Wagner: Parsifal album review – Elīna Garanča is extraordinary in a very fine account of Wagner’s fascinating score

<span>Reconciling two conflicting sides … Elīna Garanča and Jonas Kaufmann in Parsifal.</span><span>Photograph: Michael Poehn</span>
Reconciling two conflicting sides … Elīna Garanča and Jonas Kaufmann in Parsifal.Photograph: Michael Poehn

When it was unveiled in 2021, the Vienna State Opera’s production of Wagner’s final music drama seems to have provoked a mixed reaction. While there was almost uniform praise for its musical qualities, opinion was very much divided on the merits and relevance of the staging, directed by the Russian film-maker, Kirill Serebrennikov.

Reliving his experience of imprisonment for fraud and subsequent house arrest four years earlier, Serebrennikov had set Parsifal in a “detention centre for criminals” (by implication somewhere in Russia), in which the self-harming Amfortas was a dissident, protesting against the inhumane prison conditions, and Gurnemanz the inmates’ effective leader (and in-house tattooist). Kundry was a visiting journalist and Klingsor her magazine publisher, while Parsifal himself was another of the prisoners, who in the first two acts had an onstage double, reliving his experiences as a younger man through a series of flashbacks.

All of this should have nothing to do with what is documented in this set, which was taken from the stage performances. Except that, rather than a standard synopsis of the action, the booklet with the discs includes the narrative that Serebrennikov imposed upon it, as if to insist that his mise en scene should be taken into account when listening to what is, taken on its own terms, a very fine account of this endlessly fascinating score.

Jonas Kaufmann’s performance in the title role will doubtless be regarded as its main selling point, but in fact he is arguably the least convincing of the principals. Much of his singing is undeniably beautiful, especially in the third act, but in the first two the baritonal resonance to his lower register, such an asset in many of his roles, seems less appropriate for portraying the callow youth that Georg Zeppenfeld’s wonderfully lucid, imposing Gurnemanz first encounters. Ludovic Tézier’s anguished, disintegrating Amfortas and Wolfgang Koch’s creepily controlling Klingsor are superb too, but it’s Elīna Garanča as Kundry, in her first Wagnerian role, whose performance is perhaps the most extraordinary, managing to reconcile the two conflicting sides of her character in a way that makes her even more intriguing and enigmatic than usual.

Philippe Jordan conducts. Many of his tempi are on the faster side, and in general his interpretation tends towards the analytical rather than the lyrically expansive, though the orchestral playing is as intense as anyone could want, and the closing pages are suitably transcendent. If this doesn’t supersede the finest existing Parsifals on disc – for me those are Hans Knappertsbusch’s 1962 Bayreuth recording and Herbert von Karajan’s raptly beautiful 1981 studio version – it runs them very close in many respects.

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