Lyric Opera’s “Parsifal” offers vexing, variably sung Wagner

November 11, 2013
Paul Groves as the title hero in Lyric Opera's production of Wagner's "Parsifal." Photo: Dan Rest

Paul Groves as the title hero in Lyric Opera’s production of Wagner’s “Parsifal.” Photo: Dan Rest

One of these decades the Lyric Opera of Chicago is going to get Parsifal right.

After the infamous, generally reviled Nikolaus Lehnhoff production of 2001–in the final scene of which a still-alive Kundry leads Parsifal out along a set of 12th-century railroad tracks—this year’s Wagner centennial gave the Chicago company another opportunity to do justice to the composer’s final and, for many, greatest work.

That didn’t happen.

The Lyric’s new production of Parsifal, which opened Saturday night, offers some striking visuals, fitfully impressive vocalism and quite glorious playing of this ineffably beautiful score from the Lyric Opera Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis.

Unfortunately, the positives were outweighed by moments of jaw-dropping theatrical kitsch, intrusive directorial revisionism and a singer who proved completely underpowered in the title role.

Wagner refused to call Parsifal an opera but rather a “stage-consecrating festival play.” Outwardly, the scenario concerns Parsifal and his attempt to regain the holy spear captured by the evil Klingsor who wounded the knights’ leader Amfortas through the seductive wiles of the eternal temptress Kundry. Though he is first mystified by the knights’ religious rites, Parsifal after many years and trials, returns the spear to the knights, heals Amfortas’s wound, releases Kundry from her curse, and takes his place as the knights’ leader.

Wagner’s five-hour canvas of noble, slow-moving music, stage ritual, and themes of sin, suffering, compassion, healing and transcendence can create a hypnotic effect that makes experiencing Parsifal almost a purifying ritual in itself, even for the religious skeptics among us.

Johan Engels’ unit set is a throwback to the Minimalist style of post-war Bayreuth, a large raked circle on which the action plays out. The stage is bare apart from towering tree-like columns to represent the Montsalvat forest, which turn to sci-fi-like tubes for the Act 1 ritual. Klingsor’s lair is a single platform on a high, elevated platform with smoke and red laser tubes. The Flower Maidens are given flowing, pink and purple long-sleeved gowns, the scene offering an explosion of swirling, vibrant colors, to contrast with the muted greens and browns of the outer acts.

Engels’ sets and costumes have a colorful quality and lean integrity that would have been effective on their own had it been left at that. The problem is that Engels and director John Caird have, in the modern tradition, dispensed with the opera’s inherent Christian iconography and instead thrown in a muddled mix of symbolism and unwonted visuals that seem to have been mined from Lord of the Rings and Thomas Kinkade paintings.

The swan Parsifal kills in the opening scene is represented by a human figure with one wing who floats, Angels in America-like, in the background. While the elderly Titurel is sung offstage, as Wagner calls for, he is also represented on stage by a non-singing actor, a silver-gowned figure sitting in a massive golden hand like a royal M&M.

Kundry is escorted to Acts 1 and 3 by what appeared to be a hokey, faux-costumed horse and zebra that suggest Monty Python’s Pantomime Queen. Klingsor’s henchmen bind Kundry in huge red ropes, and do spastic Devo-like movements joined by leaping ballet dancers. Of course, it is not a dove as Wagner requests, but the androgynous human swan that makes an appearance in the opera’s elevated final moments.

Even more off-putting than the corny visuals is Caird’s freely revisionist handling of the story.

The Welsh director follows the prevailing politically correct ethos, inserting hoary new feminist cliches for the hoary old postmodern cliches. So, there are no flowers or sunny meadow in the Good Friday scene; instead he comes up with a bogus circle of Druid-like leafy-garbed female chorus members who encircle the principals swaying and waving their arms about and seeming to acclaim Kundry as their new priestess. Caird has the women join the knights in the final scene since, as the director states in a program note, it’s preferable to “the same dysfunctional all-male society.”

Similarly, Kundry is elevated to almost co-equal status with the opera’s hero. It is she who heals Amfortas with the holy spear, not Parsifal. Once again Wagner’s moving denouement when Kundry dies peacefully, released from her earthly curse is simply jettisoned. Instead, she goes to comfort Amfortas in the shadows and apparently lives on once again, in complete defiance of the libretto.

Maybe someday Lyric Opera can do Wagner’s version of Parsifal. Now that would truly be daring and refreshing.

In what is becoming a refrain in the current Lyric Opera era, the production offered yet another grievous bit of miscasting, this time in the title role.

Paul Groves is an intelligent artist with a robust voice, but his move into Heldentenor repertoire seems extremely ill-advised, based on Saturday’s performance.

The American singer was a solid presence dramatically and brought a nice world-weary dignity to Act 3. Yet, in his first major Wagner role, Groves manifestly lacked the power for Parsifal. His lyric-dramatic tenor is at least one size too small for the role and even the isolated bursts of high tessitura were painfully beyond his capabilities. Groves either strained at top notes or passed on them altogether, as in Parsifal’s climactic cries of “Die Wunde!” in Act 2. It’s time to start asking why a major company like Lyric Opera is engaging artists in untried roles that they simply cannot sing.

The extended confrontation between Parsifal and Kundry in Act 2 had little intensity due to the lack of electricity in the singing of Groves and Daveda Karanas as Kundry. Some pitchy moments apart, Karanas fulfilled the role’s assignment worthily if without bringing much sex appeal to her seduction of Parsifal. Like Groves, the Greek-born mezzo-soprano lacks the volume and gleam the role demands.

Thomas Hampson’s baritone is light for the role of the stricken Amfortas as well, but his forceful singing at least brought some dramatic urgency, the occasional rawness fitting the plight of the anguished character. Hampson didn’t avoid the role’s usual pitfalls, overacting wildly in Act 1, though he brought a more restrained side to the final scene.

Gurnemanz is a signature role for Kwangchul Youn, and, in his company debut, the veteran South Korean bass delivered the finest singing of the evening. Possessing a sonorous instrument with burnished tone, Youn made a more fiery and volatile Gurnemanz than the usual benevolent old monk, and his dramatic vitality and sterling vocalism anchored the long exposition stretches of Act 1.

Tomas Tomasson sang with exemplary diction and refined tone as the villain Klingsor, effectively underplaying as much as possible while having to contend with some of the bizarre staging conceits.

Runi Brattaberg was a worthy Titurel, if lacking the black depths for the part. The Knights, Esquires and Flower Maidens were a notably well-blended and richly sung ensemble, composed of former and present Ryan Center young artists (John Irvin, Richard Ollarsaba, Angela Mannino, J’nai Bridges, Matthew DiBattista, Adam Bonanni, Emily Birsan, Tracy Cantin, Kiri Deonarine and Laura Wilde).

Under chorus master Michael Black, the Lyric Opera Chorus was first-class once again. The men sang with clarion strength and power as the knights and the women’s offstage choir rendered their parts with radiant purity in the Act 1 ritual scene, which proved the highlight of the evening.

Sir Andrew Davis led a searching, masterful account of Wagner’s remarkable score. Apart from one errant trumpet player who should have been lashed by Klingsor, the Lyric Opera musicians delivered glowing, gorgeous playing throughout the five-hour evening.

Parsifal runs through November 29.; 312-332-2244.

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