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Paul Groves as Parsifal. Act 1. [Photo by Dan Rest]
23 Jan 2014

Parsifal, Chicago

The dimly lit stage becomes gradually suffused with spare light during the prelude to Richard Wagner’s Parsifal in its new production at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Parsifal, Chicago

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Paul Groves as Parsifal. Act 1. [Photo by Dan Rest]


At the same time a group of youths is awakened and encouraged by Gurnemanz in their prayers of devotion. This daily routine of the Grail community is staged with somber dignity before the King Amfortas is carried onstage in the midst of renewed and heightened suffering. The sudden arrival of Kundry, credited with access to magical powers, gives temporary hope as she beings a balsam with the potential of healing. When the King is brought to his bath Gurnemanz narrates the background of all that has transpired in this community of religious and worldly aspirations. Before the title character makes his first appearance the figures and events listed have created an atmosphere at once stagnant and yet somehow prepared for resolution. In the role of Gurnemanz Kwangchul Youn makes his Chicago Lyric debut. Kundry is also a house debut role for Daveda Karanas. Amfortas is sung by Thomas Hampson. Knights and esquires of the Grail are portrayed by John Irvin, Richard Ollarsaba, Angela Mannino, J’nai Bridges, Matthew DiBattista, and Adam Bonanni. Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

The intrusion of Parsifal, sung by Paul Groves in his role debut, was staged with appropriate surprise and confusion generated among members of the Grail community and by the title character himself. Just as the isolated Grail inhabitants recognize Parsifal’s violent deed in killing a wild swan, the protagonist understands his own actions as a natural response to his surroundings (“Gewiß! Im Fluge treffe ich, was fliegt!” [“Of course! I shoot down in flight whatever has wings!”]). The musical and dramatic depiction of these introductory scenes catches the spirit of Wagner’s score and text while yielding an individual approach to the current Lyric Opera production. In his admonishments to the Grail knights and attendants Mr. Youn uses his rich bass voice with remarkable facility. Lines such as “Sorgt für das Bad!” (“Prepare the bath!”) and “Der König stöhnt!” (“The king is groaning!”) are intoned with a sense of authority combined with underlying compassion. Forte pitches were sung as natural extensions of the vocal line and Youn’s intonation showed a deep understanding of the communicated text. At times the pronunciation of unstressed final syllables was overly exact, a tendency which detracted only slightly from an otherwise exemplary Gurnemanz. The fluttering character of Kundry is captured aptly in Ms. Karanas’s approach. She used her secure and extensive vocal range in such lines as, “nur Ruhe will ich … Schlafen! - oh, daß mich keiner wecke! Nein! Nicht schlafen! - Grausen faßt mich!” (“I simply wish to rest … to sleep! Oh, let no one awaken me! But no, not sleep! - Fear takes hold of me!”) in order to emphasize the ambiguity inherent in Kundry’s persona. In the role of Amfortas, as a means to communicating without doubt the King’s suffering Mr. Hampson emoted in an interpretation that should have depended more on a sung line if it were to remain lyrically and dramatically credible. The Parsifal of Mr. Groves is sung with a warm tone suggesting innocence and identification with his mother, important for her descent from the family of the Grail. Decorations performed by Groves on the line “Im Walde und auf wilder Aue waren wir heim” [“We made our home in the forest and on the open meadow”] indicate his identification with kinship and defense of his upbringing until the present. The trio of Gurnemanz, Kundry, and Parsifal interacts with progressing revelations concerning the youth and the atmosphere into which he was destined to find himself. Youn’s character becomes gradually paternal as he recognizes Parsifal’s heritage and attempts to guide him toward the Grail’s true essence. [“nun laß zum frommen Mahle mich dich geleiten” (“now let me lead you toward the sacred repast”)]. After a procession of knights has passed, the King is once again brought in to experience the presence of the Grail at the sacred hour [“hoch steht die Sonne” (“the sun stands now at its height in the sky”)]. In response to Amfortas and his emotional cries of “Wehe!” in this production, Parsifal moves slightly closer to the suffering victim, yet only as a demonstration of curiosity. The collected knights of the Grail, here very well prepared in their diction and controlled projection, recite the invitation “Nehmet vom Brod … Nehmet vom Wein” [“Partake of the bread … Partake of the wine”] before the prostrate Amfortas is removed on his pallet. In the final image before the act’s end Youn as Gurnemanz reacts with appropriate derision over Parsifal’s inaction [“Du bist doch eben nur ein Tor” (“You are nothing but a simple fool”)], as he commands the youth to leave.

The realm of Klingsor in Act Two illuminates the ambivalent character of Kundry and makes further apparent, as if from a distance, the failings in the present generations of the Grail. This act also prepares the audience to experience the resolution of such deficiencies through Parsifal as protagonist during the final act. As such, the trio of performers in Act Two is vital to the continued development of Wagner’s aesthetic. Ms. Karanas and Mr. Groves, joined by the Klingsor of baritone Tómas Tómasson, made of this act a model of vocal and dramatic excitement. Klingsor is dressed in this production in a variegated red costume with the same hue painted onto his face. He is further positioned in a stylized neon structure, also in red, which emits smoke from the tower at his commands. As Tómasson proclaimed “Die Zeit ist da!” and “Herauf zu mir!” [“The time has come!” and “I summon you up to assist me!”] the stage was set for Parsifal’s arrival and Kundry’s obedient responses. Tómasson’s interpretation of the sorcerer is impressive for his vibrant, dramatic vocalism as well as his physical involvement in Klingsor’s demands. His performance of Klingsor’s laugh is equally chilling as he witnesses Parsifal’s approach and describes the hero’s searching glances into the magical garden [“Wie stolz er nun steht auf der Zinne!” (“How proudly he is standing there on the parapet!”)] After Klingsor’s interaction with Kundry, he conjures the flower-maidens to tempt Parsifal. This scene was effectively staged with costumes and movements even overdone in some respects. Kundry’s subsequent attempts to seduce Parsifal and her further revelations concerning his heritage and mother Herzeleide were delivered by Karanas with superb control, especially in the upper register. Groves’ Parsifal truly came into his own in this act, as he unleashed dramatic pitches on “Die Klage” (“The lament”) and a moving legato approach to “Erlösungswonne” (“joy of redemption”).

In a fitting preparation for the resolution of Act Three the production stages clearly the demise of Klingsor and his realm via his own spear. Parsifal catches the weapon to put an end to this magical and destructive kingdom. With this spear and resolve to atone for his own failings Groves as Parsifal proceeds to seek out the Grail as Act three develops. His ultimate healing of Amfortas’s interminable cries of “Wehe!” with the application of the spear, now transformed in its effect, elevates both the kingdom of the Grail and Parsifal’s own position in this production’s unforgettable transformation.

Salvatore Calomino

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