Schenk and Schneider-Siemssen’s Met Parsifal allowed a timeless tale to wend in its way towards redemptive transcendence

United StatesUnited States Wagner, Parsifal: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of The Metropolitan Opera, New York / James Levine (conductor). Performance of 28.3.1992 reviewed as a Nightly Met Opera Stream in 8.8.2020. (JPr)

Kurt Moll (Gurnemanz), Waltraud Meier (Kundry) & Siegfried Jerusalem (Parsifal)

Production – Otto Schenk
Stage Director – Phebe Berkowitz
Set designer – Günther Schneider-Siemssen
Costume designer – Rolf Langenfass
Lighting designer – Gil Wechsler
TV Director – Brian Large

Parsifal – Siegfried Jerusalem
Kundry – Waltraud Meier
Amfortas – Bernd Weikl
Gurnemanz – Kurt Moll
Klingsor – Franz Mazura
Titurel – Jan-Hendrik Rootering
Voice – Gweneth Bean
First Esquire – Heidi Grant Murphy
Second Esquire – Jane Bunnell
Third Esquire – John Horton Murray
Fourth Esquire – Bernard Fitch
First Knight – Paul Groves
Second Knight – Jeffrey Wells
Leading Flower Maidens – Jane Bunnell, Kaaren Erickson, Gwynne Geyer, Heidi Grant Murphy, Korliss Uecker, Wendy White

Wagner called Parsifal a ‘stage-consecrating festival play: ritual is at its centre which is at first threatened and in the end gets renewed. Wagner’s original aim was probably to consecrate Bayreuth as a shrine to his new musical ‘religion’ though – thanks mainly to his widow Cosima – Parsifal became something of a ritual all of its own and she strove to – but eventually failed – to restrict performances to Bayreuth as the composer wanted.

I think Wagner would have loved Otto Schenk’s 1991 production, Gunther Schneider-Siemssen’s sets, and Rolf Langenfass’s often cumbersome costumes. I understand Michael Tanner writing about Parsifal has suggested ’And if it is not a Christian work, as opposed to a work which is to a large extent about Christians (though remember, the Christ is never referred to by name) and their failings and eventual salvation, what is the significance of the celebration of the Eucharist in Act I, the prayers that can hardly be addressed to anyone but the Christian God, the point of Parsifal’s baptising Kundry and telling her to have faith in the Redeemer, and much else besides?’.

Everything Schenk and Schneider-Siemssen show us is deeply traditional including that first act Eucharist and the fetishism of the Grail, as well as, subsequently the Spear. Amongst many other moments adhering to Wagner’s instructions, we see Kundry washing Parsifal’s feet and drying them with her hair, and Gurnemanz anointing his head. The static dreamlike tableaux we often get in this Parsifal are straight out of any number of pre-Raphaelite paintings. The flower maidens even frolicked – with a hint of bare breasts – in a woodland glade as if nymphs from Greek mythology or Shakespeare’s fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Hall of the Grail – with the knights as devout warrior monks – seemed like an elaborate wooden henge that appears to let the snow in and there is a green pasture with small spring flowers for the start of the final act. Kundry is supposed to be found under some wintry thorns, so you can guess what we saw? It is possible to dismiss all this as cliché-filled kitsch but, for me, it provided an effective atmosphere for a familiar timeless tale to unfold and wend in its own – admittedly simplistic – way towards the redemptive transcendence of the opera’s ending.

I suspect that this recording might have been the result of filming a number of performances because Brian Large’s direction for TV had frequent close-ups and cutaways to elucidate the drama. He particularly focussed in on Amfortas’s obvious suffering and the particularly mobile face of Waltraud Meier as Kundry which visibly registered her character’s complete emotional journey. Kudos for the initial longshot of James Levine and the Met orchestra during the Prelude that allowed that mystical masterpiece in miniature to set the scene for what was to follow; without having it disturbed by making us watch the Met’s – then current – artistic director. It was all mightily impressive from a first-rate cast, stunning chorus, and seemingly faultless virtuosic orchestra. Levine tempos in Wagner were generally slow, but I thought he shaped the work thoughtfully and imaginatively, and his phrasing, as well as, the overall arc of the music sounded faultless.

It would be impossible in 2020 to find a Parsifal cast with six such wonderful leading singers – who I all heard sing ‘live’ at the height of their careers – and they helped make this Parsifal another wonderful sojourn down memory lane at the Met. I don’t think artists such as these grew up by being thrust onto international opera stages at too young an age and without adequate time to prepare a new role. These days singers are dispensable commodities and there will always be a new Wagnerian soprano, mezzo, baritone, or bass, to give an opportunity to. Finding a new Wagner tenor is however more problematical, and that might be a possible flaw in my argument!

Kurt Moll was an authoritative Gurnemanz and his slightly boring paterfamilias of the first act gained more nuance from his character’s world-weariness in Act III.  His ‘Das ist Karfreitagszauber, Herr!’ especially impressed because of his expansive long bass lines. Bernd Weikl was as good an Amfortas as I have ever seen and heard, and he created a living breathing person. Only someone very cold-hearted could fail to be moved by his agonising cries begging forgiveness (‘Erbarmen!’) in Act I and his enfeeblement near the end. Franz Mazura made a chillingly demonic Klingsor who clearly is a cross-dresser (which I am surprised was allowed at the Met in the 1990s). Living in a castle surrounded by all sorts of paraphernalia – including a spinning glitterball – he bitterly bemoaned his fate better than many I have heard. While Parsifal claiming the Spear off him worked well with just a flash of lightning and a blackout, the collapse of the magic castle was anything but magical!

I heard Siegfried Jerusalem give many fine performances and many not so good; he was never much of an actor and seemed basically to be just himself in whatever Wagner role he sang. (His modern counterpart for me is Andreas Schager who always looks and sounds the same whatever opera it is.) Jerusalem’s pivotal moment was after Kundry’s full-on ‘ersten Kuss’ as he went from seemingly sleepwalking through the opera to become a wide-eyed religious zealot for the rest of Act II. ‘Amfortas! Die Wunde! Die Wunde!’ tested his high notes but I felt his pain and later his third act ‘Und ich, ich bin’s, der all dies Elend schuf’ was strong, emphatic, and impassioned.

Brian Large’s cameras seemed to follow Waltraud Meier even in Act III when she had nothing to sing. Meier created a dangerous, complex, conniving, yet very human – am I allowed to say womanly? – dramatic presence. It must be remembered that Kundry is the female equivalent of The Flying Dutchman. Meier was someone you could not ignore when the camera was on her – especially during Act II – because she absorbed and reflected on everything that was happening and you could see Meier’s body and expressive face clearly registering and weighing it all up. I remember Meier emerging – similarly a vision in blush pink – from a huge conch shell in an old August Everding Vienna production and the way she sang ‘Par-si-fal’ resonated as much now as it did then. Meier’s Kundry was genuinely seductive and her controlled singing made her vehement outburst at ‘Ich sah Ihn und lachte’ all the more visceral.

Jim Pritchard

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