July 21, 2011


Wagner: Parsifal. José van Dam, John Tomlinson, Matthias Hölle, Siegfried Jerusalem, Günter von Kannen, Waltraud Meier; Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin and Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Warner. $39.99 (4 CDs).

     One of the best recordings of Wagner’s final opera is available again, thanks to Warner’s reissue in its Teldec Opera Collection of Parsifal conducted by Daniel Barenboim – a 1989-90 recording first issued in 1991. Parsifal is and always has been a strange work, its text so overladen with myth and multiple meanings and controversies that the music tends to get lost in examinations of the libretto and arguments about it. This is a tremendous shame, since the music is utterly sublime, quieter and more elegant and ethereal than anything else Wagner wrote. The plot draws very heavily on central tenets of Christianity, yet Wagner – who, as usual, did his own libretto – studiously avoids mentioning Christ, referring only to “the Redeemer” and “the Savior.” Wagner himself wrote that the work was intended to elevate religious symbols above the literal (as organized religion would have them) into the realm of the figurative – a difficult philosophical concept that seems to fit the very difficult music, even if it is hard to say exactly how.

     But the music, so much of it quiet, is the glory here, and much of the Barenboim-led performance is glorious indeed. Barenboim’s tempos tend to be slow, but not overly so (some conductors really drag the music); and the orchestral detail is very well brought out, despite a recording that was mostly made at a low level (listeners will find that volume settings high enough to bring forth the softest sections are uncomfortably high for the loudest ones).

     The singing ranges from quite good to excellent. As Amfortas, José van Dam eloquently conveys spiritual sadness and suffering with rich, steady, burnished tones. Siegfried Jerusalem’s voice is sometimes pushed to its limits, but he makes a fine, youthful Parsifal, with especially clear phrasing and enunciation – a big help for those who know enough German to follow the singers, since this re-release contains no libretto, although its summary of the action is good. The booklet offers the URL of a Web site where it says the full libretto in German and English can be found, but the site seems to bring it up only in German; however, there are various places to get the libretto with English translation – www.rwagner.net is one example.

     In the crucial role of Kundry, Waltraud Meier plumbs the depths of a part that she has sung many times: her sound is sometimes poignant, sometimes haunting, and always effective. Matthias Hölle is a little weak in the part of Gurnemanz – John Tomlinson, who here sings Titurel, might have been a better choice. But Hölle brings understanding and fine detail to his singing, even if he lacks some vocal color and heft. As for Tomlinson, his Titurel is excellent, well characterized and well sung. Not so the Klingsor of Günter von Kannen – he is not nearly challenging or nasty enough, although his sheer vocal quality is very high. Indeed, this whole Parsifal is exceptionally well sung, with the male voices in the Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin worth singling out for the quality of their work in the Grail Temple scenes.

     Parsifal is not one of Wagner’s more popular operas, and Wagner himself did not even call it an opera but “A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage.” The slow pacing of the story, very long passages of extreme quiet and delicacy (including a Prelude that can easily put a listener to sleep, and perhaps is intended to lull people into a suitably dreamlike state for appreciation of the action), and stereotyped characters – as well as the strong, if not always coherent, religious theme – have kept Parsifal from the sort of success enjoyed by the Ring cycle. This is above all a rarefied work, undoubtedly a masterpiece, but a difficult and very lengthy one (the Barenboim performance lasts nearly four-and-a-half hours). In some ways, Parsifal is better heard in a recording than seen on stage, where its absurdities can clash with its sublimities. In the best recorded performances, the only thing a listener encounters is the sublime; and that is the preponderance of what this excellent re-release has to offer.

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