Wagner Parsifal with Jonas Kaufmann and Elīna Garanča

Musically, this is the finest of recent Parsifals

Wagner Parsifal with Jonas Kaufmann and Elīna Garanča

Every Parsifal conductor must do more than simply guide the performance, he must also allow certain aspects to run their own course if he is to do justice to a work of such monumental proportions.

So said Zürich-born conductor Philippe Jordan, who has regularly conducted Wagner’s Bühnenweihfestspeil in many locations, including the 2012 Bayreuth Festival.

Two singers in the cast of this were tackling their roles for the very first time: Elīna Garanča was making her long-awaited debut as Kundry, while Ludovic Tézier was singing his first Amfortas, taken with all the integrity one would associate with this wonderful musician (a superb Amonasro Aida at Covent Garden in 2022 is the immediate memory). The of Parsifal performance cames from the Vienna State Opera, and - with the odd caveat below - it is consistently excellent. Musically, this is the finest of recent Parsifals.

Here's the promo video:

We can't see the staging on this sound-only release, but we do know that director Kirill Serebrennikov took his cue from the line ‘Here time becomes space’ and set the work in a prison (Serebrennikov had spent a number of years under house arrest and on probation and at the time in question was banned from leaving his homeland with the result that he had to direct his new production from a distance, while a team of associates worked on the staging in Vienna).  His concept of the work as what the ‘Süddeutsche Zeitung’ called an “opera on the theme of liberation” and as what ‘Der Standard’ described as “a multilayered drama about human relationships” . ‘Die Welt’ spoke of a compelling “futuristic dystopia”.

 That term used above, ‘Bühnenweihfestspiel,” is unique to this piece: a festival of consecration in the theatre is the nearest English can come. There is no doubting a religious aspect in the ceremonies at Montsalvat - and how Wagner glories in them! - but there is a supra-spiritual aspect the form of Parsifal himself, the “innocent fool” whose very innocence allows for enlightenment (“Durch Mitleid wissend / Der reine Tor”). The idea of Parsifal entering a brotherhood - think Freemasons or Rosicrucians - and causing unstoppable change is key to the drama.

The papers were right about the cast - it is stellar and includes some of the finest singers alive today. Philippe Jordan's direction is superb. There might be deeper (Reginald Goodall immediately springs to mind), but the fact is Jordan honours Wagner's score to a great degree. Interestingly enough, Philippe Jordan's father, Armin, conducted Parsifal for a film version (the 1982 film by Hans-Jürgen Syderburg), where the action takes place on a giant death mask of Wagner, and there is some remarkable imagery - Kundry's entrance is as surprising as it is unforgettable. For all of its musical strengths - not least the great Robert Lloyd's Gurnemanz, a key role for that singer in his career - the conducting is not as great as his son's.

For Philippe Jordan's CD Parsifal, the first act is split between two discs (the second begins with Amfortas' “Vom Bade kehrt der König heim”). C'est la vie: there is no doubting Jordan understands the arc of the act. For all of Kaufmann's strengths, it is veteran Wagnerian Georg Zeppenfeld's Grunemanz and Garanča's Kundry that are truly on fire. Gurnemanz's long narrations, his telling of the back story as it were, are always gripping; Garanča is electrifying, on a par with Waltraud Maier in her prime and, for that matter, Anne Evans for Goodall. Garanča's voice is warm, not cutting, yet she can portray this tortured soul like few other. One tiny quibble: Gurnemanz's dismissal of Parsifal as “just a fool” at the end of act one is blunted here; there is less energy to it than one might hope both from Jordan and from Zeppenfeld.

Here’s act 1:

There is no doubting the fire of the Vienna forces at the opening of act 2, a positive torment in the strings; this could almost be the opening of Walküre, transplanted forwards in time, so primal is Jordan's approach. rarely does one hear the string descents so perfectly judged. Soon, the music swirls unstoppably ...

Wolfgang Koch's clipped “Die Zeit ist da,” Klingsor’s first line, reveals evil with no time to waste. The objective listing of Kundry's previous incarnations (Herodias, Gundryggia) is almost like recitation of a shopping list; the point is that Klingsor is Kundry's master, and the time is now. Characterisation is all in this performance: Kundry's world-weariness is writ large in her first utterance of, simply, “Ach”; Jordan's slow tempo supports this perfectly, for Garanča is perfectly capable of sustaining lines across rests.

It is perfectly arguable that Garanča over-eggs her pudding here when she announces her arrival in act II by calling Parsifal's name; yet the later proto-Herzeleide moment, when the strings begin rocking gently in 6/8 like a lullaby, is beautifully done. It is fascinating how carefully the Flowermaidens themselves phrase everything - they seem of a vocal level to Garanča. The “Herzeleide Narrative” itself (“Ich sah Das Kind”) is beautiful, sweetly seductive, bringing with it translucent, woodwind contributions . The passage moves inevitably to Kundry's retelling of Herzeleide's death any Parsifal would find it hard to follow, and Kaufmann does his best without quite reaching Garanča's level immersion of character.

Does Jordan turn the world of tonality upside down, as Wagner asks, at the moment of the kiss? Does that major triad sound as a dissonance while the prolonged dissonance around it achieves normative status? Not quite, perhaps, but Kaufmann finds himself for the cries of existential, soul-originating agony (“O Klage, furchtbare Klage” ...), thus setting the stage, as it were, for Kundry-Garanča's wondrously melting “Gelobter Held” - and how Jordan dares to slow for this glorious moment!. If Parsifal’s angry “Verderberin” falters because of a slight disagreement at arrival point, it is a slight point; Garanča is compelling - frightening, even - as she relates her laughter at "him" on the cross.

Here's the end of act II, with Kundry holding a gun at Parsifal's head, only to turn at the last moon and shoot Klingsor multiple times ... Kaufmann sounds absolutely radiant here, it has to be said:

Whilst Jordan cannot erase memories of Goodall at the opening of act III (whether in a stunning Proms performance - apparently his last public appearance and miraculously available on YouTube here, or on his recording), Jordan offers a mightily fine account often final act Prelude (and the Vienna strings completely live up to their reputation as the best in the World).

Kindry's scream in act III is visceral (it also gives her a bit more to do vocally than the one word - repeated, admittedly - she has to sing in this entire act). This is if anything Jordan's triumphal act: Kaufmann's “Und ich, ich bin's” underlaid by a mass of tremolo strings that seems elemental in its power. The momentum towards the end of the piece is remarkable: here's part of the staging:

This is a remarkable Parsifal, heard in phenomenal sound - the Sony engineers excel themselves.

The set is available via Amazon here; Spotify below.