Review: 'Parsifal', Victorian Opera, 20, 22 & 24 February 2019

Parsifal

By Dr Terence Watson

Creative Team: Director - Roger Hodgman; Set Designer - Richard Roberts; Costume Designer - Christina Smith; Lighting Designer - Matt Scott; Assistant Director - Brock Roberts; Choreographer - Elizabeth Hill

Cast: Parsifal - Burkhard Fritz; Kundry - Katarina Dalayman; Gurnemanz - Peter Rose; Amfortas - James Roser; Klingsor - Derek Welton; Titurel - Teddy Tahu Rhodes

Musical Team: Orchestra: Australian Youth Orchestra; Conductor - Richard Mills; Associate Conductor - Daniel Carter

It was a moment of great pleasure, surprise and some apprehension when I learned last year that Victorian Opera was to mount a production of Parsifal. I was looking forward to seeing this production for a number of reasons. There has been no fully staged production of Parsifal in Australia since Elke Neidhardt’s beautiful and provocative presentation in 2001. I find it the most enigmatic and challenging of Wagner’s work, a condition I suspect many other Wagnerians also experience. So, another production would give me the chance to try to crack the mystery! Any company that bring off a successful production of Parsifal without an extensive tradition of Wagner performance is well on the way to world notice. I believe that Victorian Opera has happily reached this status.

Victorian Opera presented a 3D production of Der fliegende Holländer in 2015, also directed by Roger Hodgman. It is amazing to think, given the paucity of Wagner productions in the previous decades, that Victoria has had a feast of Wagner productions over the last decade or so with Melbourne Opera offering impressive productions of Tristan und Isolde in 2018, Lohengrin in 2017, Tannhäuser in 2016, and Rienzi in 2013 and 2104. Wagnerians across the continent can only hope this feast continues for many years and I wish these companies—and Opera Australia, which has been improving its record of Wagner productions with Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and two presentations of The Ring Cycle in the last few years—continued success for future productions.

I guess Victorian Opera decided to strike while the iron was still warm after Der fliegende Holländer but mounting a production of this masterwork clearly called for considerable preparatory work. In case I did not have the chance to see a staged production of Parsifal in Australia again before I died, I decided to see this production twice.

Committing to produce Parsifal also commits any opera company to finding suitable singer-actors with the capabilities for meeting the challenges Wagner sets for his principals and the chorus, including wide vocal leaps, long acts with long monologues, complex emotional and psychological states, and little stage action. In addition, the work calls for ingenious ways of creating an interesting and meaningful set, costumes and lighting effects, if one is to take Wagner’s stage directions at face value. Wagner was heavily invested in a naturalistic aesthetic for his artworks that required him to conceive his works as occurring in or on very specific sorts of settings—forests, castles, the ocean, 16thcentury Nuremberg, for instance—that seem to fit the subject matter. The choices that the director and his or her creative team make about these elements have a major influence on how the audience understands the artwork.

The orchestra called on to play this difficult score also needs to have not only high level technical skills, but also very mature musicianship, as well as an appreciation of Wagner’s intentions in creating the artwork. Usually this experience would come with long engagement with Wagner’s scores. For a one-off experience, as this was for the Australian Youth Orchestra (AYO), considerable responsibility falls to the conductor not only to bring the orchestra to the highest standard it can achieve, but also to induct the players into his or her understanding of the artwork as a whole. The conductor’s understanding also needs, ideally, to harmonise with the interpretation of the artwork by the director and the team.

Where to start in awarding plaudits for the deeply moving achievement of Victorian Opera’s Parsifal, is, for me, not too difficult. The members of the AYO played their hearts out with precision, panache and passion. While there were occasional cracked notes or awkward entries, overall they produced a very persuasive Wagner-Parsifal sound, remembering that this artwork was created especially for the unique sound of the Bayreuther Festspielhaus. Clearly, as young musicians learning their craft, they relished this opportunity to test themselves.

In successfully completing their challenge, much credit goes to Richard Mills as an admirable guide. Most noticeable, for me, were Mills’s tempi that were somewhat faster than is often encountered in other productions. There is still, in some houses, that reverential approach to this work that obligates the conductor to take sometimes very slow tempi. Mills’s faster tempi possibly helped the players negotiate those brutally exposed high, often loud passages where any error in timing or intonation is very obvious. Mills also shaped the arc of each act with sensitivity and control, so that the typical dramatic and musical structures of each act of Wagner’s late, great works was very clear. He also managed the balance between orchestra and singers much better than was achieved, in my opinion, in Melbourne Opera’s Tristan und Isolde in 2018.

With such a solid foundation of sound, the singer-actors could focus on their interactions with each other. All the principals were impressive. Burkhard Fritz, Katarina Dalayman and Peter Rose have vast experience in Wagnerian opera, which showed in the ease with which they embodied the complex characters as they effortlessly sang their parts. It was also a pleasure to hear Teddy Tahu Rhodes in the not very rewarding role of Titurel, especially when he is carted on stage in a coffin in act 3. His rich bass-baritone voice delivered perfectly the sepulchral tones Wagner gives the character.

More of a surprise to me was the vocal and stage mastery of Amfortas and Klingsor by James Roser and Derek Welton. It was particularly pleasing to see how far James Roser has come since the Wagner Society in NSW gave him financial assistance some years ago. His performance history and repertoire are impressive and the reviews as glowing as the one I offer. Not only did he have the vocal power and subtlety for this role, but he also brought passion to his acting, both of which astonished me. I have never seen an Amfortas so anguished and physically distressed since Elke Neidhardt’s 2001 production of this work in Adelaide, with Jonathan Summers in the role. I look forward to hearing and seeing Roser again soon.

I was also fortunate to hear Derek Welton sing Klingsor at Bayreuth in 2017 where his voice and command of the stage made me sit up and take notice. Welton’s vocal power and acting ability were, though, considerably overshadowed by his costume, a gold lame suit that sparkled, as if he were at Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, and his red fright wig and beard around a face with white makeup, gave him the appearance of Chuck the horror movie puppet. What is it with opera costumiers and fright wigs? Poor Stefan Vinke had to suffer one as Siegfried in Neil Armfield/Opera Australia’s The Ring Cycle. Welton’s voice and acting, though, helped redirect one’s attention back to things that matter. Klingsor has little stage time to persuade us that he is deeply damaged, but also desperately human in needing recognition from his fellow human beings. Like Parsifal, as a social animal, Klingsor also needs to find a community to which he can feel he belongs. It is entirely understandable that, having been rejected by Amfortas as suitable to join the Knights, Klingsor should create his own cult. Wagner is right to point out that such prejudicial rejections of human beings can lead to nasty consequences, even without “magic” powers playing a part in the person’s reaction against the community.

While I expected, and received, wonderful performances from the overseas principals, I felt that the presence of these two young Australians, already with impressive careers overseas, demonstrated both the high quality of training in Australia, and Victorian Opera’s fine judgement in inviting them to join with the highly experienced German and English trio.

Gurnemanz has the most difficult role in Parsifal, and arguably in all of Wagner’s works. Because he functions as a form of the ancient Greek dramatic chorus, that is, as Wagner’s tribute to ancient Greek drama, for which he had life-long admiration, Gurnemanz has the task of delivering the exposition, but he also must needs participate in the dilemma created by Amfortas and the apparent failure of Parsifal to show himself to be the prophesied “pure fool.” Peter Rose’s experience and total vocal mastery showed through on the Sunday performance, before which it was announced that he was suffering a viral infection. I could not really tell any difference from his fine performance the previous Friday, apart from him possibly holding back a little on the high, loud passionate passages he is sometimes called on to deliver. 

Burkhard Fritz similarly showed his complete mastery of the role of Parsifal, as well as his openness to the director’s provocative interpretation. Fritz seemed to put every ounce of vocal power and energy into the many moments of passion that build to the famous “Die Wunde” in the centre of act 2, after which his character settles into a serene state that eventually calms his Knights and reassures Kundry that she is included in the community.

For her very odd part, as Wagner conceived the character, Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry was not only immediately credible as an ageless beauty who has apparently reincarnated many times, but also as a vulnerable human being subject to manipulation and male violence. Dalayman also displayed effortless vocal control that left her free to bring much more engagement with and agency to the role than is often allowed in other productions. Even her occasional higher and more energetic notes that came over as slightly harsh contributed to our understanding of the emotional and psychological stress Kundry is under at those moments.

The male chorus, apparently jointly prepared by Richard Mills, Phoebe Briggs, and Phillipa Safey, also seemed to relish the chance to act, rather than stand and sing well, offered by both Wagner’s story and Hodgman’s direction. No wonder Amfortas was so intimidated by the anger of the Knights in act 3, when he refuses to unveil the Grail and perform his duty. The Knights also conveyed chillingly the fragmentation of the community as the Titurel camp and the Amfortas camp attempted to shout each other down, and then joined together to berate Amfortas. The ethereal voices of the Victorian Opera Youth Chorus Ensemble (VOYCE), prepared by Angus Grant, regularly informed us of the need to wait for the “pure fool.”

Christina Smith’s choice of costumes for the cast were consonant with the pared back aesthetic of this production. All the Knights (and the offstage chorus and the orchestra members) wore black shirt and black trousers; Gurnemanz a nondescript, comfy shirt, jacket, trousers and scarf he had probably worn for decades; Parsifal a green shirt and brown trousers that he had probably worn since he first left Hertzeleide behind to grieve; Kundry a shabby red dress that she had probably worn in each of her incarnations, and now had worn to ride to the four corners of the world in to collect balsams for Amfortas, then a fetching harem style outfit for her attempted seduction, then the shabby red dress, but now with a Hausfrau smock in which to serve; Amfortas a simple white outfit that looked like his pyjamas, but which became increasingly encrusted with dried blood from the wound in his left side. One can imagine the effect that Klingsor’s costume and make-up made on the audience in comparison with these drab, homely costumes that, perhaps, represented their wearers’ ascetic mode of life and the precarious condition of the Knights.

The choice of a set design should tell the audience much about the overall interpretation of the work, especially if one eschews the quaint pseudo-mediaevalist-naturalist settings Wagner demands in his stage directions. In this case, Richard  Roberts’ set certainly met Hodgman’s overall intentions for the production:

“.....We sought to achieve this [slowly discovering and coming to love this remarkable piece] by a very simple and dynamic space that puts the focus squarely on the performers, the music and the slowly revealed story. We felt that Wagner’s elaborate descriptions of the location of the various scenes are impractical to achieve in a contemporary production and would take the focus away from the incredibly intense (almost slow motion) nature of the story telling and the divine music...” {Victorian Opera program notes].

To give this vision stage presence, Roberts created a large white box extending far into the depths of the Palais Theatre’s big stage; the floor seemed to be covered in dead leaves, and a few overturned chairs hinted at the disorder in the community. The box is illuminated at times with changes of lighting as part of Matt Scott’s subtle manipulation of our moods in response to the stage action. The most dramatic element of the set was the presence, halfway down the box, of a serrated gash through all sides of the box, further signifying that the world of the Knights was torn asunder by Amfortas’s fall into carnality. As such, it was a simple, but powerful, constant reminder of the fractured and fractious world in which we find ourselves. (There is also a large horizontal gap on the two side walls of the box, but this seems merely to be a practical means of allowing the VOYCE to project effectively through the stage to the audience. These gaps also allowed the offstage brass chorus to similarly inject their important voices directly into the auditorium. This device, though, detracted a little from the stage image, unless it was intended to suggest a window into another realm.)

The gash prompted me to relate the image to the moment in Götterdämmerung when each of the Norns cries out “Es riss! Es riss”—the rope of fate has torn. For me, this happens at the same moment as Siegfried’s Nothung breaks Wotan’s spear, representing the same moment at which the present divine order of the universe of The Ring Cycle ends. By extension, we could also compare it to the story in the Gospels of the veil of the Temple, representing the barrier between the human world and the Holy of Holies, ripping at the moment of Jesus’s/Christ’s death (Matthew 27:51). Even without these additional associations, the stage image is strong enough to work subliminally for the whole performance. Interestingly, there is no move to “heal” the gash at the same time Parsifal heals Amfortas: perhaps the logistics were too complicated?

I am particularly grateful to Hodgman for his interpretation of this strangely wonderful work. To focus on the interactions between the principals, he stripped the narrative of almost all of its religious and related (or unrelated) imagery—no forest glade, no lake (although there is a swan!), no Grail Temple, no iconography, no mediaeval knights’ armour, no large-scale processions, no blazing lights, no doves, no Nazi banners! Here, all is simplicity; nothing to distract from the human story of pain and suffering, offence and forgiveness, self-overcoming, companionship, alienation and compassion. The Grail “lives” in a simple wooden box (perhaps the model for the larger box in which the action happens) that rests on a small stand for easy transportation when the Knights are in the battlefield (I guess). The crystal Grail is lit from inside its box as a gesture to the immense power it supposedly possesses.

With all the trappings of set, costumes, and props pretty well eliminated, Hodgman was free to concentrate of the relationships between the characters. It was a revelation and a delight to see Wagner’s characters given the chance to touch, even caress, comfort, show affection, to others; in so many productions touching seems to be verboten. Interestingly, though, in all of Wagner’s stage directions for his artworks there are very few references to emotionally significant touching, embracing, etc of any sort (be/rühren, bewegen, umarmen, for instance). Similarly, Hodgman’s characters were freer to express strong anger, delight, uncertainty, fear, tentativeness through facial and bodily gestures than I have seen in other productions. Rose’s Gurnemanz exemplified Hodgman’s approach in not being a detached bystander, but a person deeply engaged with the members of his community and distressed by the way in which it is straying from its God-given responsibilities. When he dismisses Parsifal at the end of act 1, he looks back at his disappearing back with palpable fear, trepidation and doubt. When Parsifal embraces Kundry after he has been anointed king by Gurnemanz, Gurnemanz looks on in wonder and amazement and relief that he has finally made amends for his earlier rash action by rightly acknowledging that Parsifal is the Grail’s choice.

Perhaps the most moving aspects of Hodgman’s interpretation of Parsifal’s relationship with Kundry occur in act 3. Firstly, Hodgman has Parsifal invite Kundry to lift the Grail from its shrine and hand it to him. I’ve never seen anything like this humane gesture of inclusion and expression of the compassion that this work is supposed to celebrate. Hodgman then gives Parsifal a series of dumbshow gestures to build on this moment. Kundry’s death is one of the controversial moments in Parsifal: is Wagner simply dispensing with a character once she has served her purpose, or did his imagination fail him in finding a way for her to be integrated into the new order that Parsifal seems to be establishing at the end of the work? Hodgman, I think, makes it clear that his Parsifal understands Kundry’s heartfelt pleas to be released from her life—her involuntary series of incarnations. The fact that Parsifal has baptised her, supposedly into a new life, free of the sin of her past life/ lives, as Christ’s doctrines and practice seem to guarantee, and that she has participated in the Grail ceremony without bursting into flames, suggest that she has indeed been released of her ties to this world and is free to leave it on her terms.

For me, Hodgman’s interpretation sets a very high benchmark for future productions, of which I hope to see many, particularly in Australia. I hope that they prove to be as humane and human-centred as this one. Congratulations to all those wonderful creative people who cooperated in a community dedicated to bringing such an impressive production to us.