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Wagner: Parsifal [Blu-ray]  [Region Free]
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Christian Thielemann conducts the Staatskapelle Dresden in this performance of Wagner's opera recorded live in 2013. The performance was held for the Salzburg Easter Festival and featured vocalists including Johan Botha, Michaela Schuster, Stephen Milling and Wolfgang Koch.
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It's a fairly lifeless production though, with little sense of narrative direction, and - critically for this particular work - little in the way of mood or atmosphere. While the appearance might be a little unsettling, unfamiliar and alienating, it's clear nonetheless that the director's choices do address many of the themes in Parsifal. There are five young boys and then five young men who shadow Parsifal, a bruised and battered Jesus who appears to be a physical representation of Kundry's curse, and a dwarf actor who represents the evil of Klingsor (who is sung moreover for extra significance here by the same singer who plays Amfortas). Two almost naked dancers meanwhile clinging to Amfortas are credited as Nike here, who may be representations of the pain that clings to him in his eternal torment. Whatever the meaning, there are clear references here to youth and innocence, age and experience, death and rebirth, suffering and redemption, and together with the musical expression, the meaning in this imagery does come through in those key moments with immense power.
Much more significant and much more interesting in the expression of the work however is Christian Thielemann's musical direction. You really have never heard a Parsifal like this. This is a Parsifal delivered with delicacy and sensitivity, the reduced size of the orchestra not only working for the requirements of the auditorium and the singers, but finding another way to deliver the extraordinary beauty of the compositional elements so that they reveal the true brilliance of the work. Thielemann's conducting of the orchestra seems to float and almost evaporate, but it also finds the warmth and Romanticism within the work and still commands tremendous force. Nothing sounds like a routine account of the work, but every note is carefully delineated, measured, weighted and balanced. It's extraordinary, the delicacy actually revealing even greater force of expression in this most enigmatic and unique of musical works.
It's not just a matter of toning down the orchestration to prevent it overwhelming the singers either. All of these singers here are capable of singing with considerably more strength, but the choice seems to have deliberately made to allow them to sing the words softly, sweetly and soothingly, avoiding any sense of declamation. The sweet tones of Johan Botha are perfect for this Parsifal then, but he moves around awkwardly and the suit is most unflattering for his very large frame. Michaela Schuster is not a typical Kundry either and difficult to fathom, but her interaction with her own "personal Jesus" and with the other characters can be utterly shattering in its intensity. Wolfgang Koch has a very difficult task by taking Amfortas and Klingsor as a dual role and does tremedously well. Stephen Milling's soft cooing Gurnemanz lacks the traditional authority and wisdom, but his beautiful timbre and the staging really does bring another dimension out of the character. It's not how you expect to hear Parsifal then, but it is surprisingly effective.
The High Definition presentation of the opera on Blu-ray from Decca is also exceptionally good. I don't think the production is well served by the lighting or the filming (Brian Large over-lighting the set and sucking out anything like a theatrical atmosphere), but the image quality is flawless and the audio tracks - LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0 - are superb at capturing the warmth and detail of the orchestration and the singing. There are no extra features on the disc, but there's a synopsis and an essay in the enclosed booklet. Subtitles are in German, English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.
In Act 2 there are busts of Greek Gods with heads off and they are laying on the floor. Plus, bodies and faces of Gods from ancient religions, including eastern, hanging upside down from the ceiling. In the corner is a statue of Buddha, which is a reference to Buddhist influence upon this opera. Kundry eventually sits upon it. Gurnemanz at the beginning of Act I sings,
" Yes, she may be under a curse. She lives here now-perhaps reincarnated to expiate some sin from an earlier life not yet forgiven there. Now she makes atonement by such deeds as benefit the knightly order, she has done good, beyond all doubt, serving us, and thereby helping herself."
Act 3 has a simple white stage titled upwards, where the action takes place. The costumes are semi modern, with Gurnemanz dressed in a beige suite with pieces of armour stuck to it. Amfortas wears blue batik robe. Kundry has clothes that could fit in any era. Parsival is dressed in a jacket and pants that are green and brown, which looks like the forest. The knights wear white pants and a shirt with chainmail around the head, or a white cloth version of it. The crucified Jesus wanders around the stage; he is an actor. This is the vision that only Kundry can see, for it torments her, as she laughed at Jesus on the cross. We do see this. The little man next to Klingsor, is his twisted spirit. Both are dressed in the same outfits.
You may be a bit confused by the statues. They are references to Feuerbach and Schopenhauer's views, that religion should not be seen as fairy tales, but explain truths about ourselves. Feuerbach thought we had created Gods, or God in our own image, That instead of the love of God, we should love Man. Schopenhauer believed we should not be born, life is horrible. That the will is unknowable, but physical life as we know it is a manifestation of this fact. Suffering is caused by the will to live. So the only way is non attachment, the denial of the will; a refusal to be involved with life like a mystic. However, Music Schopenhauer thought, was a way to understand this unknowable, because it reveals to us the nature of the World. Wagner never did believe literally in Christianity, or God. He did think that there were profound truths in religion, but the followers made the mistake of taking religion at face value, and turning it into fanciful nonsense. Basically, we see Parsival overcoming the will and distancing himself from the world and his sexual desires. All the characters except Parsival are looking for redemption in the wrong place. I go into more details in the Gatti Parsival. No mention is made about this in the booklet, but in the booklet of the Gatti version of Parsival, it is mentioned about Wagner's fascination with Buddha and Schopenhauer. About time. Yet this Thielemann version gets closer to the truth in act 2, then Gatti.
Thielemann conducts the Dresden Staatskapelle orchestra and Sachsischer, plus the Bayerischen Staatsoper chor. He brings to the fore the inner depth and emotion that is in the music. Also, the tempi are not too slow, but just right. In the prelude to Act 2, the music gallops along. The conductor seems to capture the resignation in the music, also the spirituality that Knappertsbusch does in the 1962 Bayreuth Live CD version of Parsival.
Gurnemanz is Stephen Milling who is very lyrical in the part. he was Hunding in the Copenhagen Ring cycle. Johan Botha, a South African, is very pleasing to the ear, and was Siegmund in the live Bluray Die Walkure, conducted by Thielemann. I do not understand why they never recorded the entire opera. The staging looked interesting. Amfortas and Klingsor are both sung by Wolfgang Koch, who is very lyrical in both roles. He represents the dual personalities, for Klingsor once was a knight. Koch was Barak the Dyer, in the excellent Thielemann conducted Bluray of Die Frau ohne Schatten-R. Strauss. Very impressive he was. Kundry is Michaela Schuster and fits the role perfectly. She was the nurse in Die Frau. Those in these roles seem to sing like they were in a traditional ensemble opera cast. However, I do like both traditional and modern staging, thus, I do not think that there is anything that could offend the more traditional minded. Therefore, I highly recommend this performance. When this performance was recorded, Thielemann and the Dresden took over from the usual Berlin Philharmonic, which is the first time, since the founding of the Salzburg festival.
How does it compare with the Gatti version, which has Kaufmann, the greatest tenor of his generation, Pape, Mattei, Dalayman and Nikitin. An extremely good cast. The scenery is dark, but in keeping with its Schopenhaurian overtones, which Girard has professed to follow. As I stated I like it. That version gives you another peak at this mysterious opera. But this version is warmer, and the sheer emotional thread that Thielemann weaves through the orchestra , brings the lush melodies to the surface. I own both.
10801. HD 16.9. ALL REGIONS. PCM stereo. DTS master audio 4.0. menu English, German. German sung. Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Chinese, korean and Japanese.
Wagner's main literary source was Wolfram von Eschenbach's early 13th Century romance Parzival. He compressed the poets huge poem into three climatic situations. In the final work these have been turned into three successive stages of compassion which was foreign to the poem. In 1855 to 1856 Wagner read Eugene Burnouf's " Introduction a L' histoire du Bouddhisme", and it inspired him to write the Victors about Buddha. He thought reincarnation would suit his leitmotivs very well. This project preoccupied Wagner for 20 years. However, this opera never came into being because he had used much of the emotional impulse and metaphysical ideas from the Victors in his opera 's Tristan und Isolde and mostly Parsival. Originally, Parsival and the Victors were to have been seperate operas. This made sense, as Wagner had written to Lizst, stating he thought that Christianity was a branch of Buddhism, which following Alexander's Indian campaign found its way to the Mediterranean shores. So Wagner would have had no difficulty in writing two opera's one Buddhist and the other seemingly Christian. But to him, Jesus taught basically Buddhist beliefs. So joining the ideas together in Parsival was not difficult.
The composer did follow the Feuerbach and Schopenhauerian ideas as I have already stated. Religion is not a fairy tale, but teaches us about ourselves; for Man has created these beliefs . But Wagner was different to these two German atheistic philosopher's, in that he thought that religion had hidden mystical meanings. But the complication is that he could use Christian symbols, which to a believer means something entirely different to Wagner's view. So linking Buddhism to a different religion meant nothing to him. For him, it was not literally religious, but hidden truths which he wanted the public to find. The trouble is, you have to understand his mind set, in that he really did believe in Schopenhauer and understood it, when he first came across the Philosopher in 1854. Many musicologists think he used these views as a prop, that is why Tristan und Isolde and Parsival is not understood properly. In fact, these opera's could never have been written without this Philosopher. If you do not understand this, you will never full appreciate these two operas.
REFERENCES: App, U. Richard Wagner and Buddhism. (2011). University Media. Holden, A. (Ed). The Penguin opera Guide. (1995). Viking. Libretto, Parsival cond Knappertsbusch. Phillips. (1962) . Magee, B. Wagner and Philosophy. (2001) Penguin Books. Magee, B. Philosophy of Schopenhauer. (2009). Oxford University press, New York. Millington, B. Richard Wagner-the sorcerer of Bayreuth. (2012). Thames and Hudson. Newman, E. Wagner nights.(1977) Picador. Wagner,D. Richard Wagner. A biography.(1979) J.M Dent and sons.
If you must have visuals and decent all round singing in a production that is eye candy go to the Horst Stein Bayreuth version.
I bought this on spec as it was cheap and on first look I thought I had made a mistake. Gradually however it grew on me and on a second run I became captivated by it. The sound and singing is exceptional and the vocal face movements amazing. The production is very weird and there is no explanation in the booklet but even though I still do not understand it I find it oddly very satisfying. Splitting Klingsor in act 2 is inspired! I have compared it with the Salminen Meier Blu-ray and they are just so different. This release is still cheap and all I can say is that if you like Parsifal get yourself a copy quick!
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