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Parsifal - Bayreuth
CDs - complete recordings:
Guide to Parsifal with complete libretto and
a parallel translation into English by Andrew Porter
For his last opera, Wagner dug into German and Christian legends
and, in his inimitable fashion, created in Parsifal an allegory on the conflict
between Christianity and paganism, good and evil, light and dark, physical passion and
spiritual abstinence. It is rich in allusions and symbolism and will no doubt keep
scholars happily employed for generations to come, studying the sources and the ways that
Wagner drew them together into this extraordinary work.
Despite the difficulties of its layered literary trappings, obscure references, and daunting length, Parsifal's movingly lyrical music well rewards the intrepid opera-goer who is up to the challenge.
Two relics focus the human and spiritual concerns of the work: the Holy Grail, a vessel from which Jesus drank and which also held his blood, and the Sacred Spear, used by a Roman soldier on Jesus, here a weapon of defense against nonbelievers. Amfortas leads a community of knights that protects the Holy Grail. He suffers mightily from a wound inflicted by Klingsor, a sorcerer and sworn enemy. Klingsor had employed Kundry to seduce Amfortas, leading to the loss of the Spear to Klingsor, and the subsequent wounding.
This has all happened before the curtain rises. Wagner's overture, with drum rolls, brass fanfares, ethereal strings, and his long-lined themes, sets a grand and serious tone. A hero must be found, according to prophesy, one who is innocent and ignorant of evil. Parsifal arrives on the scene and survives both Kundry's attempt to seduce him and Klingsor's aggression, to finally bring redemption to the good guys. There is, then, a focused plot line and an interesting group of characters, each reflecting a different aspect of the conflicts between good and evil, faith and faithlessness, all glued together with the powerful density of Wagner's music.
Given the subject matter, many productions treat Parsifal with careful, traditional design. Nikolaus Lehnhoff's new production for San Francisco Opera vividly re-imagines the opera, placing it in an undefined, abstracted environment, a kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland with science fiction overtones (Parsifal's entrance in the third Act is pure Darth Vader) and a pronouncedly Chinese influence in its wonderfully weird, theatrical costuming. It's dry, edgy look, notably enhanced by Wolfgang Göbbel's lighting, works superbly to counter what could be an overrichness of religious imagery in a work already laden in book and music with Christian spirituality. Rather than detract from the latter, the production frames it and sets it off to excellent advantage.
The knockout performance in this production is by basso Kurt Moll in the role of Gurnemanz, an elder of the knights whose presence knits the story together. Moll debuted at San Francisco Opera in the same role nearly thirty years ago. The voice shows not the slightest sign of aging - big, full-toned, perfectly placed, musically deployed. Moll is also a fine actor; comfortable, natural, without stagy awkwardness, he inhabits this role.
Kundry is surely one of the strangest of operatic characters. Condemned to eternal life for mocking Christ on the cross, she is at once the hired seductress of evil Klingsor and a servitor of his enemies, the knights of the Grail. Catherine Malfitano, looking like a crazed bird in the first act, an opalescent hooker in the second, and a holy penitent in the third, brings to the role one of the great acting talents of the operatic stage and uses it to effective purpose. In this, her first foray into Wagner, however, the long-present vibrato in her voice has expanded into an out-and-out wobble - a repeatedly unpleasant sound to say the least.
In his U.S. debut, Christopher Ventres acquitted himself honorably as Parsifal, with a clear, ringing tenor and a winning stage presence. The powerful dramatic cohesion of all the performances must be credited to fine stage direction. From the pit, conductor Donald Runnicles commanded the ensemble with the brilliance that has made him a San Francisco favorite.
San Francisco, July 2, 2000 - Arthur Lazere