Rockstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann returns to Sydney Opera House to star in a concert performance of Wagner's Parsifal
Wagner without Valkyries? Is it worth spending six hours and paying $86-$395 for a ticket if you won’t see a horned helmet, or indeed any costumes, let alone a backdrop or prop of any kind? Didn’t Wagner himself want a total artwork with all the theatrical trimmings? Is it even possible for one of his notoriously long operas to succeed unstaged?
The answer: yes, absolutely, to all the above. And yes, yes, oh God yes, it’s worth maxing out your card if it gets you into a performance as good as the one Opera Australia has put together at the Sydney Opera House, starring superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann.
Wagner based his final 1882 masterpiece on a medieval epic poem about the knight Percival’s quest for the Holy Grail; it focuses on the power of two relics from an unnamed Redeemer, rather than the nordic gods of his gargantuan four-night Ring cycle. While critics have questioned various dramatic elements of Parsifal, many famous composers – including Mahler and Debussy – have praised the music as some of the most impressive ever written.
With Kaufmann on the bill, the title role of Parsifal was already guaranteed to be outstanding, even though the “guileless fool” who knows almost nothing (and talks commensurately little) is always a difficult hero to portray. But Kaufmann sings Wagner the way Federer plays tennis; the only disappointment we felt after hearing his unstrained perfection was wishing that he had a longer part.
But several of the other soloists also performed at world champion level in challenging roles. Mark Twain wrote when visiting the Festival in Bayreuth in 1891 of “a hermit named Gurnemanz who stands on the stage in one spot and practices by the hour, while first one and then another character of the cast endures what he can of it and then retires to die.” Fortunately Gurnemanz was sung here (and earlier this year at the prestigious Staatsoper in Vienna) by the magnificent Korean bass Kwangchul Youn, who carried out much of the long and heavy lifting of the six hour evening with unswerving grace and precision in both deep passages and many higher delicate phrases.
Another character suffering exquisitely is the “demonic woman” Kundry, whom Wagner directs to screech, wail and scream, but everything the American mezzo Michelle DeYoung delivered, often in extraordinary volume and intensity, came out sounding wondrous and often painfully beautiful, right down the pitchless sobbing. This was just one outstanding example of how fine acting is still possible in a concert performance; the most sustained and visible was Warwick Fyfe’s elaborate facial expressions and gestures as the wicked magician Klingsor, recalling his similar success as Alberich in the Melbourne Ring. Of course the role offers greater scope than say Amfortas, King of the Holy Knights, whose central function is to suffer from an unhealing wound caused by the sacred spear that penetrated the side of the Redeemer. Here Michael Honeyman was strong and sustained in both singing and acting, including the conclusion where Amfortas is healed and absolved.
Wagner wanted a white dove to hover over Parsifal at the play’s conclusion. But post-war productions have often pared back the stagework; it’s a tough job for any prop maker to build a Holy Grail (basically a cup or goblet from the Last Supper) that lives up to its name. Few of the packed audience who stayed for multiple curtain calls around midnight would have been wishing for theatrical effects, costumes or even a curtain.
The biggest hero of Parsifal is Wagner’s monumental orchestration, and here the OA Orchestra and Chorus were magnificent. It was a rare pleasure to hear them liberated from the cramped Joan Sutherland Theatre: they filled the central stage of much larger concert hall next door, spilling out with offstage brass, extending right up to the suspended speakers tolling synthesized bells. Director Hugh Halliday placed a suitably grave and dignified David Parkin as Titurel far back from the main lineup, dramatically lit by John Rayment, enlarging the impression of vast distances and long histories. As Gurnemanz tells Parsifal, “here Time becomes Space.” (Einstein was a toddler when it premiered.)
The eminent Israeli conductor Pinchas Steinberg coordinated an enormous pool of talent with great dexterity, keeping players reserved and understated most of time, delivering tremendous effects when the big moments arrived. Contrary to the impression most people retain from Apocalypse Now, Wagner is rarely very loud: quarter hours can pass entirely softly. Bad performances lead quickly to boredom; great ones (like this) achieve a sustained rapture.
This production delivers on that promise: many people in the audience will taxi home wondering if this production was the greatest thing they are ever likely to hear.