Modernist ‘Parsifal’ Redefines Grail In Quest Across Time

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Flower maidens try to seduce Parsifal (Michael Weinius) in the Royal Swedish Opera production of Wagner's 'festival play.' Photos by Micke Sandström
Flower maidens try to seduce Parsifal (Michael Weinius) in Christof Loy’s production of Wagner’s ‘festival play.’
(Photos by Micke Sandström)
By Susan Brodie

STOCKHOLM — Can wisdom and compassion replace faith as guideposts for living in peace and harmony? Christof Loy’s moving and wonderfully sung production of Wagner’s Parsifal is a deceptively traditional staging disguising a modern query of the work’s themes. The revival of the 2013 production, supervised by Anna Tomson, opened Feb. 27 to a full house at the Royal Swedish Opera.

Curtain rises on Kundry (Katarina Dalayman) and Klingsor (John Erik Eleby).
Kundry (Katarina Dalayman) and Klingsor (John Erik Eleby) in Belle Époque setting.

Sets and costumes combine 19th-century and medieval elements. The curtain rises on a low-ceilinged, wood-paneled room. A woman in a black Victorian gown stands writing in a ledger on a bookcase at stage left. She sits, exhausted. An older man in a robe enters, and she greets him, tenderly touching his cheek and then offering him a mug of tea. A medieval merchant and his wife? No: it’s Gurnemanz, the leader of the Grail brotherhood, and Kundry, who both serves and scorns the knights and their suffering king, Amfortas.

The domestic moment passes, Kundry disappears through a curtain at stage right, and Gurnemanz calls the squires to their morning duties. They respond more or less obediently, like any group of teenagers. One prays with fervor, another sits sullenly on the bench, then goes to sleep. Their range of behaviors creates a tension between the ritualistic nature of the script and modern ironic distance. Is their apprenticeship real, or are they going through the motions for some unknown reason? Why is Kundry, who “never serves,” scrubbing the floor?

Thorsten Grümbel portrays Gurnemanz.
Thorsten Grümbel portrays Gurnemanz; painterly tableaux are frequent.

This shallow, cramped room, occupying only the front half of the stage, suggests the enclosed and suffocating realm of the Grail brotherhood and sets up the confrontations between the leadership and the frustrated knights. At key moments, the low ceiling and the back wall lift away to reveal a wider space: in Act I, a chapel, in Act II, a theater. (Sets by Dirk Becker, lighting by Olaf Winter, costumes by Barbara Drosihn.)

Loy’s painterly tableaux depict Christian themes without being religious enactments; the effect is of ritual grown stale from habit. In Act I, Amfortas, dressed like the crucified Christ, lies collapsed in agony across the lap of a robed woman, like a classic Pietà. At the climactic moment of the first-act Grail rite, while Amfortas struggles to raise the chalice to the altar, a wall panel in the room downstage opens on a living diorama of two angels revealing the grail and spear to Titurel; the image appears as a painting at the end of Act III. After the Grail rite, the squires sit in a row on a bench upstage, eating bread and drinking wine; in the last act, Kundry sits between Gurnemanz and Parsifal; their parallel heads, their robes, and the angles of their torsos, as well as the plain bench itself, suggest Leonardo’s Last Supper.

Peter Mattei as Amfortas with the covered Grail.
Peter Mattei, as tormented Amfortas, regards the covered Grail.

At the close of the first act, a mysterious woman in a modern business suit wanders onstage, unseen by the other actors. After paging idly through the monastic register and gazing around in curiosity, she sings the scene’s final (and her only) line, “Wisdom through compassion, the pure fool.” The incongruity of her presence shocks more than the sight of Amfortas’ bloody bandages and crown of thorns.

In Act II, the Grail knights’ chamber is now a theatrical dressing room in Klingsor’s occupation. Again, appearances are ambiguous: The opening scene shows a group of semi-dressed women, as in a 19th-century brothel. When they break the group pose, we see that we’re backstage, probably at the the Paris Opera, in the foyer reserved for wealthy gentlemen to arrange assignations with their favorite ballerinas. Kundry primps at a dressing table where a prie-dieu stood in act I. Klingsor, in the top hat and tails of an abonné (a Parisian backstage johnny), spars with Kundry, who yanks down his trousers; his blood-soaked drawers are the dark-side counterpart to Amfortas’ wound.

The flower maidens, in toe shoes and colorful Romantic tutus, vie aggressively for Parsifal’s favors on a stage decorated like a jungle painted by Rousseau until Kundry enters to seduce Parsifal. The girls and the stage disappear, and we are back in the dark paneled room for Kundry’s futile assault on Parsifal’s innocence. At the moment when Klingsor enters, angels from the first-act tableau seize the spear and deliver it to Parsifal. The deliberately artificial stage transitions pull us back to the present, as does the lady in the suit, picking her way through the rubble of Klingsor’s realm like an archeologist discovering the ruins of some lost civilization.  

Parsifal (Michael Weinius) and Kundry (Katarina Dalayman) with Apprentices.
Modern glimpse: Parsifal (Weinius) and Kundry (Dalayman) with Apprentices.

Weariness hangs over the final act. Parsifal returns, his grizzled head and torso covered in armor; when he removes it, two squires don the garments like prized fetish objects. At the very end, after Parsifal heals Amfortas’ wound, there is no final Grail ritual. The walls lift away to reveal a large vaulted room — the Grail chapel transformed — where, in Loy’s words, Amfortas’ “dream of free men and women living together peacefully seems possible.” It’s a public library, with flower maidens and Grail knights, now in modern clothing, consulting books and conferring softly, under the guidance of the mysterious woman in the suit, now the librarian. Above the bookshelves hangs a painting of the first-act angelic tableau vivant: The faith of our fathers is honored in today’s place of wisdom. Kundry and Gurnemanz survey the room, smile, and walk off hand in hand. It’s wholly unexpected, and the soaring music elevates the emotional impact.

The cast, headed by three ensemble members with the title of Swedish Court Singers, had no weak links. In the title role was Michael Weinius, who began his career as a bass before becoming a tenor in 2004 and winning the Seattle Opera’s International Wagner Competition in 2008, the year after singing his first Parsifal. His full-bodied tenor has plenty of ping, with ample heft in the lower register. If his acting was somewhat rudimentary, that wasn’t a huge deficit for a character who is primarily reactive.

After years as a sought-after Brünnhilde, soprano Katarina Dalayman is making a well-timed transition into lower-lying Wagner parts, with Ortrud and Fricka on her schedule as well as Kundry, which she first sang in 2013 at the Metropolitan Opera. Her sound remains firm, rich, and expressive, with a powerful chest voice; her Kundry was full of dignity and compassion.

Gurnemanz ( Grümbel), Kundry (Dalayman), and Parsifal (Weinius).
Powerful cast: Gurnemanz ( Grümbel), Kundry (Dalayman), and Parsifal (Weinius).

Met audiences experienced Peter Mattei’s powerful role debut as Amfortas in 2013; to Loy’s Christ-figure Amfortas he brought a note of resigned suffering not seen in New York. His wrenching physical portrayal never detracted from the mellow burr of his baritone. It was an astonishing performance; at his curtain call the audience leaped to their feet to roar their approval.

Thorsten Grümbel was a vocally and physically imposing yet sympathetic Gurnemanz; it’s a beautiful and well-produced voice. John Erik Eleby’s Klingsor was seedily, menacingly dapper. Michael Schmidberger as  Titurel was physically more robust than most, though a more cavernous timbre would have conveyed his great age more effectively. As the celestial voice, Katarina Leoson’s attractively sung single line made one want to hear more. Her dramatic function as a link to our time and values only became clear at the very end, but she was very effective. Smaller roles were well sung and acted with engaging specificity.

Under music director Lawrence Renes, the orchestra provided solid support and moments of splendid power. In the 1,100-seat auditorium, with its uncovered pit, Bayreuth’s ethereal pianissimos weren’t an option, and fuller passages at times covered the soloists. But the robust sound, shaped by sharply delineated volume and tempo shifts, added another dramatic element. Clean, gleaming solo work from the trumpet section merited special praise. The chorus did excellent work, both vocally and dramatically.

Parsifal runs through March 28, including a March 25 Good Friday performance. For tickets, go here.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!

Parsifal (Michael Weinius) stands by as Apprentices comfort Amfortas (Peter Mattei).
Parsifal (Michael Weinius) stands by as Apprentices comfort Amfortas (Peter Mattei) in a scene resembling a ‘Pietà.’