Wagner: Parsifal

Maria Callas / Vittorio Gui

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Wagner: Parsifal Review

by James Leonard

After listeners adjust their expectations, this is in many ways a superlative recording of Wagner's Parsifal. First, of course, listeners have to adjust to the antique sound. Taped at live performances of the opera in November 1950, the sound is perhaps not so much antique as well-preserved. While listeners can't hear everything, they can at least hear everything that matters in this subdued but clean transfer. Then, of course, listeners have to adjust to the fact that the opera is performed in Italian. But since it was given in Rome with a mostly Italian cast for a wholly Italian audience, the choice of language is entirely appropriate and, considering it is a translation from Wagner's idiosyncratic German, wonderfully well done. Finally, of course, listeners have to adjust to the notion that the star of the opera in this performance is not the title character -- sung competently but not particularly persuasively here by Africo Baldelli -- but Kundry, a character who appears briefly in Act I, extensively in Act II, and hardly at all in Act III.

But, whether or not listeners can adjust to antique sound or the Italian language, listeners will adjust to Kundry as the star whether they want to or not because this Kundry is the young Maria Callas and she blows nearly everybody else right off the sonic stage every time she opens her mouth. In her last Wagnerian role, the young but nevertheless indomitable Callas terrifies Baldelli's Parsifal, frightens Giuseppe Modesti's Klingsor, and even comes close to blasting Boris Christoff into the middle of next week. The only person she doesn't dominate is the man on the podium, Vittorio Gui, a masterful conductor who keeps firm control of the orchestra in spite of what's happening on-stage. There's no denying that Callas can sing the heck out of the role. Whatever Wagner wants from overwhelming power to unbearable passion to sheer vocal stamina, Callas has it. And there's likewise no denying that Callas sings the role not Wagner's way but her way. Her Kundry isn't merely in character. She's deep under the skin of the character. Her Kundry isn't simply a seducer. She's a woman with yearning and burning inside of her. Her Kundry isn't just a femme fatale. She's the kind of woman for whom a fool would sacrifice everything, including the Holy Grail, for the sake of having her near. Even with all its adjustments, this Parsifal is well worth hearing -- not necessarily by everyone who loves the work but certainly by everyone who loves Callas.

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