‘Parsifal’ at Chicago’s Lyric Opera

Chicago’s Lyric Opera debuted its new production of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal this past Saturday, directed by John Caird. It was delightful and moving. Much like my post on Lyric’s production of Die Meistersinger, I’m not here to necessarily write a “review” of the performance, but rather to discuss my experience.

Parsifal is Wagner’s final opera. Premiering in 1882, it’s the only one to have been written after the construction of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Wagner didn’t consider it an opera, but rather a “a consecration play for the stage” (or, in German, ein Bühnenweihfestspiel). Adding to the work’s quickly mythologized status, the Wagner estate kept Parsifal from being performed anywhere save Bayreuth for its first twenty years. Such quasi-religious treatment of the work is appropriate, considering its deeply religious and philosophical themes and overtones. Centering on the knights of the Holy Grail, Parsifal is a tale of temptation, compassion, and redemption. Despite the piece’s drama, Wagner’s characteristic dissonance and aggressiveness are downplayed in comparison to his other works. It’s still dramatic, chromatic, and moving, however the sonic experiences is one of beauty, reflection, and awe. It’s a wondrous sonic experience that nicely complements the work’s nearly liturgical ambitions.

This production is Caird’s first Wagner endeavor, and I thought it a successful one at that. (“Official reviews” have been mixed to positive.) He and set designer Johan Engels created a visually striking series of images and scenes. (This was my second Engels outing this year after his David Pountney-directed Die Zauberflöte at the Bregenzer Festspiele.) The set’s centerpiece – a large circular platform with removable panels and a mechanically adjustable eye – was utilitarian and provided a focal point. Aside from the Grail, holy spear, abdominal wounds, and a trio of swans, there was little overtly Christian iconography, opting instead to focus more on philosophy and cultural symbolism. (For example, women play a an important role in Act III, adding a sisterhood to the brotherhood of Grail knights.) I enjoyed the use of color throughout: from the sullen green forests and stark blue worship hall of Act I, to Klingsor’s hellish red domain and the Flowermaidens’ vibrant garden in Act II, to the pale forest in Act III. The Flowermaidens (Act II, Scene 2) were a highlight. Call me a sucker, as I’m sure many will scoff and say that this part is an easy “go to” visually, but I thought that the brilliant colors mixed with the choreography was stunning. That, coupled with the female chorus’s impeccable performance made for an arresting second act. Having the swans played by people was a nice touch also. The three swans – the Trinity? – flying in the forest during the prelude and the lone swan – in lieu of a dove – in the finale offered not only a visual treat during the prelude but also a nice way to bring the production full circle at the end.

Vocally, recent Bayreuth staple Kwangchul Youn as Gurnemanz and Thomas Hampson as Amfortas reigned, along with Tómás Tómasson‘s Klingsor. Daveda Karanas‘s Kundry and Paul Groves‘s Parsifal were both quite good, but there were moments in which they felt stretched in their extreme ranges. That’s being picky of course. However, I can’t say enough good about the Lyric Opera chorus. The choral moments were phenomenal – deep, musically rich, and well balanced.

Sir Andrew Davis led the orchestra in a mostly superb performance. I say “mostly” due to one glaring error at the very end, in which a trumpeter opted to hold a note between the final two chords. (Perhaps he/she thought they were proceeding to Rienzi attacca?) That and a couple small intonation blips aside, the orchestra sounded lovely and offered a warm, moving reading.

Moving. And that’s what it’s all about. It’s why I don’t want to really focus on more “negative” aspects or drawbacks, as is the case with many reviews and reviewers, because, ultimately, I was moved. And greatly so, at that. Parsifal‘s gesamtkunstwerk was in full effect Saturday night. Many will quibble about the production’s interpretive qualities, and of course performances of any kind are subject to criticism. But the DRAMA is what matters. And by that measure, this new production wholly succeeds. I wasn’t checking my watch throughout the 4.75-hour event. In fact, much of the time, I wasn’t even really “there,” but rather lost in the soundworld and imagery. I understand that that’s probably too naive for some, but I doubt Wagner intended for us to attend every performance in the context of the scores of other audio and video recordings – and possibly score study – serving as a reference point. I believe that the performance can largely be judged on this simple yes/no: was the listener affected (positively, of course)? If yes, then much of the battle is already won. And it was a glorious victory Saturday in Chicago.

NOTE: This production runs through November 29 in Chicago.

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