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 Recording of the Week, Jonas Kaufmann sings Wagner’s Parsifal

I can’t remember an operatic production which has generated such anticipation and excitement as this Parsifal from the Metropolitan Opera: my email’s been heaving with enquiries about the DVD release for months, and when this performance was live-relayed into cinemas I remember my phone pinging with messages from friends telling me to drop everything and go and see the repeat broadcast!

Katarina Dalayman and Jonas Kaufmann
Katarina Dalayman and Jonas Kaufmann

François Girard’s production of Wagner’s final opera is set in a contemporary or near-future dystopia – as René Pape points out in one of the excellent interval interviews, the mythic medievalism of the Grail legend has been almost entirely stripped away, with cracked earth and mustardy clouds suggesting a post-apocalyptic desert. The most distinctive element of the production is the (fake!) blood: over 1000 gallons of the stuff, which trickle down the chasm dividing the Act One set, soak the shirts of the fallen Amfortas and Klingsor, flood the latter’s Magic Garden and ultimately rest in the Grail-cup.

But updating and special effects aside, what really struck me was how refreshingly simple and literal much of it is: the swan is a ‘real’ swan rather than a video-projection; the Grail – often the object of directorial flights of fancy – is a golden goblet kept in a casket. Girard opines in the booklet-note that he doesn’t think Parsifal ‘a piece to play tricks with’, and his illuminatingly straightforward production makes good on this.

The cast is magnificent. René Pape’s Gurnemanz is no one-dimensional old sage: his flashes of anger, self-doubt and arrogance are deftly conveyed, and he radiates such natural authority that I hung on every syllable of his immense, wordy narratives (the outrage and incredulous sorrow of his lament for the swan butchered by Parsifal in Act One is heart-stopping). Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry is more imperious matriarch than lithe seductress, exuding a statuesque magnetism that upstages the nubile flower-girls, and this most treacherous of roles fits her enormous, gleaming voice like a glove: no strain or insecurity at either end of the wide range. The biggest revelation is Peter Mattei’s searing Amfortas, whose still-virile Grail-King rages against the dying of the light with an agonised physicality that’s almost too tangible to watch (his pain-racked struggle to lift the Grail-cup in Act One is truly harrowing).

And what of Kaufmann? This time last year I said that his recording of Tannhäuser’s monologue was the best thing he’d ever done, and would now like to revise that opinion: this – particularly Act Three – is the best thing he’s ever done. Yes, it helps that Klingsor’s ‘Er ist schön, der Knabe!’ (‘He is beautiful, the youth!’) rings so true in this production – but it's fascinating to see Kaufmann cast off his Byronic lover persona in a role of such daunting psychological complexity. His transformation from the gauche, feral boy of the first act to the grizzled spiritual leader of the last is masterfully paced, and the pivotal cry of ‘Amfortas! Die Wunde!’ (as Kundry's kiss makes him realise the dreadful power of lust) comes across as a true epiphany. Even those who don't usually take to his dark, sometimes covered sound may be won over: there's a ring, ease and openness here that's not always been evident elsewhere. In the pit, Daniele Gatti lets everything unfold in its own time, to luminous, hypnotic effect (I didn’t realise just how slow a lot of it was until I looked at the timings!).

Kaufmann's legions of fans are in for several further treats this month: DVDs of Don Carlo, Ariadne auf Naxos and Faust will be released in a few weeks’ time, and today also brings his long-awaited recording of Schubert’s Winterreise, which I've been marvelling at over the weekend. Recordings of this cycle by dramatic tenors are few and far between, and the result is staggering - as if Don José or Otello had decided against homicide in favour of raging through the snow!

Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal), Katarina Dalayman (Kundry), Peter Mattei (Amfortas), René Pape (Gurnemanz), Evgeny Nikitin (Klingsor), Rúni Brattaberg (Titurel), Maria Zifchak (Stimme), Metropolitan Opera, Daniele Gatti Also available on

Available Format: 2 DVD Videos