You only turn 200 once, and opera companies, recording companies, and writers on the lookout for a subject have all been too happy to pounce on the anniversaries of the births Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, the yin and yang of Romantic Opera, separated in birth by a mere five months in 1813. The lasting power of these towering figures is evidenced is by the fact that opera companies will spare no expense in putting on their masterworks. The Lyric Opera of Chicago, a world-class outfit and one of the scrappiest in opera, is staging two of Verdi's Classics and one of Wagner's, the choice this season being Parsifal, Wagner's firewall-like final opus, a blend of Medieval legend and half-witted attempt at sanctimony from the egomaniac who created the Bayreuth festival to honor Himself (the composer, who certainly thought himself a deity.)
Lyric, in an effort that must have been as difficult as the effort Wagner put into getting King Ludwig of Bavaria to build the shrine at Bayreuth for him, has studded its stage with some of the finest Wagnerians available today, such as fan favorite (and someone who has bestrode the consecrated Bayreuth stage itself) Kwangchul Youn, who, as Gurnemanz, the “hermit,” wrote Mark Twain, “who stands on the stage and practices by the hour while first one then another character of the cast endures what he can of it and then retires to die.” It's a rare treat to see an artist of Youn's stature keep the audience awake during monologues like Gurnemanz's and Wotan's in Act II of Die Walkure, endurance tests that are above all a test of the audience's stamina either to stay awake or rush the stage in an effort to speed the whole thing up.
Trying to figure what is going on in a production like this is fruitless, and it's not fun; what's worthwhile is the surreal task of trying to take everything in, a task that defies explanation. Wagner's operas, far more than those of any other composer lend themselves to postmodern interpretations (“postmodern” being a euphemism for inscrutable), because the perceived intellectual content of his operas is thought to be greater than those of any other composer. The fact is that Wagner's libretti are largely inscrutable, so directors and designers believe that in attempting to decode the content of these works, they've stumbled into insights that illuminate the chaos. But, by matching absurd images to depict the absurd story, this production's director, John Caird, the chief designer Johan Engels, and the rest of the production team have probably done their jobs better than they could have imagined, though I doubt they would be flattered by this suggestion.
The ivy-covered round pillars designed to simulate tree trunks gave way to futuristic round tubes through which a character or piece of mail in a science-fiction movie would travel. Visually, much of the production is inspired by movies; a giant golden hand which seats Titurel's (Rúni Brattengberg's) proxy is straight out of DeMille. When Parsifal (Paul Groves) first appears, he's Indiana Jones as a woodsman; a swashbuckler just returned from the high seas in Act 2, while working his way through a trippy tie-dyed garden of flower madiens; in Act 3, he transforms from a samurai-like figure to a military commando to newly-crowned Fisher King, telling bedtime stories to adoring children around the Grail. Amfortas (Thomas Hampson!), Parsifal's predecessor but, because he's a naughty boy, unworthy of the job, is dressed in a sweaty fur coat, with long hair and a gaunt, gray pallor, which suggests a Halloween costume of a decomposing glam rocker.
Klingsor's (Tómas Tómasson) lair in Act 2 is probably the campiest of the lot; the heavily made-up sorcerer makes a smoke-filled entrance out of a rising platform, giving the whole affair a pro wrestling feel. In this grappler's corner are four Arabian Nights ninja-like characters who seemed to have wandered in from an over-choreographed Broadway show, and his tag team partner, Kundry (Daveda Karanas), who suggests that Klingsor is chaste, causing him to fall to the floor like a wounded lion (his long blond mane helps to fill out the image) as the now-repentant Kundry holds him and tenderly apologizes, a prostitute comforting her manipulative pimp who's pretending to be easily hurt, an idea much closer to Wagner's original conception than the composer would have cared to admit.
The director and the production designer are determined to make themselves the center of attention, which is the worst thing possible in an opera, a visual medium and a storyteller's medium for sure, but a musician's medium above all else and in few places more so than Parsifal, when the sound coming out of the orchestra pit, particularly a sound as gorgeous as produced by the Lyric's orchestra (resplendent strings, modulated horns, slightly fast tempi, but never excessively fast), conducted by that baton-less, tireless maestro, Sir Andrew Davis, is practically muffled by the distractions that go on above the line that divides the pit and the stage. One day we may see a production of a Wagner opera that follows Twain's advice and leaves out the singing; in a moment of revelation, I simply lowered my head while the singers and extras moved around in the extraneous “action” that accompanied the Prelude, one of my least favorite practices in contemporary stagings of opera.
It's not entirely clear what Wagner is trying to do with the story in Parsifal but, after this viewing of the opera, I think that Wagner may have wanted to re-write Christian theology to incorporate all of his pet causes into the mix, such as his passionate anti-vivisection stance, the bizarre emphasis on “purity,” which evidently means chastity until The Right Girl comes around (Parsifal rejects the harlot Kundry, but somebody had to help him sire Lohengrin; also, this stance is incongruous with what we know about Wagner's dalliances-maybe he was trying to repent here, though he wasn't the repenting type) and his bizarre obsessions with water and blood, though not his virulent antisemitism; there are absolutely no references in the opera overtly intended to stir hatred of Jews, unless one counts the Christian theme itself as inherently anti-Semitic. Wagner was far from a devout man and if writing Parsifal was an act of piety, it was false piety.
Lyric Opera of Chicago
20 N Wacker DrChicago, IL 60606(312) 332-2244