the first Act.

Watch a trailer for Parsifal on YouTube.
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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.