I post this late, because the weekend Nezet-Seguin's was on, I spent five hours on Parsifal
without ever hearing a note of Act Three of it, but twelve hours after finishing Act Two of
the Met broadcast, segued over to a broadcast I found over on youtube of, from the
Bayreuth Festival, such as issued on Philips, by James Levine and listened to the entirety of
Act One with Levine, but lasting about fifteen minutes longer than Nezet-Seguin's, but
seldom feeling any slower than it somehow.
Richard Strauss, but i argue to be taken within the context of his modernist view of Wagner,
weighed in on taking Parsifal ever too slowly, with the music in its note values, symmetry,
what have you, is already written slow. Another article I've read cites Levine and Gatti
having tied with themselves for the longest Parsifal ever at 265 minutes. They in fact have
several other rivals, such as in Arturo Toscanini, Reginald Goodall, and Christoph
Eschenbach. I found the idea of attending a Robert Wilson staging of Parsifal as conducted
by Eschenbach back in 1992 unbearable, so i stayed away, but i gather from what i heard
about it the playing time was very close to 280 minutes.
Anybody who took the trouble to listen to the Bayreuth Parsifal from 2008 probably has
experienced Daniele Gatti twice with this work thus far. With little assistance from the
singers, except from Fujimura and a little ways from Kwangchul Youn, Gatti's sounded
lumbering, lacking in dramatic and musical tension - perhaps in part distracted by all the
historical related clutter going on on stage that year. I felt deeply suspicious with the
reports of universal acclaim for the new production that year, when the two most brilliant
productions of the Ring to have opened the festival in the past nearly fifty years were both
heavily booed the year each were unveiled - and they are the only two I own on dvd.
Relatively speaking, an ersatz-Ken Burns approach was just not going to cut it for me.
I tried enduring one or two acts of this and then quickly lost interest.
It was with considerable relief that the Met movie-cast in early March of five years ago went
so amazingly well - as it did, a performance overall I found to have only lost focus
momentarily one or two times during the Second Act. Kaufmann, Mattei, and Pape were all
magnificent and Dalayman nearly as much so. Kaufmann freely let go of a generic
baritonal huskiness to his vocalism (try his Radames with Pappano for instance) to provide
wonderful musical and dramatic focus to all he did and gorgeous soft singing, especially
during Act Three. Who could have forgotten this?
None of this is to take into account the contributions of Muck, Knappertsbusch, and then
later on most notably Karajan in their renditions of Parsifal, but one can feel the influence at
least of the latter two in some of what has come about in this past generation or so.
A certain fluidity, elasticity with the unendliches melodic line of Wagner should almost be a
pre-determined pre-requisite for being able to do Parsifal justice from the podium, not to
mention variety of dynamics and the right relationship between singers and the pit. Most of
this i found unformed as of yet from Nezet-Seguin, to the point of there not being quite any
clue of what concept there may be in mind of the work, even in a work-in-progress sense
thereof. Act Two i found more convincing than Act One, except for having to endure
Herlitzius and Vogt. The acting chops, clearly audible, of the former, do not compensate
near enough for the unstable top, frequently evident this time. Vogt, in lyrical size and
impetus might have been a little better at pulling it off in Wagner in both a smaller house
and with a little more bloom to the sound when at least several years younger than he is
now, but all that to compensate, it seems, is just simply not there anymore. Back to
Herlitziius, the nearly two octave leap on 'lachte' got undercut by inattention to the
dynamics from Nezet-Seguin and his bass clarinettist. (With Levine dragging the tempo too
much at this point, the problem on his is lack of being able to slow down for the same
moment - to the same deleterious effect). The waltz of the flower-maiden, almost ideally
lilting and light under Levine (1985 again) sounded lumbering two weekends ago.
It must have been quite a different aural perspective that one heard more intensity from
Mattei and Pape than i had available to me on this occasion than under Gatti five years ago.
One critic commented upon Nezet-Seguin's ties in the past with Giulini as possibly having
influenced his interpretation of Parsifal. Hints of a tonalist approach to Wagner are also
remindful of Gergiev, whose Wagner thus far I've found uneven, between two each of
Parsifal, Walkure and perhaps Hollander as well, and a good Mariinsky Rheingold. The
Marrinsky Walkure i find highly unconvincing. What got me, even stuck in my craw a little
about the N-Seguin Parsifal is that with Nezet-Seguin leaning so heavily on phrasing things,
Mattei and Pape both sounded as though relegated to singing their parts as obbligato to the
orchestral line. Subtle warning of this becoming a problem was already evident to me
during the prelude to Act One. Eschenbach, as prime example of handling soloists in this
manner, immediately came to mind. Ultimately, recalling what i said about all this two
weeks ago, Nezet-Seguin sounded like an almost sight-reading by Ormandy, with some
Eschenbach and Gergiev thrown in, and perhaps a litttle of Giulini as well.
It was then with a little trepidation I approached the Levine, having already enjoyed though
his 1992 (or 1993) dvd from the Met with Meier, Jerusalem, Weikl, etc. The 1985 Philips
set from Bayreuth had, after all, received bad reviews for tempi too slow and, as reported,
the parlous state of Hofmann's voice. Standards were a little higher back then too.
Somewhere around the verwandlungsmusik i found that Levine was coming almost too
much to a standstill. However, the fastidious preparation of his forces, the ease and
translucence of maintaining line and the overall sound almost more than make up for it. I
wondered if, late at night, I would not be compelled to give up half or two-thirds through,
but decided to stick it out to a not at all bitter end.
Yesterday I listened to all of Act One again and then Act Two and i found a little heaviness
in Act One a little more obvious, with the Nezet-Seguin no longer in my ear at all. Hofmann
at times does resort to a little barking during Act Two, but i still found his overall vocal
profile easier to deal with than what little Vogt has to offer. Of course, Hofmann suffers by
comparison with himself five years earlier in Berlin on DGG. The least satisfactory part of
the 1985 Levine is the second half of Act Two, with a few almost screamed high notes from
Waltraud Meier, but most of all kind of a sleepy, leaden pace through portions of it. This
was a live performance, so could have Levine been saving his energy, resources for Act
Three. Perhaps so. There is no lack of excitement to the last eight to ten minutes of Act
Two with Levine.
It was Act Three tonight that came as quite increasingly a great shock to me. It is utterly
magnificent. The kind of earthly quality of a Solti approach to this (such as heard from
Adam Fischer in Vienna few years ago) is there, such as one would associate with Levine in
the 1970's and 1980's at times on some things, but coalesced with all the spiritual quality
for all of the most lyrical, radiant passages as well, all unified in a very noble, magisterial
command of the line. Attention to dyanmics and textures, and also sustaining the pacing
through the so gradual breaking out of sunlight in Act Three is simply exemplary to the
highest degree. Hans Sotin hardly need fear comparison with any of some of the best
Gurnemanz's to have preceded him, and Simon Estes, at least in Act Three, is no less fine.
Even Petr Hofmann relaxes his voice for the most poetic moments in his lines, and even
when less than ingratiating, tonally, still for the most part sustains the line he is singing.
Hans Sotin, it is reported, due to artistic differences, walked out on Eschenbach's only
Parsifal at Bayreuth in 2000.
Levine very obviously was working under very ideal conditions at Bayreuth at the time.
I've never heard Levine this convincingly impassioned in his Wagner from this phase of his
career. How could I have ever guessed this might be the case? Later on, with Parsifal, the
sound and command of line, and more moderate tempos with the Met orchestra are lovely,
but the vehemence, passion, tonal variety are perhaps a little wanting, as though having
started to be air-brushed away from how Levine had things at Bayreuth. Even through the
DGG recordings of Rheingold and Walkure, his attempt at infusing so much emotion into
what he is doing, breaks up the line, along with the hollow middle of Behrens, to the point
of everything sounding choppy, Matters would improve later on, that this would turn out to
be less the case. A broadcast of Norman and Domingo singing Act Two with Levine, and
probably a little slower than on the dvd, I found mostly annoying, unconvincing, with Jessye
Norman's mannerisms, not all, but most of all.
From a conducting perspective, the very finest Wagner I've ever heard from Levine is the
1997 Gotterdammerung from Bayreuth, a work he had already been quite successful with
from the Met on DGG as well. Wolfgang Schmidt, while not being pleasing to the ear, to my
ears, is not as bad as I anticipated - or as he was very unfortunately under Muti at La Scala
a year or two later. Eric Halfvarson, as Hagen, perhaps gives the performance of his career,
as Hagen. I've never heard him better than on here. Did I expect the 1985 Parsifal, in
terms of clarity, command of line, even at times emotional urgency to rival this
Gotterdammeurng? Most certainly, i have been very much taken by surprise.
In closing, Levine eventually may have expressed some dissatisfaction with the Goetz
Friedrich production that first saw the light of day in 1982, again with Levine in the pit.
Keep in mind too that Levine had already conducted Jon Vickers in the title role of Parsifal at
the Met several years earlier. The set design for it was some 'turtle-farm' type of concept?
How did perhaps a certain infusion of expressionism in Friedrich's concept of Parsifal work?
It is a shame we do not have a record of this on dvd, to compare for instance with the Otto
Schenk, good at being literal minded in laying essential things out, but so bland a concept,
in places where it absolutely should not be (second half of Act Two). The aural pleasures to
be had with this Parsifal go a little more than half the distance to make up for this.
Any comments in response to mind ahead of time are very well appreciated. Come to think
of it, I have yet to enjoy any broadcast of the Met I've tuned into this season. With Norma
and Trovatore, during the past couple of months, I found them impossible to stay with past
the start of intermission. The Norma was particularly execrable, Norma a score Wagner
would have both singers and conductors alike to learn from in approaching his own music.
In loving memory of Jesus Lopez-Cobos, what a terrible loss for all of us, i turned my
attention over to Parsifal the past day and a half. May he rest in peace and his very fine
legacy remain with us for some time. A 1982 Walkure (Friedrich production again?) of his
from Berlin, starring Simon Estes again and Julia Varady, is on youtube.
David H Spence
OPERA-L on Facebook:
To UNSUBSCRIBE, send a message to [log in to unmask]
containing only the words: SIGNOFF OPERA-L
To stay subscribed but TURN OFF mail, send a message to
[log in to unmask] containing only the words: SET OPERA-L NOMAIL
Modify your settings: http://listserv.bccls.org/archives/opera-l.html