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WAGNER: Parsifal

spacer W. Meier; Elming, Struckmann, Tomlinson, von Kannen; Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper, Staatskapelle Berlin, Barenboim. Production: Kupfer. EuroArts 2066738 (3 DVDs), 245 mins., subtitled


Before Hans Neuenfels's "lab rat" production of Lohengrin at Bayreuth, before Des McAnuff's "atomic bomb" production of Faust at ENO and the Met, there was Harry Kupfer's Parsifal in Berlin. In Hans Schavernoch's designs, Kupfer's production, recorded at the Staatsoper in 1992, apparently takes place in a gigantic, gleaming vault. The vault contains nothing but a protrusion resembling a one-person spaceship, which levitates when it is used as the altar for the grail ceremony. 

Kupfer's direction is nonetheless closely engaged with Wagner's libretto in a number of small but telling details. Parsifal is temporarily blinded by a flood of pure white light when he first enters the grail temple. Terrified, he refuses to take the communion Gurnemanz offers him. In the final moments of Act I, Kundry is discovered, tightly pressed to the outside of the temple, as close as she is allowed to come to the salvation she dearly desires. (In Act III she is included, as Wagner wished.) Gurnemanz, a healthy young Viking in Act I, has aged badly by Act III. At the final grail ceremony Kundry seems destined not for eternally longed-for afterlife but for continued earthly life. But Amfortas dies, unable to bear the upheaval.

As Kundry, Waltraud Meier — through her bearing, her gait, even somehow her very face — gives us three entirely different women in the three acts, an interpretation borne out by Wagner's libretto. As good as she is in Act I (red-headed, urgent in her vocal lines and very, very sexy) and in Act III (young again, starting over like a novice in a convent), her performance in Act II is historic. For quite some time she sings as lightly as if she were singing a Hugo Wolf song. Her seduction of Parsifal is at first a polished performance of a task that she has unfailingly accomplished over and over. But as things veer off course, another layer is added. It is not so much that she has to start playing for keeps as that it appears she, for the first time, is being completely honest. Yet this turns out to be a deception as well. Does she realize that Parsifal is her redeemer before he does but suddenly fear the reality of him? Ultimately, Kundry has never seemed so dangerous. 

The work of Kupfer, of conductor Daniel Barenboim and of the other singers is all on a higher level when Meier's sensational Kundry is onstage. Poul Elming's Parsifal is at his most focused, musically and dramatically, in his long solo "Amfortas! Die wunde," where Kupfer has him play the long paragraph in a state of complete trust in Kundry. Barenboim revels in what Meier is able to do, filing the orchestral tone down to the barest thread of sound just before "Ich sah das kind."

John Tomlinson sings Gurnemanz in a declamatory, un-conversational way, even when Wagner asks for piano. Falk Struckmann is prone to unsteady tone as Amfortas. The Flowermaidens are seen only as disembodied faces, and a few disembodied breasts, on closed-circuit television screens. Since they are offstage, they can stand close together as a group and coordinate with an assistant conductor. As a result, the Flowermaidens' music has never sounded so precise in live performance. (Barenboim's accompaniment to their waltz, as quick and light as can be, seems heavily influenced by Hans Knappertsbusch's.) But when Kupfer lovingly reproduces every one of Wagner's stage directions for the Good Friday meadow on these gleaming reflective floors and towering titanium walls of the vault, it is hard to know what to make of the discrepancy. 

All told, the show, and Ernst Stoy's magnificent chorus, must have been mightily impressive in the theater. EuroArts's video production, with no entrance applause for the conductor and no bows, is a reminder of the era when nobody was allowed to applaud the first and last acts of this opera. spacer


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