Wagner’s final opera has quite a reputation. Conceived for the unique acoustics of his purpose built theatre in Bayreuth and first staged in 1882, the year before its composer’s death, it acquired its mythic status amongst Wagnerians as an event – a pilgrimage even – early on, aided by a ban on staged performances outside of the Festspielhaus that lasted until the Met broke ranks in 1903. Concert performances of Parsifal, on the other hand have a longer pedigree outside of Germany – London saw one as early as 1884 – and although they may lack an important element of ritual, they work well in conveying the essence of this most static of operas.
All well and good then, and Jonas Kaufmann aside, there was a definite atmosphere in Wagner-starved Sydney for the first of Opera Australia’s three semi-staged performances, and a keen anticipation that Pinchas Steinberg’s sensitive and detailed reading of the score largely satisfied, aided by a world-class cast and some very fine playing and singing by the Opera Australia Orchestra and Chorus.
Conductor Pinchas Steinberg, Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal and the Opera Australia Orchestra in Parsifal. Photo © Keith Saunders
Unlike the Ring, where a conductor can step on the gas, Parsifal interpretations tend to fall into two categories: slow and very slow (both of which are entirely satisfactory, mind). Steinberg, an experienced Wagnerian (try his Dutchman on Naxos, or his Toulouse Rienzi with Torsten Kerl) is in the slow camp, with one or two racy moments – the Transformation and Grail chorus was the only section that felt overly hurried. Pacing it all with great care and attention to detail, and always with an eye on Wagner’s long-breathed arcs of sound, Steinberg never imposed his own interpretation above and beyond the composer’s, yet he dug in deep, drawing out orchestral detail like the snarling muted horns that represent Klingsor’s diabolical snares and the radiant pastoralism that accompanies Gurnemanz’s reflection on the doomed swan in flght.
As I said, the orchestra was on excellent form. There was a real glow and shimmer casting a halo over the string sound from the start, with a rich warmth to the wind and brass. Among the many individual felicities, solos for cello (the moment when Parsifal is asked his name) and bass clarinet (often associated with Amfortas) stood out, but it seems churlish to single anyone out in what was a really distinguished performance. The OA Chorus gave a sumptuous account as well, the men especially potent in the crucial Grail scene and the baleful funeral procession where they gave it extra heft by singing both lines rather than dividing into two as they would have had to in a staging. The ethereal children’s voices, adding to the women’s chorus in Acts I and III, transplanted us to another time and place, while the Flower Maiden’s chorus was winningly shaped, if awkwardly balanced with the six fine soloists front of stage separated from their fellows by the depth of the orchestra.
What of the soloists, then? Jonas Kaufmann, an experienced Parsifal, was the obvious drawcard here, and he delivered a Rolls Royce vocal performance, his focused, bright, yet burnished sound ideal for the role. In Act I, he captured the childlike quality of the ‘pure fool’ with an effortless charm, colouring the tiniest phrases to engage with the young lad’s developing depth of feeling. By Act II he was firing on all cylinders, his stream of golden sound matched by his intense commitment to the text. Act III saw some beautifully floated pianissimo sounds, the phrase “doch sah’ ich nie so mild und zart die Halme, Blüten und Blumen, noch duftet’ all’ so kindisch hold und sprach so lieblich traut zu mir (never did I see such mild and gentle grasses, flowers and blooms, nor did they smell so sweet and fresh, nor speak to me so intimately and lovingly) was among the loveliest Wagner singing you are ever likely to hear.
Conductor Pinchas Steinberg, Michelle DeYoung as Kundry, Dean Bassett and Alexander Hargreaves as Knights, Simon Kim as Esquire, Michael Honeyman as Amfortas and the Opera Australia Orchestra in Parsifal. Photo © Keith Saunders
The American mezzo Michelle DeYoung is an equally experienced Wagnerian, her Kundry marvellously caught and preserved on the Pentatone label. In the flesh she lived up to that promise, embracing the long, legato lines even when all she has are a series of fragmented words. It’s a rich, creamy voice with the odd darkened vowel sound, but resonant and thrillingly silvery at the top. Her famous “Ich sah Ihn – Ihn – und – lachte…” (I saw Him, and laughed) was spine-tinglingly good. With not much to get her teeth into in Act I, she still managed to catch the eternal foolishness of this poor soul revealed in her petty squabbles with Parsifal. She played the ‘wounded animal’ as well as you can in an evening gown, though the surtitle mistranslation of “Fort, fort! Ins Bad!” as “I’m off to bathe” raised a smile!
Surmounting the central trio crucial for a good Parsifal was the magnificent Gurnemanz of Korean bass Kwangchul Youn. Modest of stature, he nevertheless has enormous reserves of vocal strength and a commanding, resonant voice, powerful even down to the lowest register. Clad in simple grey with a turtleneck, he appeared every inch the wise counsellor, while his voice conveyed perfectly his character’s age, authority and essential gravitas. Possessing warmth and humanity in spades, his effortless and impeccable diction was the icing on the cake. A superlative storyteller, you really sensed him reliving his youth as he recounted the exploits of Titurel, not a word lost, even when shading his voice down to a keenly projected whisper.
Making his role debut as Amfortas, Michael Honeyman showed that his fine King Roger was no flash in the pan. Looking gaunt and pale, he caught the tortured King to a tee, his voice firm and steady, rising effortlessly to the tricky higher notes that bedevil the role. If at times you sensed he was still coming to terms with some of the mechanics required to ride the big angsty solos in Act I, this was a most auspicious reading boding well for a future Wagnerian career. That other fine Australian baritone Warwick Fyfe turned in a malevolent, baleful and superbly sung Klingsor, the perfect doubleton to his award-winning Alberich. Whopping out the decibels, and with some penetratingly inflected text work, his performance was only marred by a tendency to tip over visually into Hammer Horror territory.
Michael Honeyman as Amfortas, Kwangchul Youn as Gurnemanz, Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal, Conductor Pinchas Steinberg, Michelle DeYoung as Kundry and the Opera Australia Orchestra and Chorus in Parsifal. Photo © Keith Saunders
Among the minor roles there was a firmly sung Titurel delivered from the back of the stage by the increasingly impressive David Parkin, while Anna Dowsley really stood out as an Esquire, Flower Maiden and that Heavenly voice at the end of Act I, her firm, luscious tone rising to Wagnerian proportions. It will be fascinating to see where this young singer’s career takes her next. Graeme Macfarlane was copybook as the mean-spirited Third Esquire, while Dean Bassett and Alexander Hargreaves showed fine Wagnerian chops as the two Knights (though the latter needs to figure out what to do with his hands). Entering like vocal Valkyries, the six solo Flower Maidens scaled back to give a charming account of Komm, Komm, holder Knabe.
Following last month’s equally impressive Thaïs, substantial works in concert performance are clearly something Opera Australia should consider embracing as a staple going forward. With the Concert Hall bathed in red for the final uncovering of the Grail, Steinberg, Kaufmann, Youn and DeYoung – in fact, the entire company – fully deserved the rapturous applause after what really was a great night for Australian opera lovers.
Parsifal has two more performaces at Sydney Opera House on August 12 and 14