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Monday, April 9, 2012

Recordings Review: I Pity the Fool

Marek Janowski's 2011 Berlin Parsifal.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Parsifal and Kundry as painted by Rogellio de Egusquiza.
This is a live recording of Wagner's Parsifal made on April 8, 2011 before an audience at a single Berlin concert. in a single Berlin concert. It is the third entry in Marek Janowski's ambitious plan to record and release all ten Wagner operas on PentaTone, an independent German label (distributed by Naxos) that specializes in multi-channel hybrid Super Audio CDs. It falls among recordings like Pierre Boulez' and Herbert Kegel's that favor a lean and mean approach to presenting Wagner's final opera.

Parsifal is unique among Wagner's operas. It is his last work, and the only opera that was specifically written for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the 1,925-seat theater designed and built to the composer's specifications. Bayreuth's unique properties (the wooden construction, the location of the orchestra pit deep beneath the stage) inform many of the classic recordings of this opera, and it is possible to track a history of performance styles by listening to Bayreuth recordings made at (roughly) ten year intervals.

This opera (Wagner called it a "stage-consecrating festival play") is based on the medieval epic Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach. Wagner added Eastern mysticism and his own philosophical baggage to the story of the title character, an "innocent fool" who undertakes a quest to redeem the brotherhood of the knights of the Holy Grail. His task: retrieve the spear of Longinus (the same one that wounded Christ during the Passion) which was used by the evil wizard Klingsor to wound the Grail King Amfortas. Only the Spear can heal Amfortas but every knight who has attempted the quest has failed.

Parsifal's adventures include killing a bunch of entranced knights (the massacre is thankfully offstage and depicted briefly by the orchestra. He discovers a magic garden filled with agreeable young "flowers" who try to seduce the boy. Their leader, Kundry almost succeeds, and kisses him. This causes young Parsifal to suddenly gain self-awareness of who he is, what he is doing and why he must save Amfortas. Becoming enlightened through compassion, he defeats Klingsor, seizes the Spear and returns it. He returns just in time to save Amfortas from his own knights, and heals him, becoming the rightful King of the Grail.

The energetic cast benefits from the concert setting of the Berlin Philharmonie, the concert hall constructed to Herbert von Karajan's specifications in 1963. Christian Elner, a singer unknown previously to this writer, is an ardent, involved Parsifal, walking the path towards wisdom even as he almost steps off the cliff. He brings ringing tone and a sense of real self-awareness in Act II to "Amfortas! Die Wunde!" his big moment in the score. Mr. Elner is at his best in the last act, sounding refreshed from his Good Friday anointment, and delivering a near-perfect "Enthüllet den Gral! Öffnet den schrein!" in the opera's finale.

Michelle DeYoung captures both sides of Kundry's personality, singing with a plush mezzo tone and sparing the listener the ear-splitting "wake-up screams" in Act II and III. Her voice has to leap a wide interval for the big notes in Act II. The sound thins out at the very top of her register, but the laser-like notes are clear. She also takes the role of the "Voice from Above" at the end of Act I. Having Kundry herself remind the Knights of the opera's prophecy adds a whole new twist to this important and often overlooked moment.

Franz-Josef Selig is the current heavyweight champ in the big, dark Wagner parts. He consolidates that position with Gurnemanz: weighty, fatherly and sometimes comic as the old knight expounds upon the opera's lengthy exposition and then repeatedly reprimands Parsifal. In the third act, his recognition of the stranger's identity is one of this recording's many little pleasures. Evgeny Nikitin, who usually sings the role of Klingsor, puts a dark edge of insanity underneath Amfortas' suffering. It is a pleasure to hear a real bass in this part often taken by baritones. Eik-Wilm Schulte is a cranky, gruff Klingsor.

Starting with the Act I Prelude, Mr. Janowski  creates mystic expanses of sound, bringing a flowing impressionistic quality to this music. Certain scenes, particularly the first Transformation Music and the finale of the first act, are taken very fast. Indeed,  the Knights sound surprised at how fast they are going, just on the edge of confusion. The sound-colors of the Magic Garden are bright, shimmering in a haze with a great performance from the female choristers. By contrast, the Act III funeral march is terrific, slow and weighty with a doleful tread and fine trombone playing. The finale is perfectly played, ascending into light.

As recent productions of this opera have included drug-addled Grail Knights, a floating lake of blood, and (at Bayreuth) film of a rapidly decomposing rabbit (?!) there is something to be said for removing stage directions from the operatic experience. However, Mr. Janowski's forces, confined to the Philharmonie's central orchestral position, do not move convincingly across the stereo picture. The Knights and Flower Maidens do not enter and exit, they are simply just appear, answering the next cue and breaking the illusion of drama in motion.

In taking Parsifal out of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, Mr. Janowski faces a challenge: how to recreate, for the home listener, the profound depths of this opera in a concert setting. This recording plays to his strengths as a conductor, with a limpid clarity in the strings and wind. However, the illusion of timelessness, generated by choosing a consistency of tempo over Wagner's long musical arcs, is ultimately, and sadly absent. As a worthy modern entry in the already crowded field of Parsifal recordings, this is worth a listen. If you are seeking salvation, you're going to have to look elsewhere.

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