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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Superconductor Audio Guide: Parsifal

In Wagner's last stage work, "time becomes space."
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Baritone Ryan McKinny as Amfortas in the new Bayreuth production of Parsifal
which opened just this week. Photo by Enrico Nawath © 2016 Bayreuther Festspiele.
Parsifal is Wagner's last opera, the sum tota of everything he tried to achieve in his tumultuous career. It chronicles the journey of its title character from innocent fool to wise ruler of the kingdom of the Holy Grail. It's also a close, and at times unsettling examination of religious belief, Christian imagery and the power of faith. Maddeningly slow at first hearing, it sonic beauties are veiled even deliberately enigmatic--but more rewarding with each listen.

Wagner started sketching plans for an adaptation of the medieval epic Parzival in 1857, around the time that he was working on Tristan. It would be twenty years before he tackled the project in earnest. The finished story has Christian elements fused with the philosophy of Schopenhauer and the idea of achieving wisdom and then redemption through suffering, compassion and self-awareness. The opera was finished in 1882 and premiered at the Bayreuth Festival. Wagner intended for Parsifal (the new spelling was his) to be performed exclusively at Bayreuth, an effort to ensure the economic future of his family and his Festival.

Following the Prelude, Act One opens with an hour of exposition from the knight Gurnemanz. The brotherhood of Grail knights are in decline since the wounding of their king, Amfortas and the theft of the Spear of Longinus by the evil Klingsor. Parsifal himself enters an hour into the opera, a naïve boy who blunders into the kingdom of the Grail and kills a swan. He attends the daily service, (a combination of meal quasi-religious ceremony) where Amfortas uncovers the Holy Grail, an act that makes his wound bleed afresh. Gurnemanz, frustrated at Parsifal's lack of understanding, kicks him out of the temple.

In Act Two, the boy wanders off to Klingsor's castle to recover the Spear. This is the same weapon that pierced Christ's side on the cross, and its touch is the only thing that can heal Amfortas. In an enchanted garden, he meets the seductress Kundry, herself the woman who laughed at Christ's suffering on the cross. He learns his name and the story of his father and mother. At her kiss, Parsifal suddenly understands Amfortas' pain and is filled with compassion. He recovers the spear and defeats Klingsor. In the third act, Parsifal returns to Montsalvat on Good Friday morning. Gurnemanz recognizes "the boy who killed our swan" and more importantly, the Spear. The old knight anoints Parsifal as king. Parsifal heals Amfortas, and takes his place as king of the Grail.

This all sounds straightforward, except that Parsifal is the opera where Wagner experimented freely with the idea of time as a nebulous concept. The libretto does not say exactly where the story takes place, nor does it indicate how long Amfortas has suffered, how long Parsifal takes to get to Klingsor's castle or how long he wanders the lonely road back. The only indication of time in the score at all is the bells of Montsalvat, which ring in the first act to announce the daily meal of the Knights (at which the Grail is uncovered) and in the third for the funeral of Titurel, Amfortas' infirm and ancient father.

The music is just as elastic. The opening chords rise as if in a mist, with clarinets, bassoons and strings uttering a three-note motif that is the seed of the entire work. Wagner uses a smaller orchestra here than in the Ring but there are still challenges, such as the deep-toned, rolling bells and the score's transcendent, glowing texture that must elevate an audience, not put it to sleep. This is Wagner's most beguiling and transparent score, and the funeral march in the third act may well be the most terrifying music he ever wrote.

Recording recommendations: 
Conductors have had a field day with this work over the years, and performances can vary in duration by as much as an hour. The slowest recording on disc (by Sir Reginald Goodall) is about five hours. By way of contrast, conductors like Richard Strauss and Pierre Boulez have conducted the entire opera in just three and a half hours. Three of the following recordings are from Bayreuth. The other two are studio efforts of exceptional quality.

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus cond. Hans Knappertsbusch (Philips-Decca 1962)
There are six different accounts on CD of Parsifal conducted by this great German conductor. But this is it. The legendary stereo Parsifal which captures every detail of being in the Festspielhaus and listening to "Kna" work his mystic way with the score. An excellent cast is present, with Hans Hotter singing a Gurnemanz for the ages, Jess Thomas as a strong Parsifal and George London a shattering Amfortas. The live acoustic is all-enveloping, and even the odd cough from the audience lends to the theatrical atmosphere.

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus cond. Pierre Boulez (Deutsche Grammophon 1971)
Another Bayreuth effort, and the shortest recording of this opera in the catalogue at three hours, thirty-eight minutes and thirty-eight seconds. Pierre Boulez shows the same understanding of the Bayreuth sound and the transparent quality of the music that would inform his later Ring cycle. James King and the young Gwyneth Jones make real heat as Parsifal and Kundry. Thomas Stewart is an excellent Amfortas.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Sir Georg Solti (Decca 1972)
The orchestra plays this music as if born to it. Christa Ludwig is the most seductive Kundry on record, and the second act features a starry trio of Flower Maidens. Rene Kollo is OK as Parsifal. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is an odd choice as Amfortas. The star of the show: Gottlob Frick who enunciates and nuances the meaning of every word in Gurnemanz' monologues, making them anything but boring.

Berlin Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (DG 1980)
Herbert von Karajan made this excellent studio Parsifal to celebrate his own Salzburg production of the opera. He brings together Peter Hofmann, Dunja Vejzovic and the warm and fatherly Gurnemanz of the great Kurt Moll. José van Dam is the thinking man's Amfortas. The Good Friday spell has an unearthly quality here, ditto the effect of the tolling bells of Montsalvat.

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus cond. James Levine (Philips-Decca 1985)
This is the recording that captures what an exciting Wagner conductor James Levine can be in the theater. It is a slow and weighty reading of the score. Peter Hofmann is Parsifal again, and in acceptable voice. Hans Sotin is an excellent Gurnemanz and Simon Estes a moving Amfortas, raw in his suffering. Its greatest strength is the presence of Waltraud Meier as Kundry, who would go on to record this complex role five times.

Watch the Transformation Scene from Act I of Parsifal with Poul Elming, Hans Sotin and Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra. Production by Wolfgang Wagner.

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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.