(Concert version, Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, 14 August 2017)
We landed in Sydney secure in the knowledge that Jonas Kaufmann was already here and in fine form. Out initial impressions of Sydney town c. 2017 were as favourable as always, except for the subsequent days when “strategic, environmental burn-offs” doused all in plumes of thick blue smoke, smoke much less tasty than that found second-hand in a cigar bar.
In any case: Parsifal. This, Wagner’s “work of farewell to the world” has managed to become P’s favourite Wagner Opera, despite Tristan, despite Meistersinger, yes, even despite the Ring. Its music is so subtle, so insinuating and yet moving, its take on personal redemption and human mysticism so weirdly powerful, that you find tears wrenched out of you in the unlikeliest moments, Wagner’s revision of Christian myth managing to be even ickier than the original iterations. The plot is crazy of course, magnificently crazy, and we wondered what could be done with a mere concertized version, having watched the great Met production over and over.
A large and appreciative audience (we spotted Wagnerians, arts luminaries, directors, politicians, Judges) were treated to a very fine rendering that managed to convey the visceral pull of the work. The Opera Australia Orchestra, relieved and pleased, perhaps, at their liberation from the constricted hell-hole of the opera theatre pit, relished the space and challenge and rose magnificently to the task set them by the superb Pinchas Steinberg, who kept the tempi and sound levels just right (and jolted to life an initially flat and flabby flute section). He also wrangled a wonderful choir of adults (plus,initially, children) to great advantage, particularly in the very chromatic, and hauntingly beautiful, first Act.
The strictures of the concert hall were ameliorated by thoughtful staging and lighting. We liked the dramatic placement of Titurel and Klingsor behind the chorus under intense lighting at key moments, and the stately way the singers made their way on and off stage, enhancing the hallowed aspect of the production.
Which brings us, last but not least, to the singers. Jonas Kaufmann has made the role of Parsifal his own, but although it sent a thrill through all when he sallied forth in the first Act, those unfamiliar with the opera might have been surprised at how little he had to do. Yet his dramatic and nuanced playing established Parsifal’s nature (the fool who learns compassion and thus will become the redeemer) and managed to convey the development of his character as the story progressed (Act 1 is rather a musical lurch, although sublime for all that; things really got going in Act 2) and his singing matched that effort; though at times he seemed to be reining himself in, this was apt to the material and there were plenty of moments of sacred anguish for his voice to soar and fill the auditorium. His was a great performance.
Matching it, in our view, were Michelle DeYoung as Kundry, magnificently teaming with Kaufmann to essay her character’s unrequited, lacerated soul, which helped convey the otherworldliness of their interaction. Korean bass Kwangchul Youn was awesome as the noble, bereft old Knight, Gurnemanz (he got the biggest acclaim at finale) and Warwick Fyfe added to his impressive stock of Wagnerian villains with a ferociously malevolent, formidable, life-hating and ignoble Klingsor. Sterling in support: Michael Honeyman moderated his delivery to brilliantly convey the diminished, wretched state of the perpetually wounded Amfortas; David Parkin was remote, regal and majestic as the old king, Titurel; Stacey Alleaume, Jane Ede, Anna Dowsley, Eva Kong, Julie Lea Goodwin and Dominica Matthews made fetching, sonorous flower maidens and esquires and all other supporting knights and esquires were solid and fine.
We can dream of a full Parsifal but we’ll take this any day meanwhile – a first rate performance, full of light, shadow, fire and feeling.[Quibble: who do you have to sleep with to get a drink at interval in the Opera House? Strewth!]