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

Sun Nov 10, 2013 at 2:34 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

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 Lyric Opera 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 British 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.

Posted in Performances

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

  1. Posted Nov 10, 2013 at 3:36 pm by alex

    I loved it. Truly a wonderful experience.

  2. Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 9:08 am by bw

    While the review matches reality in total (undergunned voices with an extraordinary chorus), it sadly matches the thousands of unsold tickets. Great opera requires great voices. Mr. Freud knows great voices (netrebko sold out). Opera has always been about great singing. Without that, no amount of stage tricks, circus acts, or lighting can replace that. And that is why over the last fifteen years, the audience has left. Perhaps the audience did know more than management.

  3. Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 12:59 pm by Mort Filbert

    Opera needs to live–to breathe with new life once in a while. Parsifal at the Lyric Opera did so, and incredibly well. Maybe a bit of Wagner’s Christian symbolism was lost, but the humanity, the ultimate possibility of redemption, came through perfectly. Great singing from pretty much everyone, too, especially Paul Groves. I loved it.

  4. Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 2:43 pm by Mariano Martinez

    I am regular at the Lyric (with season passes). I try to see all the operas. I must say that this is the first and last time I will see Parsifal. I can only describe it as painful. I agree that the orchestra did a excellent job. The voices where not commanding of the stage. The set design confused me many times. I read Parsifal and know what was going-on on each act but placing them in their correct location was challenging. There were many empty sections with just music and the actors’ just killing time in a very painful manner; this when on for almost 5 hours.

    Also, I always have dinner at the Lyric before the opera. This time they did not serve dinner instead they sold box lunches (sandwich, chips, cookie and water). Of course there are not enough cocktail tables on the halls. It was interesting to see very well dressed, I was a couple in Tuxes, seating on the floor or standing holding the box in one hand and trying to eat the whole thing in less than 15 minutes. It was the most interesting part of the night.

    I am looking forward La Traviata in 2 weeks to recover from Parsifal.

  5. Posted Nov 11, 2013 at 11:44 pm by Edwin Hollatz

    Sin, repentance, forgiveness and redemption. These are the key themes of Christian salvation, and are the important elements in the mythic telling of Wagner’s PARSIFAL. For the 2013 production of the opera Lyric was basically true to the composer’s vision, not like the tragic if not blasphemous production of more than a decade ago.

    Only two things bothered me about the current production: first and most important, the unfortunate casting of Groves in the title role, whose voice is inadequate for the transcendental and heroic demands of the part; second, the ridiculous giant golden hand serving as a couch for Titurel, which appeared like some anthropomorphic image for God.

    Implicit in Wagner’s conception is the Trinity. Keep the symbolism true to the Christian tradition, as were the very moving scenes portraying the Eucharist. As others have noted, the solo singing overall was excellent, except for the central character. The chorus sang and moved with expertise, and the orchestra was truly superior and sonorous. Kudos to all concerned!

  6. Posted Nov 17, 2013 at 8:25 pm by Rick Boyum

    I was safe from thunderstorms, tornados, and driving rain during the Sunday matinee of Parsifal (November 17) at Lyric. Inside it was my third scheduled performance of this run + one dress rehearsal.

    Paul Groves is becoming more relaxed and his voice is blooming into the role. The role might still be short of the idealized heldentenor that listeners have in their minds, but it has moved several clicks up on the dial since the opening night. There is now some “trumpet” in the voice and enough of it to make this an even more satisfying performance of Parsifal given Groves other gifts along with the rest of the very fine singers.

    I must add that I probably will not hear a portrayal of Gurnemanz that will exceed the singing of Kwangchul Youn. Long stretches of exposition of the story become fascinating as he draws me in to hang on every word. The guy is great.

    We always seem to disagree on productions (but we can still be friends!) and this Parsifal is no exception. The show works for me as I continue to see repeats of this Parsifal.

  7. Posted Nov 17, 2013 at 9:29 pm by Stefan Westerhoff

    I decided to give Lyric the benefit of the doubt and attended the Nov. 17 Parsifal matinee. I have to agree with Lawrence Johnson’s review – I found most of the performance, especially after Act 1, to be mediocre at best.

    It saddens me to witness the decline of Lyric over the years. Their overly conservative choice of repertoire would be almost acceptable if the productions were thought-provoking, with exciting singers who “own” their parts, but this is no longer the case.

    So far this season, Butterfly and Parsifal had substandard singers in the most crucial roles. A great orchestra and chorus, which Lyric undoubtedly has, only gets you so far. I guess at the end of the day, part of the blame has to go to the music director, who is ultimately responsible for the musical quality of all performances.

  8. Posted Nov 18, 2013 at 4:11 pm by Gerald Zimmerman

    I saw the Sunday, November 18 performance. It was, without question, the finest performance of the work I have ever seen. I have seen Parsifal twice at Bayreuth (1970 and 1998), once in London, once at the Met, and the three productions at Lyric. The performers were all excellent. I think Mr. Groves will do very well in this role if he decides to continue it. Kwangchul Youn was wonderful. I have just a few minor quibbles about the production not worthy of mention here.

  9. Posted Nov 18, 2013 at 4:56 pm by Ralph Neiweem

    All things said, this visually arresting production needs work, but has a lot of potential. It should not be scrapped. Let’s hope it comes back tweaked in a few seasons with Jonas Kaufman and a world class Kundry (with of course a return for Youn.) A more opera-savvy director would also be a plus.

    Thanks for opening this excellent blog to comments.

  10. Posted Nov 18, 2013 at 6:58 pm by George Collins

    The orchestra was great. But I did not come to see an opera by Mr. Caird based on Parsifal by Richard Wagner, I came to see the real thing! The minimalist, modern sets cheapened the whole experience and, while I am not a Christian, the attempts to “deChristianize” things seemed just stupid. Why directors feel that revising Wagner, who left very specific stage instructions, is acceptable vs other opera composers is beyond me. Once burned, twice shy–in the future, I will not buy tickets in advance but wait for the reviews first. If I want to see something new and different, I’ll go to a movie.

  11. Posted Nov 19, 2013 at 12:51 am by Pam

    I truly enjoyed the performance. It was my first Wagner opera experience. Although the title role did appear a bit underpowered in voice, the rest of it, stage setting, symbolic imageries and other aspects of theatricalities demonstrated a refined directorial style that delivered a Wagner epically majestic and pensively probing at once. The minimalism goes well with the basically static dramatic action, what Wagner provided in the opera, and thus
    allows more space for audiences experiencing the innermost world of characters. The giant hand was a bit too obvious in a basically abstract setting though.

  12. Posted Nov 24, 2013 at 5:02 pm by Judy

    So disappointed! Groves was miscast and none of the voices were outstanding. The second act as Kundry changed character had my husband and I totally perplexed and at one point, we thought Kundry was Parsifal’s mother. The Ring Cycle is a part of my soul — was hoping the Parsifal performance would move me to this end.

  13. Posted Nov 25, 2013 at 6:30 pm by Judy Bond

    I am married to a Wagner lover and over the last 40 years have seen many productions of Parsifal. It is my favorite opera because of the music and story and especially because I was raised a Christian and have been a Buddhist meditator for the last 35 years. Thus by my experience and study I have some understanding of what Wagner was trying to convey about both traditions.

    Wagner had planned both a Christian opera and a Buddhist one but instead employs elements of both in Parsifal. Although the original story over time became Christian, Wagner added Buddhist elements, like the the awakening of compassion in Parsifal for Amfortas and ultimately Kundry when he experiences the same seduction. This is how Parsifal becomes enlightened.

    The golden hand added by the Lyric Opera production shows two hand mudras of the Buddha, the first of protection, Abhaya, and the second of wish-fulfilling, Varada which Parsifal accomplishes by returning the spear to the knights where it also heals Amfortas. I could go on…I loved the production. Thank you Lyric Opera.

  14. Posted Nov 30, 2013 at 9:05 pm by Howard Slenk

    The 1998 Wolfgang Wagner production of Parsifal at Bayreuth, and the Lyric production of Nicholas Lehnhoff were both so unforgettably awful that I have been searching for a Parsifal cleansing ever since. The recent Met production helped somewhat, and the one under discussion still more. These days one cannot escape the ravages of Regie-theater, especially in Wagner, so when a performance like the one we experienced in Chicago last week had many good things about it, one can only be grateful. I was grateful to Groves, Davis, the chorus, the orchestra, and especially Youn. It was a wonderful evening. A thousand thanks.

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