Victorian Opera: Parsifal

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Published: 22nd February, 2019

The last of Wagner’s operas and possibly the last performance of a Wagner opera in Melbourne for the foreseeable future, Victorian Opera’s outstanding production of Parsifal is not to be missed. A six hour stretch, which includes almost two hours of intervals, might deter some opera lovers, but length is more than amply rewarded by the absorbing nature of Wagner’s musical genius.

To say the orchestra was the star of the show is risky when the lineup of soloists is one of the best Melbourne has ever seen, but Richard Mills wrought something truly golden from the members of the Australian Youth Orchestra and it brought a cheering audience to its feet when it came to their “curtain call”. Although they had certainly performed beyond the expectations of many listeners, those who had heard them play in VO’s Flying Dutchman would not have been surprised that this body of players, some of them very young and inexperienced, could rise so magnificently to the occasion. Any adjustments Mills might have made to Wagner’s scoring to accommodate them would have to be considered a positive. Tempi were chosen to sustain momentum without sacrificing expressiveness and the many dynamic changes, sometimes subtle and sometimes a swelling wave of orchestral sound, heightened the dramatic tension. All sections of the orchestra were admirable but there were some especially magical moments coming from the horns and woodwinds. To be immersed in the breathing heart of the music is bound to be an experience that none of these young players will forget.

It will also an unforgettable experience that those who have the good fortune to attend one or more of the three performances. The production is simple and uncluttered; the focus is on the drama as conveyed through the music and interactions between the singers. Roger Hodgman’s direction is complemented by Richard Roberts’ set: a pale plywood box (also acting as a valuable acoustic aid) with fault lines representing the fractured nature of the Grail knights’ circumstances. The curtain rose to reveal a forest floor represented by a thick covering of black leaves, which are later ceremoniously swept away. Rearrangements of the paneling and Matt Scott’s atmospheric lighting design depict further changes of time and place.

Anybody expecting Grail knights in ceremonial costumes or shining armour, as suggested by publicity photos, may have been disappointed – at least initially. When the first singers appeared in plain black shirts and pants they could have been mistaken for stagehands rather than the four squires. The knights were dressed to embody Costume Designer Christina Smith’s “Everyman” approach in the simplest contemporary terms. Even the exceptions to austere black were basic; senior knight Gurnemanz wore subdued colours and the wounded Amfortas was dressed in pale shirt and pants, albeit stained with vividly confronting blood.

The vocal “Wow!” factor began with renowned bass, Peter Rose. As a kindly yet stately Gurnemanz, his opening wake-up call to the young squires rang with a weighted authority and richness that has made him much sought after by the world’s major opera houses. Some commentators have remarked that the opera should have been called Gurnemanz or even Amfortas because their roles are considerably longer than Parsifal’s. It is certainly true that a successful Parsifal relies on exceptionally strong singers in all these roles and Victorian Opera has hit the vocal jackpot with these three. This was his first time James Roser, an Australian baritone with a growing international reputation, had sung the role of Amfortas, but it will surely not be the last; his interpretation conveyed the agony and final ecstasy as the keeper of the Grail with heart-rending emotional force, his firm, vibrant vocal production possessing a beauty of tone that demanded compassion from the listener.

As Parsifal, Burkhard Fritz did not physically convince in Act 1 as the innocent fool, who is described by various characters as being young, beautiful and having a noble bearing. Leaving him without a makeover, however, suited the aesthetic of this production. Burkhard’s unforced Heldentenor has an appealingly fresh quality that reinforced the element of youthful oblivion and his passionate outbursts as he later rejected the advances of the Flower Maidens and Kundry were vocally powerful. As a mature Parsifal returning to the castle after years of wandering as “an innocent fool, enlightened by compassion”, his interactions with other characters were convincing and poignant, especially with Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry. Not everyone would agree with Hodgman’s choice of Parsifal’s final gesture towards the redeemed Kundry, but his staging of the healing of Amfortas, Kundry’s Magdalene incarnation as she washed, anointed and dried Parsifal’s feet, the baptisms, and the final revealing of the Grail had many in tears.

In contrast to the liturgical ritual of King Titurel’s domain, Klingsor’s castle was a glittering, glamorous affair – superficially brilliant and seductive. Derek Welton, another Australian having huge success in Germany, appeared in the role of Klingsor at the Bayreuth Festival last year. A commanding presence with a mighty bass-baritone voice, he was larger than life in a glittering suit that magnified his power. He infused the character with vengeful menace while still conveying the ongoing torment that self-inflicted castration could not adequately relieve.

The design for this central Act suggested certain connections with Neil Armfield’s Melbourne production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, where the Rhine Maidens wore showgirl costumes and Siegfried was led through a golden glitter curtain to save Brünnhilde. A reversed image found Kundry passing through a silver glitter curtain with the intention of destroying Parsifal. Siegfried, another childish hero brought up in contrived ignorance, succumbs to temptation – as do Tristan and Tannhäuser – while Parsifal is able to resist it and become a Grail knight and king. It is perhaps ironic that this emphasis on a purity dependent on resisting sexual desire results in an infertile community; moreover, according to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s account of the Grail legend (a major source of Wagner’s libretto) Parsifal’s son, Lohengrin, would not have been born, nor the opera that bears his name.

Each of these four singers alone are worth the price of the ticket; add the celebrated Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman to the mix and you have a cast equal to any in the world. Whether unhinged wild woman, seductive temptress or humble penitent, her powerful, richly-coloured voice and dramatic intensity created a being of fascinating complexity.

Local talent shone in secondary and minor roles. Teddy Tahu Rhodes didn’t exactly sound ancient and ailing as Titurel, but his mighty voice certainly had a kingly ring to it. Stephen Marsh as a Grail knight and Carlos E. Bárcenas as a squire gave strong, well-projected performances. Georgia Wilkinson’s resonant soprano was used to pleasing effect as a young squire and as a Flower Maiden, and Kathryn Radcliffe made notable contributions as a Flower Maiden and ensemble member. All six Flower Maidens were an animated bunch, singing with well-coordinated playfulness. A great deal of splendid full-bodied singing came from the male chorus while the Victorian Opera Youth Chorus and the full opera chorus sang with good tone and musical commitment.

A complex, many-layered musical journey exploring the great mysteries of time, space and the human condition, this production of Wagner’s masterpiece was an enthralling and deeply moving experience.

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Heather Leviston attended Victorian Opera’s performance of “Parsifal” the Palais Theatre, St Kilda on February 20, 2019.