Lyric Opera of Chicago
By Richard Wagner
By Lori Dana
Wagner’s Parsifal is the culmination of a composer’s creative journey, his final declaration of belief in human compassion, self-awareness, and redemption. For the audience, our fascination with Parsifal is not with its conclusion, (for we know almost from the first moment how the story will end), but with the emotional and spiritual journey that provides a foolish, self-centered boy with a man’s commitment and clarity. Rife with imagery familiar to those whose history is steeped in Christian tradition, Parsifal also serves as a touchstone for those devoted to the concept of the noble quest; be it Arthurian legend, Tolkienian fantasy, or the modern adventures of Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker.
Set in a world of knights of the Holy Grail, the first act of the opera centers upon Amfortas (Thomas Hampson), a princely knight whose fall from grace has left him with physical and spiritual wounds that will not heal. Charged with the task of protecting the lance that pierced Christ’s side and the chalice that caught the blood from his wound, Amfortas has disgraced himself by losing one of the sacred relics to Klingsor, a knight whom Amfortas’ father rejected as a protector of the Grail. Now descended into a world of decadence and evil, Klingsor commands his slave, the seductive Kundry (Daveda Karanas), to bewitch
Amfortas so he can seize the holy spear. We come upon the aftermath of that event, as a deeply wounded and weakened Amfortas sees his ability to lead his father’s knights slipping away, along with his redemption.
Into this scene wanders the hapless Parsifal (Paul Groves) who kills a swan while hunting in the wood surrounding the castle shrine at Montsalvat. A breathtaking air ballet depicts the angel/swan hurtling to the ground, and in one of the productions’ most riveting images, a single soldier appears among the trees, carrying the mortally wounded creature into the heart of the crowd that has gathered in a forest clearing. At first repudiated, then invited by the old knight Gurnemanz (Kwangchul Youn), to witness the ritual of the Grail, Parsifal is bewildered both by Amfortas’ suffering, and by the communion ritual over which he presides. Gurnemanz, disappointed that Parsifal is not the prophetic savior who will recognize and be moved by Amfortas’ suffering, sends the boy away. Thus begins Parsifal’s quest for self-realization and for the relief of Amfortas’ suffering. His journey into the underworld, his sacrifice, and ultimate redemption mirror much of Christian dogma, but Wagner’s tale also references the symbolism of Eastern religion. Wagner’s devotion to German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (who had a lifelong interest in Eastern philosophy) is often credited for this influence on his work.
Both the tender beauty of Wagner’s music, and the mixture of eastern philosophy and Christian symbolism that dominate Wagner’s libretto, are mirrored in the stage design, lighting and costuming of Lyric’s new production. Presented on a suitably Wagnerian scale, the epic proportions of set designer Johan Engels’ circular stage, with its giant columns, trap doors and pneumatic platforms is characterized by clean, massive shapes overlaid with a membranous web of black lines, that transform seamlessly from deep blue starry sky to gray castle walls to radiant blue-green forest clearing. With a few design variations, the same set becomes the fiery world of Klingsor and the glowing shrine of the Grail with equal ease. The giant golden hand that serves as the old king Titurel’s throne in the Grail scenes has the definite look of a Buddhist temple, and Engels’ costuming successfully marries the familiar chain mail of the Knights Templar with the angular formality of Samurai tunics and armor. Klingsor’s layered red and gold tunic and savage Kabuki-like makeup make this nod to the Japanese aesthetic particularly clear. Simply put, the eclectic and forward thinking design of Lyric Opera’s new production should find many fans, both among those looking for epic drama and for technical “wow factor” aficionados. Despite a few minor opening night glitches, the flying angels, spidery demons and magical transformations of this timeless tale were visually compelling and believable.
The peerless core of principal singer/actors led by star American baritone Thomas Hampson, (whose extraordinarily sensitive interpretation of Amfortas’ suffering in act one is a personal tour de force) was matched by flawless support from the superb Lyric Opera chorus and orchestra, and a troupe of accomplished dancers. In his Lyric debut, Korean bass Kwangchul Youn’s clear, rich bass maintained its clarion tone from the deepest notes to the top of his considerable range. Ms. Karanas, also performing for the first time at Lyric, brought sympathetic interpretation to the tortured temptress Kundry, and Lyric veteran tenor Paul Groves made a buff and handsome hero. Tómas Tómasson as Klingsor and Rúni Brattaburg (Lyric debut) as Titurel rounded out the main character roles.
For those accustomed to the grand Wagner finale, Parsifal represents a marked change of pace. As the composer must surely have been taking stock of his life and career at the time of Parsifal‘s creation, so his hero completes the circle by quietly contemplating his newfound awareness and path to redemption, as the light fades from the final scene. From its electrifying dramatic moments, to its technical marvels and striking visual symbolism, all crowned with some of Wagner’s most moving music, Parsifal is the one Lyric Opera production you really must experience this season.
(“Parsifal,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through November 29, 2013 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-332-2244)
Parsifal production photos by Dan Rest / Lyric Opera of Chicago.