It’s remarkable that this is the first staged production of Parsifal in Victoria – especially considering the generous offering of Wagner in the state over recent years, most recently Melbourne Opera’s Flying Dutchman a few weeks ago, and Opera Australia’s Meistersinger von Nürnberg in November. It’s a classic case of being worth the wait, as Victorian Opera’s production of Wagner’s final work is musically excellent, and perceptively designed and directed.
Teddy Tahu Rhodes and James Roser in Parsifal. Photo © Jeff Busby
First performed in Bayreuth in 1878, Parsifal is a mix of Arthurian legend, Christian mysticism and a Buddhism-meets-Schopenhauer philosophy of salvation through compassion and asceticism. The tale centres on a holy order of knights led by Amfortas, who is profoundly wounded in both body and soul. His only hope of recovery is legend: an innocent who will become wise through compassion. Is it Parsifal, the stranger dismissed by senior knight Gurnemanz as a fool? He must prove his worth by confronting the evil sorcerer Klingsor, and Kundry, a shape-shifter who is both the knights’ wild servant and a beautiful if reluctant temptress. Meanwhile, Amfortas’ father Titurel hovers between this world and the next, in a tale infused with the magical powers of Christ’s spear and cup, the Holy Grail.
The story’s complex spiritual, emotional and metaphysical concerns are expressed through some of Wagner’s most exquisite and inventive music. Under the baton of Victorian Opera’s Artistic Director, Richard Mills, the Australian Youth Orchestra rises to the challenge of this lengthy score’s intricate textures and varied moods. With the curtain down and in dim light, the long overture showcases the excellence of these musicians, all under 25. Throughout the performance the strings produced a heavenly sound that seemed to float in the air, while woodwind and brass were majestic and percussion was notable for its measured drama.
Derek Welton and Katarina Dalayman in Victorian Opera’s Parsifal. Photo © Jeff Busby
Vocally, this Parsifal is also well represented by youth, but led by experienced singers including German heldentenor Burkhard Fritz in the title role. While he doesn’t embody the beautiful young man of Wagner’s text, Fritz’s sensitive and dynamic vocal expression revealed much about his character. Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman conveyed Kundry’s barely contained turmoil both vocally and dramatically. There was a hint of a scream in the top notes, when her character is in desperate seduction mode, but otherwise her voice had a lovely sensuousness with dark undertones. She is obliged to spend an inordinate amount of time on stage in silence, but did so with grace.
Rounding out the trio of imported leads is British bass Peter Rose as Gurnemanz. He cut a sympathetic figure throughout, including with his assured voice’s warm tone. Two Australian singers making their mark overseas have returned for this production: Derek Welton, whose rich, pure bass-baritone and confident acting left one wanting more Klingsor; and in the role of Amfortas, James Roser revealed a pleasing baritone and capacity to exude his character’s physical and emotional pain for hours on end with conviction. Rounding out the principal cast is Teddy Tahu Rhodes, playing Titurel as a distant disembodied head, but with that much-loved baritone as full and sure as always.
Burkhard Fritz and Chorus in Victorian Opera’s Parsifal. Photo © Jeff Busby
The chorus was in fine, harmonious form, the men dominating as the oft-seen knights, but the women also impressed in their single scene as Klingsor’s seductive Flower Maidens. The Victorian Opera Youth Chorus Ensemble added another layer to the vocal picture: choir-like, with radiant high notes.
Roger Hodgman’s production is occasionally hampered by Wagner’s specific stage directions, which snag it on old-fashioned, pious notions – most notably Kundry’s penitent dumbshow throughout Act III, including washing Parsifal’s feet with her hair. For the most part, however, he has injected a modern sensibility evident in confident, naturalistic acting and design that eschews the traditional excess of the knights’ grand hall, Klingsor’s magical castle and a paradisiacal forest clearing.
Instead, Richard Roberts has created a set suggesting a vast box of pale wood, with a dark gash running up the two side walls, across the ceiling and (invisible, except perhaps from the dress circle) along the floor. This striking representation of a fractured society is a highly effective showcase for the intangible elements of music and light. The latter, designed by Matt Scott, ranges from stark to the saturated, alluring colours of Klingsor’s realm. Uncomplicated physical additions to the set also conjure a sense of place and mood, including black wooden chairs for the hall and the castle’s curtain of shimmering silver streamers.
Victorian Opera’s Parsifal. Photo © Jeff Busby
Christina Smith’s costumes enhance the set’s sense of timeless modernity: the simplicity of black shirts and trousers for the knights, contrasting with eye-popping sequins at Klingsor’s castle. His glittering suit and bright red beard and quiff suggest Batman’s Joker at the disco, while the Flower Maidens’ mass of glittering silver frocks and headdresses suggest flappers and screen goddesses of the 1920s and 30s. They are the visual highlight of this production, which wisely puts music first and doesn’t try to stretch the budget too thinly on the Palais Theatre’s large stage.
Parsifal is apparently the largest production to date for Victorian Opera, which has started the 2019 season with its usual ambition, musical excellence and refreshing, 21st-century attitude to opera.
Victorian Opera’s Parsifal is at the Palais Theatre, Melbourne until February 24