VINE VOICEon 10 June 2009
The two performances of Parsifal that have stuck most conspicuously in my memory over the years happened within just a few months of each other. Deeply memorable as they both were, it would be hard to imagine two more disparate performances.
The first was in August, 1970, at the Bayreuth Festival, conducted by Pierre Boulez. This was the famous Wieland Wagner production from 1951, by then getting a little ossified 5 years after his death, but still the highly moving benchmark of the New Bayreuth style. Boulez' conducting, too, was settled in after some 5 years but was, in its way, just as revolutionary - far brisker tempi than anything heard in those hallowed halls for many a year, clarified textures even in the context of the Bayreuth `sound' and all Boulez' familiar acuity in elucidating shape and structure. A most memorable account of the work, available on disc for some years now.
The second memorable performance happened the following May at Covent Garden and was conducted by Reginald Goodall. It, too, is now available on disc, thanks to the Royal Opera House Heritage Series. In stark contrast to Boulez (running time 3hrs 39mins), Goodall's has to be the slowest Parsifal on record at 4hrs 43mins (compared to other famous slow-coaches - Knappertsbusch gloriously at Bayreuth in 1951 at 4hrs 32mins and Levine interminably at Bayreuth in 1985 at 4hrs 38mins). Goodall, of course, was often in the famous subterranean pit at Bayreuth during Kna's Parsifal performances in the 50's and patently learned much from the older man's long commitment to and intimacy with the score. But, where Kna used his slow speeds to unleash great power in the climaxes and to reveal greater detail, Goodall uses his tempi in the service of the long paragraph and the overriding structure and shape of each Act. Deathridge in his accompanying notes accuses Goodall's Act 1 of being `surely much too long' and `constantly verging on incoherence'. I would argue precisely the opposite - that, despite occasional longeurs (e.g. the recessional after the Grail Ceremony, but that's Wagner's fault as much as Goodall's), the broad tempi in this performance allow the scale of the musical argument to speak clearly and truly - in Act 1 through the accumulation of Kundry, Amfortas, Grail, Klingsor and Parsifal motifs in the first scene to the huge angst-ridden climax of the Transformation (with hohepunkt perfectly in place) and then to the intense quietude as the Grail is revealed. Slow speeds actually and surprisingly benefit much of the Flower Maiden scene, especially the `Komm, komm' passage which breathes a heady Paris-version Venusberg languor. The ever-evolving dialogue between Parsifal and Kundry has seldom been better argued. And, while it has to be admitted that the harmonically amazing Prelude to the Third Act does almost grind to a complete halt, the rest of the act carries the full weight of the cloud hanging over the Grail domain as well as the stature of Parsifal's hard-won maturity in the wonderful dramatic tension and cohesion that builds right through to the huge impact of the Transformation Music and on to `Nur eine Waffe taugt' and the final choruses.
I believe that Jon Vickers once claimed that this series of performances was the best thing he ever did on stage. Certainly, he is a magnificent Parsifal here. Impetuous and unruly in Act 1, there is still real pathos in his memories of Herzeleide. And just listen to the different colourings he brings to the repeated `Das weiss ich nicht' answers to Gurnemanz' questions. In Act 2, he really comes into his own. This is a towering performance with weight of tone and emotional anguish ideally combined in `Amfortas - Die Wunde' and real understanding of this tricky part brought to the growing realisation of his past errors and future vocation in the interplay with Kundry. Act 3 is a model of what a great dramatically satisfying sing this can be in the right hands: matured by years of wandering and hardship, this is a man who has totally come to understand himself and his mission, made clear in glorious singing through his quiet arrival, his Coronation, the Good Friday Music right through to a searingly moving long diminuendo as he asks for the Grail to be unveiled.
While not quite in that same exalted class, the rest of the cast are still a formidable team, most of them well versed in Goodall's intentions through much work in his famous attic room (known to all as `Valhalla') at the top of the Royal Opera House. Norman Bailey is among the very best Amfortas's, encompassing the anguish and guilt of the part as one would expect, but also giving full power and beauty of tone to the sometimes taxingly high tessitura of the part. Amy Shuard was/is an underrated singer, a real stalwart of Wagner performances at the Opera House in those days, and Kundry was a part that suited her better than Brunnhilde: occasionally a touch squally, she nevertheless had the range for the mezzo Act 1 and the dramatic soprano Act 2 where she more than rises to the challenge of Vickers' intensity. McIntyre had been the Klingsor in my Bayreuth Parsifal the previous summer and he repeats the role here. It was the part that suited him best in this opera (at various times he also sang both Amfortas and Gurnemanz, the latter in Goodall's now less desirable Welsh Opera recording) and makes a convincing villain whether at Boulez' faster tempi or Goodall's frighteningly (for the singer) slower ones. The weak link in this perfomance was, perhaps, Louis Hendricx as Gurnemanz. The part should have been sung by Gottlob Frick - and was at the first performance in the run - but ill-health plagued the whole series. Hendricx, standing in at short notice for this one performance, was obviously not used to Goodall's slow tempi nor to this production. He sings well enough, but can be a bit wooden and pedestrian, a fatal flaw in a Gurnemanz, especially in Act 1 where he has to carry the weight of so much long narration.
Nevertheless, this is a welcome reminder of a great and memorable night in Covent Garden's history. The sound on these discs is adequate but no more. Don't let that deter you from an intense and moving performance, though.