clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

DIRECTORS' CONCEPTS MOLD 2 WAGNER OPERA VIDEOS

With the above releases, all but two of the 10 major Wagner operas, "Tristan" and "Die Meistersinger," are available on laser video. And while it is tempting to think they might be next, I suspect we will see yet another "Ring" - namely the Met's, beaming at us later this month over PBS - before that momentous occasion.

Until then we have the first ("The Flying Dutchman") and the last ("Parsifal") of the mature Wagner operas to consider. And as with Philips' multibox issue of the Bayreuth "Ring," these are productions in which the director's guiding hand proves at least as important as the conductor's.Take this "Dutchman," taped at the 1985 Bayreuth Festival and, as far as the soundtrack is concerned, presumably identical to the previously issued Philips CD set. With the visuals, however, it is director Harry Kupfer's staging that comes to the fore. And what he has done is present the story of the captain doomed to sail the seas until he can find a maiden to redeem him as the delusions of a disordered mind, namely the girl Senta's.

Thus in this production the curtain goes up on the overture, during which we see her separate herself from reality to focus on the Dutchman's picture, and what follows becomes the dream from which she called in Act 2. Is the cloaked suitor her father brings home at that point, then, the tormented figure of her imaginings (we never really see his face) or is that something she literally projects on the scene? Ditto the sailors' chorus of Act 3, here part of a ghostly wedding feast, and her final sacrifice, which sends her not heavenward but out the window to her death on the street below.

To reinforce this view, Kupfer and his conductor, Woldemar Nelsson, have opted not for the familiar 1860 revision, with its opulent underlining of the redemption motive, but for Wagner's 1843 Dresden text, with its more abrupt ending to both the overture and the opera's close. (The original three acts are still presented without a break.)

I don't find this a particularly illuminating view (although it does make a more sympathetic character of the rejected suitor, Erik). But it does hold the interest and, given the camera's ability to superimpose Senta's watchful visage over the rest of the action, probably works better on video than it did in the house, where she was stationed above the stage.

More important, it appears to have stimulated the cast beyond even my expectations. Indeed, as the Dutchman, this is perhaps the finest singing I have heard from Simon Estes, stronger and much better focused than his Wotan in last year's Deutsche Oper "Ring." And though Lisbeth Balslev's soprano may lack something in the way of refinement, her Senta communicates intensity and vulnerability (e.g., the Ballad, here sung before a matronly chorus with teacups). Similarly Matti Salminen makes an imposing Daland, vocally and physically.

Under Nelsson, the Bayreuth orchestra sounds only a notch below its best. At the same time he moves the action well and, especially in Act 3, the chorus registers magnificently.

Even more controversial is Hans-Juergen Syberberg's 1982 film of "Parsifal," perhaps as much the director's dream - or is it fantasy - as Kupfer's "Dutchman" is Senta's. How else to explain a conception that works in everything from swastikas to medieval puppet plays and gives us not one but two Parsifals, one of them a woman?

Equally puzzling are such things as having Amfortas' wound carted around separate from his body, and a Titurel who looks younger and in better shape before he receives the life-giving sustenance of the grail, after which he appears to have been embalmed in hoarfrost.

Yet despite its overall looniness, and occasional look of having been done on the cheap, at times this film fairly bursts with creativity and insight. For me one of those moments is "Ich sah das Kind," when Kundry, unforgettably played by Edith Clever, cradles in her arms one of the puppet-knights, fusing not only the image of mother/seducer but also that of child/victim.

On the other end of the acting scale comes the Parsifal of Michael Kutter, visibly ill at ease even in the scenes where he is supposed to be motionless. (At one point his arm even sticks out prematurely from behind the scene.) Against that the otherwise expressionless work of Karen Krick, his female counterpart, is at least poised. Better than either is the youngish Gurnemanz of Robert Lloyd, resonant of voice and compassionate of presence.

As it happens, he is only one element of a soundtrack performance that, apart from the film it accompanies, can be recommended almost without reservation. Yvonne Minton's voice may capture less of Kundry's wildness than Clever's acting, but her steadiness is nonetheless welcome. And although others have found greater majesty in the unveiling of the grail than does conductor Armin Jordan (who, as an actor, doubles as Amfortas), his lyrical shaping of the score keeps even the long narratives - of which there are many - interesting.

Still, like the grail, this strikes me as a film - indeed, an opera - primarily for the faithful. In short, the more you know and care about Wagner, and particularly "Parsifal," the more you are likely to enjoy it. As a recording it is certainly worth having (although oddly the digital tracks seem warmer than the analog). And though the transfer might have been a wee bit sharper, I find the film actually plays better on the small screen, where the protracted close-ups of Jordan as the agonized Amfortas are a bit more bearable. At least this time his dental problems do not take precedence over his final redemption. And that, I suspect, is the way Wagner would have wanted it.