By Kyle MacMillan
CHICAGO — Lyric Opera of Chicago deserves credit for taking a risk on a new, unconventional production of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. It has its weaknesses, but it also offers a refreshing take on this valedictory work and provides more than enough to satisfy the ear, heart, and mind.
For his final opera, Wagner delved into Christian mysticism and Schopenhauerian philosophy, creating a monumental work of art that is daunting and enigmatic, yet powerful and uplifting. In this story of compassion and redemption, Amfortas, the leader of a group of knights charged with protecting the Holy Grail, falls into temptation, casting his kingdom into a darkness that can be lifted only by the arrival of a prophesied hero.
Taking on the work for just the third time in its history, Lyric Opera of Chicago presented its new Parsifal on Nov. 9, with more performances through Nov. 29 at the Civic Opera House. British director John Caird’s bold, stylized staging stumbles a few times yet conveys the essence of this challenging morality tale and sustains interest for the nearly five-hour running time. Working with set and costume designer Johan Engels, Caird sets Parsifal in a timeless, fantastical realm that is both ancient and startlingly contemporary, even futuristic – an approach that energizes the production in some ways and proves distracting in others.
But no matter how adventuresome Caird is with the scenic concept, he never loses track of the need to keep the central focus on the characters, working with a drama-savvy cast to achieve a comprehensive sense of depth and believability. At the same time, he is well aware that this opera includes as many moments of reflection as it does of narrative, and he never rushes the former to get to the latter. But when the action does come, he knows how to capitalize on it. With the help of choreographer Tim Claydon, for example, he adds dancers to enliven certain scenes, such as portraying a group of flitting, writhing black-clad spirits under the spell of the evil Klingsor in Act II.
All the action takes place on a raked disc cradled by a panoramic, semi-circular backdrop with a Jackson Pollock-like abstract pattern of swirling, overlapping lines; it takes on different looks depending on how it is lit. In the quiet opening moments of the opera, lighting designer Duane Schuler bathes the stage in a cobalt blue that suggests the time just before dawn. Slowly, seven translucent plastic tubes several feet in diameter rise from the disc to the top of the stage, conjuring towering tree trunks. Together with the flora-like Pollock patterns at the rear, the effect is a tantalizing forest.
Less successful is the scenery for the room housing the Holy Grail, which takes on a kitschy sci-fi feel with a set of clear plastic cylinders arrayed at the rear and a massive, clunky, golden hand that serves as giant throne for Titurel, the king’s father. As Caird explains in his director’s notes, the hand is supposed to be an emblem of the brotherhood of the knights, but it seems strangely at odds with the otherwise familiar Christian symbolism that runs through this scene. Most audacious of all are the red-suffused sets for the lair of Klingsor. As Act II opens, the fallen knight rises center stage on an open lift amid billowing fog and a ring of what looks like angled neon tubes, radiating upward, with bunches of looped tubing arrayed at the base of the lift and at the sides of the stage. The scene looks like something from a high-end nightclub or a Las Vegas show, and in this fantastical underworld-like realm, such showy excess does not seem out of place.
Headlining the generally strong cast is baritone Thomas Hampson, whose portrayal of the king, Amfortas, was gripping. Through both his telling body language and nuanced vocal timbre, Hampson potently conveyed the anguish, pain and anger of a character who must endure the torture of a perpetually unhealed wound.
Tenor Paul Groves, in his role debut as Parsifal, never seemed completely comfortable, either dramatically or vocally. Although he delivered the goods in the climactic scene in Act II, when the fool-turned-hero refuses to succumb to Kundry’s seduction and vanquishes Klingsor, his voice often sounded a bit thin, especially in the upper register. Mezzo-soprano is a fine physical actress who ably conveyed the emotional complexity of Kundry, but she did not achieve full vocal impact, and her strong vibrato was intrusive at times.
Taking full advantage of his rich, forceful voice and imposing physicality, baritone Tómas Tómasson reveled in the role of Klingsor, enthusiastically conveying the antagonist’s bravado and villainy. Solidly anchoring the production was bass Kwangchul Youn as Gurnemanz, a senior knight who is onstage for virtually all of the first and third acts. In Act I, Gurnemanz essentially lays out the back story, and Youn delivered the long recitatives in clear, compelling fashion.
Lyric music director Andrew Davis was in the pit, and he adroitly supported the singers and negotiated the ebbs and flows of the action. Conductor and orchestra beautifully realized Wagner’s creation of an evocative, ever-varied musical world.
Parsifal continues through Nov. 29; for details, click here.
Kyle MacMillan recently marked his 25th anniversary as a music critic and reporter. After serving 11 years as fine arts critic for the Denver Post, he is now a free-lance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and writes for such national publications as Opera News and The Wall Street Journal.