For the past couple of decades or so operas, especially those of Wagner, have inspired stage directors to find new ways to interpret or reinterpret them. In fact, not only is the setting often changed but even the story itself, leaving the composer and his intentions out of consideration to one degree or other. In the extreme, one thinks of the Bayreuth production of Die Meistersinger that was introduced in 2007 under production director Katerina Wagner, ironically the great-granddaughter of the composer. It was radical, though quite imaginative, and many regarded it as a rebuke of Wagner. Increasingly it is becoming difficult to think of a major recent production of a Wagner opera that is traditional and true to the composer's libretto and spirit. This new Parsifal has been viewed by some commentators as reasonably faithful to Wagner's intentions. Well, yes and no.
As Wagnerians and operaphiles in general are aware, Parsifal is about redemption. But stage director Dmitri Tcherniakov seems to introduce a new element at the end of the opera. (Stop reading here and skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to have knowledge of a crucial change in the ending.) Kundry and Amfortas are embracing and sharing passionate kisses when Gurnemanz stabs her in the back. Beside redemption, is Tcherniakov also making this opera about revenge or some sort of just punishment? Does it suggest something about how women are treated in this opera? Her killing is thought-provoking and effective – and shocking. But there are also other changes in this production.
The setting is modern-day: Parsifal is a hip hiker or backpacker; the knights of the grail look impoverished in their dress and conduct their activities in a darkish place that resembles an old factory or warehouse; Klingsor's dungeon is bright and quite appealing, the flip-side of the knights' surroundings; and his flower maidens include very young girls with dolls. I guess the message in the contrast between the knights and Klingsor is obvious: appearances are deceptive as good can look bad and bad can look good. There is the suggestion of pedophilia in Klingsor's activities, which subtly adds to his villainy, which is very effectively conveyed by him. That said, he also comes across as a bumbling fool some of the time.
There is actually much to notice and ponder in this production and in this regard I should point out that Classical Net colleague José Luis Bermúdez reviewed this recording in November and made some very astute observations about the production. You may want to read his take on this effort (Bel Air Classiques Blu-ray BAC428). I agree with him fully about the performances: Barenboim leads an utterly incisive performance of this massive work and the singers are brilliant. Anja Kampe reportedly was still suffering from the flu when the performances from which this recording was derived were made. But you would never know it: she sings magnificently and makes a fine, perhaps slightly understated Kundry. Her dramatic skills are especially effective throughout. Andreas Schager is a splendid heldentenor and portrays Parsifal with a youthful quality early on, growing into a more defiant but also thoughtful character in Act II and a heroic one in Act III. René Pape, in the role of Gurnemanz, is excellent, and Tómas Tómasson sings well and divulges more about the character of Klingsor than you see in most other performances. The remaining members of the cast are uniformly strong.
Regarding Barenboim, his tempo selections always seem perfectly workable and he draws splendid, spirited playing from the orchestra and fine singing from the chorus. This is a difficult opera to bring off, not least because of the almost unceasingly slow pacing called for in Wagner's score. By ratcheting up the tension in the right places with deftly applied changes in dynamics and tempo, and through sensitive phrasing of both lyrical and emotionally intense episodes, Barenboim almost never allows the music to flag. Even the opening Prelude, which can sound static and almost interminable in the wrong hands, comes across with passion and tension and a profoundly epic sense. Barenboim is one of the great Wagner conductors of this or any time, as his two highly acclaimed Ring cycles and recordings of Tristan, Meistersinger, and other Wagner operas have attested.
Sets, lighting, and costuming are all quite effective here, and the sound reproduction, camera work and picture clarity are all first rate. Now, you ask, how does this performance stack up against others on video? I have written notices here on three other video performances of Parsifal: in 2005 I reviewed the Kent Nagano-led effort featuring Waltraud Meier as Kundry and Christopher Ventris as Parsifal (BBC Opus Arte DVD OA0915D); nine years later I covered the 1998 Wolfgang Wagner production, under conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli (Unitel Classica/C Major Blu-ray 715804); and finally in 2015 I reviewed the Antonio Pappano-led production that also featured René Pape as Gurnemanz (Opus Arte Blu-ray OABD7159D). To sum them up quickly, Nagano was musically excellent but featured a somewhat weird production; Sinopoli was not quite as strong musically but had a fine production; and Pappano was marginally less compelling than either from a musical standpoint but still produced a worthy effort overall. This new Barenboim/Tcherniakov Parsifal would appear to be the version of choice. Musically I give Barenboim a slight edge over Nagano, and the Tcherniakov production is excellent in most ways, perhaps not as satisfying to those who would prefer a more traditional approach, as you mostly get from the Wolfgang Wagner production. So, the verdict is, Barenboim is my first choice, though Nagano is also very convincing, at least musically. I'll keep the other two recordings around because they are worthy efforts with far more pluses than minuses.
Copyright © 2016, Robert Cummings