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Monday, April 9, 2012

Recordings Review: I Pity the Fool

P. Craig Russel's comic book version of Parsifal.
© 1976 by the artist. 

Image from Montsalvat: The Parsifal Pages.
Marek Janowski's new Berlin Parsifal.
by Paul Pelkonen
This live recording of Wagner's Parsifal was laid down a year ago (April 8, 2011) 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 that specializes in multi-channel hybrid Super Audio CDs.

Parsifal is Wagner's last opera, and the only work that the composer finished following the opening of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Originally, Wagner intended that this work be restricted to performance at Bayreuth. This was not designed to create some sort of weird  cult, but to ensure the financial solvency of his new theater for years to come.

Parsifal is a quasi-religious drama (Wagner called it a "stage-consecrating festival play") that retells the story of a "pure fool" (the title character) and his quest to redeem the Knights of the Holy Grail. Their King lies wounded, stabbed with the Spear of Longinus, which pierced the side of Christ as he suffered on the cross.

Parsifal's adventures include killing a bunch of ensorcelled knights and discovering a magic garden filled with agreeable young ladies. Eventually, he is tempted by the "wild woman" Kundry, and gains self-awareness, becoming "wise through compassion." He defeats the sorceror Klingsor and completes his quest by retrieving the stolen Spear, healing Amfortas, and taking over his duties as King of the Grail.

The energetic cast benefits from the concert setting of the Berlin Philharmonie. Christian Elner 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!". 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 "entry screams" in Act II and III. Her voice has to leap a big 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 remind the Knights of the opera's prophecy adds a whole new twist to the drama.

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 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 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 an 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 a concert setting, do not move convincingly across the stereo picture. The Knights and Flower Maidens do not enter and exit, they are simply just there, answering the next cue.

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 absent.

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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.