A new 'Parsifal' - Philippe Jordan leads a transformative recording

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday March 12, 2024
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conductor Philippe Jordan and the recording of the 2021 recording of 'Parsifal'
conductor Philippe Jordan and the recording of the 2021 recording of 'Parsifal'

Once upon a time, Easter season meant the arrival of a new "Parsifal." Sony's splendid new "Parsifal," under the leadership of out conductor Philippe Jordan, illuminates the largely interior drama in part by dropping the faux religiosity that has accrued to Wagner's final opera over the generations and tackling the more difficult task of making dramatic sense of the sprawling, four-hour work.

The composer called "Parsifal" a "stage-consecrating festival play" instead of a mere opera. And there's plenty in the music and text —its meditation on the spiritual "magic" of the Good Friday story, its borrowings from medieval legends about the Knights of the Grail, and its nods to Buddhist thought and the dour philosophy of Schopenhauer— that invites a cloak of Bavarian piety.

The 1882 premiere at the Bayreuth Festival —to which Wagner unsuccessfully wanted all subsequent performances limited— featured designs by Paul von Joukowski that have saddled the work's performance history ever since. A light from above shines through the Grail Castle, modeled on the cathedral of Siena, with the Grail knights prostrate around it.

But "Parsifal" does not have a theology. A renowned gay translator of Wagner's text for performance in English once quipped, in a combination of wonder and frustration, "Pages go by when I ask myself, 'What could this possibly mean?'"

Joan Kauffman (seated) and members of the Vienna State opera Chorus in the Vienna State Opera production of 'Parsifal' (photo: Michael Pohn Pöhn)  

This new "Parsifal" attempts no solutions to the work's riddles and explications of its mysteries, going for insights that are not lessons. It doesn't reduce the story to a kitsch account of the outsized consequences of the killing of a swan, but neither does it preach, interpret, or shout.

Live but off-stage
The new recording is taken from two live performances at the Vienna State Opera in mid-pandemic 2021. That it's being issued in a 4-CD deluxe edition (as well as streaming on all platforms) may reflect an artistic turning away from Kirill Serebrennikov's staging, generally reviled for its focus not on the already nearly intractable story but on the director's own biography.

The Vienna Philharmonic, the pit band for some of the heaviest previous recordings of the opera, has seldom sounded so lithe, so alive to the micro movements of this most macro of scores. Jordan's shrewd pacing never loses momentum. It's faster than some, in places, and slower in others, but fleet while always pellucid.

This "Parsifal" doesn't so much interpret the work as elucidate it. It hews to the central concept, the importance of compassion for the suffering, which is to say all of us. And it doesn't trivialize the legend to say that anyone who has felt remorse for a sexual misadventure of the past might see themselves in it. It's not a mistake, merely a challenge, to present the opera's characters as real people.

Real people
Jordan's cast is as strong as could be assembled today. Jonas Kaufmann reprises his rightly renowned Parsifal with a performance of even greater maturity and insight. Elina Garanca is his Kundry, one of opera's most challenging assignments — Kundry exists outside the rest of the world's time-space continuum— and nails it with fury and a dramatic inner consistency. Their Act II encounter —the ultimate opera love duet gone bad— is all the more compelling for putting the power of sexual passion over the reflections of the mythological characters.

Instead of the wooly bass long associated with the role of Gurnemaz, the caretaker of a Grail Castle where the vow of celibacy is not going at all well, Georg Zeppenfeld trains his laser-like voice on narrations that don't outstay their welcome and interacts with all his fellows with understanding if not always patience.

Ludovic Tezier, as Amfortas, the impeached Grail King eternally wounded by his sexual encounter with Kundry, somehow manages the character's endless agony from a wound that never heals without a trace of self-pity. Wolfgang Koch, an important Amfortas in other productions, gives us a Klingsor, fallen knight of the Grail and operator of the femme fatale in Kundry, with all the requisite menace but none of the slobbering.

Human, all too human
The idea of unqualified forgiveness through spiritual cleansing rather than by some retrieval of lost faith guides this wise but never self-regarding traversal of a work that poses uncommon challenges at every turn. Spiritual crises are met with human, not divine, confrontations and interventions.

The long Parsifal-Kundry scene of Act II foregoes false piety in service of a scorching account of male sexuality undone by a mother complex. Here it's electric with a ready willingness for that electricity to be static as indicated. Kaufmann and Garanca leave behind all the trappings that often sanitize their characters with sexuality at its most raw.

Even the minor characters evince personality as much as dramatic function. The chorus of Grail knights is sonorous without a lapse into feigned holiness.

Perhaps it warrants saying in conclusion that Jordan's "Parsifal" forfeits none of the solemnity of the piece while making it immediate and alive in the moment.

Swanning around
While we're in the neighborhood, two other new releases look at Wagner from unusual perspectives. Nikloai Lugansky's "Richard Wagner: Famous Opera Scenes" (Harmonia Mundi) offers transcriptions for solo piano beyond the familiar "reminiscences," most by Lugansky himself. "In the Shadows" (Erato) offers tenor Michael Spyres, one of the most remarkable and thoughtful singers of our time, an array of arias from the operas that influenced Wagner.

Startling as it initially is to see Christophe Rousset and his Les Talens Lyriques performing 19th-century music, it's in keeping with their expanded notion of historically informed performance. The collaboration brings out the best in both orchestra and singer. It ends with selections from Wagner's still-little-known early operas and a magisterial account of "Mein lieber Schwann" from "Lohengrin," a role next up for Spyres.

Some swans get all the luck.

Richard Wagner, 'Parsifal,' Vienna State Opera, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Philppe Jordan, conductor, Sony Classical. www.sonyclassical.com

Richard Wagner; 'Famous Opera Scenes,' Nikolai Lugansky, pianist and transcriptions composer, Harmonia Mundi. www.harmoniamundi.com

'In the Shadows,' tenor Michael Spyres, Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset, conductor, Erato, www.warnerclassics.com

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