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Sunday, October 17, 2010

CD Review: A Glowing Parsifal from St. Petersburg

Valery Gergiev tackles Wagner's final opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Valery Gergiev finds the Grail in this new Parsifal.
Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus sound postively radiant on the new recording of Parsifal, the first new studio recording of Wagner's final opera to be issued since the early '90s, and the first Wagner recording issued on the Mariinsky label.

Mr. Gergiev maintains slow, even tempos throughout the opera's four and a half hour length. He sets a measured pace for the Prelude, with a majestic, swelling tone in the winds and cellos giving way to cascading fanfares of brass. Mr. Gergiev conducts the prelude in twelve minutes, about halfway between the two extremes of Pierre Boulez (who did it in nine) and James Levine (whose two recordings of the opera average out at fifteen). The tempo neither speeds up or slows down, creating a mystic space for the listener to experience the work.

The Russian forces support an excellent cast. René Pape is a near-perfect Gurnemanz. The German baritone is the star of this recording. He makes the infamous Act I narratives a thrilling listen, injecting each word of the text with meaning as a fine lieder singer would so there is never a boring moment. When he sings "Du siehst, das ist nicht so" in the Good Friday scene, he never over-plays the big moment. You can hear the compassion and warmth in his delivery and you get the sense that the long-winded Grail Knight really means every word.

Act II provides all the contrast, dominated by Violeta Urmana as Kundry. She is the anti-heroine: narcoleptic, schizophrenic, penitent, and living under a terrible curse. Ms. Urmana croons, she seduces, and she nearly snares Gary Lehman's Parsifal. Her big duet with Mr. Lehmann is never bogged down, and she sings "Ich sah Ihn" with just the right shade of horror and self-loathing in her voice.

Gary Lehman, the American tenor who made a splash at the Met singing Tristan two years ago, sings (instead of shouting) as Parsifal. He is energetic in the first act, boisterous in the second until he kisses Kundry and the "pure fool" gains wisdom. In the last act, he is quiet and contemplative, almost dazed and not sounding like a heldentenor. In other words, he delivers "Nur eine waffe tag" sweetly when most Parsifals would simply hurl the notes over Wagner's choir of brass.

Mikhail Putilin is a nasty Klingsor, making the most of this short but difficult role. Evgeny Nikitin is a compelling Amfortas, delivering anguish in his big Act I and Act III scenes when he confronts the mutinous Grail Knights. Amfortas' suffering should always be played as if to make the listener uncomfortable, and Mr. Nikitin accomplishes that difficult scene in the last act with some help from Mr. Gergiev's orchestra and the superb men's chorus.

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

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