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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Recordings Review: Patience is a Virtue

The 1971 Reginald Goodall Parsifal.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Nobody's fool: Jon Vickers (left) and Amy Shuard in Act II of Parsifal.
Photo from ROH Archives © 1971 Royal Opera House of Covent Garden.
Photo from cover of Parsifal © 2008 Medici Classics.
Richard Wagner's Parsifal is unlike any other opera The slow pace, lack of action and meditative musings on suffering and self-denial can tax the patience of the most ardent fan of this composer. Those who prefer this work's majestic intervals and muted, almost impressionistic chords to unfold at a slow but considered pace should investigate this 2008 release from the BBC Legends series on Medici Classics. Drawn from a single performance (May 18, 1971 at Covent Garden and first broadcast on the BBC) this recording features Sir Reginald Goodall's legendary interpretation of Wagner's last opera, and it's every bit as magnificent and magisterial as one would hope.


Sir Reginald Goodall was a maverick among British conductors, doing much to revive interest in Wagner's operas in the second half of the 20th century. For the interested, there already is a Goodall Parsifal in the catalogue, an EMI release made with the Welsh National Opera. However this live set has the edge, with the magnificent cast of mostly Anglophone singers delivering the characters with intensity and a peculiar fervor necessary for a performance of this opera to really work. The stereo sound is good, with closely paced pit microphones occasionally picking up muttered instructions from the conductor himself. Also, if you're interested in statistics, this set's 4 hour 44 minute running time makes it the the slowest Parsifal on record.


Here, the long Act I Prelude seems to breathe, with woodwinds and strings playing the chords reluctantly as if the suffering at the start of the opera was so great that the orchestra is reluctant to even set forth on the journey. Long pauses from the conductor allow the players to gather their strength, and the clarity of tone speaks to the high quality of this ensemble. The set of long narratives leading up to the first Grail Scene unfurl at a steady pace, with the Transformation Music sounding magnificent despite the limitations of the broadcast microphones.

The wild middle act is the contrast, moving with dramatic heat and slam-bang intensity. In the difficult third act, the pace remains slow but the motion is inexorable, with the ROH orchestra chronicling Parsifal's suffering and pilgrimage, slowing once more for the hypnotic Good Friday Music. The second transformation music with its famous funeral march has the feeling of inevitability in every note, slowly rolling over the listener with agonizing weight.

What gives this set an edge though (and makes it near-essential) is the  Parsifal of Canadian heroic tenor Jon Vickers, caught here in absolutely magnificent voice. This is a carefully considered and thoughtful interpretation, from the block-headedness of the unenlightened fool to the rage and self-recrimination of "Amfortas! Die Wunde!" It is here that the performance really takes off, as he and Kundry deliver their dialogue with intent and searing intensity. In the third act, Mr. Vickers accomplishes the  (difficult) trick of coming to the center of the opera, dominating the action yet delivering a perfectly floated pianissimo in the Good Friday scene.

Norman Bailey's potent, rich baritone and musical instincts fill every syllable of his Amfortas. His portrayal of the suffering, wounded  Grail King has all the required intensity but never sacrifices beauty of tone on the altar of dramatic effect. Mr. Bailey is moving and deeply personal in the first Grail Scene, clearly expressing his anguish but trying to keep his fragile dignity intact. He is at his most effective in the final act, where his protest against the massed chorus of knights makes all too much sense instead of coming across as the ravings of a madman. That wide vibrato comes into play in his very last lines as he despairs and wishes for death.

The Belgian bass Louis Hendrikx is not as well known as Gottlob Frick, the singer whom he replaced.  However, his intelligently sung and compassionate Gurnemanz makes this character (who has more music to sing than anyone else in this show) the most interesting figure in this opera. Mr. Hendrikx keeps the Act I narrative flowing, spooning out the lengthy expository passages with clear diction and making the myth easy and accessible for the audience without sounding like an old fuddy-duddy. His Act III scene with Kundry and Parsifal is sung without bluster. There is restrained tone and even awe at the revelation of the return of the sacred Spear. It is also good to hear the legendary Donald McIntyre early in his career as a nasty, snarling Klingsor, a short role but one that would become his calling card for decades.

Kundry is the pivotal role in this opera, the disassociated messenger who moonlights as the madam of Klingsor's flowery bordello. Amy Shuard makes the most of this part, delivering unrestrained dementia in the first act combined with a sense of cunning. Her "sleep" scene, led very slowly from the pit can hypnotize the listener and leave them unable to change discs for a moment. From her screaming blood-and-thunder entrance in Act II there is real passion. (Of course this becomes dementia again as Parsifal rejects her. All the high notes are present. In a minor treat, the super ensemble of Flower Maidens includes appearances by Anne Howells and Kiri Te Kanawa as the botanical beauties who try to ensnare Parsifal.

Everything comes together in Parsifal's entrance at the end of Act III. After ringing out a magnificent "Nur eine Waffe tagt", Mr. Vickers lets a flood of beautiful tone ride smoothly over the orchestra, going to his upper register for "Enhulet der Graal" and diminishing again for "Öffnet den Schrein." This melts into soft, descending scales for strings and a golden flood from the brass as Wagner's long dissonances start to resolve themselves into something new. The meditative effect of this music, with its tinkling harps and soft choir is played with luxurious beauty. The last few bars seem to affirm that all the suffering that had gone before was worth it in order to reach this point.

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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.