In presenting this long overdue Melbourne premiere season of Parsifal, Victorian Opera gives Wagner’s final opera an intelligently conceived, splendidly performed production.
The summit of his life’s work and experience, Wagner infused Parsifal with religious symbolism, humanitarian concepts and intricate yet gently paced storytelling. The magnificent music shimmers gently with beauty, achieving a subtle, ongoing majesty with a minimum of extraneous climaxes and crescendos.
Victorian Opera’s excellent production of Parsifal is characterised by the unity of vision in the direction and design, coupled with the first rate musical rate direction that places leads, chorus and orchestra on an equal plane of quality. This is all the more impressive given the range of experience in the musicians and stage performers.
Stepping inside from the sunny Melbourne afternoon chaos to the calming cool darkness of the vast Palais Theatre auditorium is a pleasant, welcome experience. Wagner may very well have this exact St Kilda afternoon in mind when writing the opening Vorspiel. The audience is soon settled and focused, ready to absorb the musical splendour and mythical narrative to come.
Amfortas, King of the Grail Knights, has been wounded by his own Holy Spear, and his suffering can only be eased by “the pure fool, enlightened by compassion.” Parsifal is that pure fool, and although his journey to enlightenment takes years, he eventually fulfils his wondrous destiny.
The conducting of such an important and complex score calls for significant expertise. Maestro Richard Mills extends the scope of his work by giving the opportunity to accompany the opera to the young musicians of the Australian Youth Orchestra. Mills’ faith is very well placed; the players rise to the task of performing the extensive work with great confidence and flair.
Director Roger Hodgman has envisioned an abstract setting that both respects Wagner’s libretto and yet does not attempt to actually create the huge scenic elements described in the text. The work is allowed to speak for itself in a neutral setting with well-observed characters. Hodgman demonstrates a commanding use of space, placing children’s chorus, musicians and large chorus all about the stage.
Set designer Richard Roberts brings a sense of vastness to the single setting. The white box sett has a jagged rip torn right around the centre, physically demonstrating the rift in the Knights of the Grail.
With a few tweaks and plenty of creative help from lighting designer Matt Scott, the space changes in appearance across the acts and scenes of the opera. Scott brings act two’s glittering design elements to life, creating a myriad of gorgeously coloured sparkles.
Christina Smith saves most of her costume budget from the lovely shiny silver outfits of the Flower Maidens. Klingsor sports a sequined suit and shirt that could not sparkle more if there was a battery pack in the lining. Muted tones on the remaining characters suggest the austere lifestyle of the realm.
Careful preparation sees the lead singers give carefully calibrated performances that allow their voices to be heard at their best throughout the long performance.
German heldentenor Burkhard Fritz gives a welcome Melbourne performance as Parsifal. Whereas heldentenor tone is generally characterised by steely strength, Fritz sings with the ringing tenor tone of a heldentenor but at a slightly gentler power, creating a sound as lovely as it is exciting to hear. Fritz inhabits the role of the innocent fool to very convincing effect.
Swedish mezzo-soprano Katarina Dalayman builds up to Kundry’s featured scene in act two, when the wild woman transforms into a woman of beauty. Dalayman’s vocals have a heady voluptuousness with serious undertones, heard at their thrilling best as Kundry attempts to seduce so as to escape her curse.
British bass Peter Rose brings a warm stage presence to veteran knight Gurnemanz, singing the role with unflagging smoothness of tone. Australian baritone James Roser returns home to sing wounded king Amfortas, exhibiting a rich singing voice and well developed acting skills.
Australian bass-baritone Derek Welton makes the most of his featured scene as malevolent magician Klingsor, singing with compelling purity and precision. Playing Amfortas’ father, Titurel, Teddy Tahu Rhodes is seen as an almost disembodied head floating upstage, and yet the unmistakeable rich timbre of his voice rings out with unmistakeable clarity.
Featuring highly experienced singers along with students from University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Fine Arts, the potent chorus work is as richly harmonious as it is splendidly characterful. The chorus benefits from excellent preparation by Mills, Phoebe Briggs and Phillipa Safey.
The third Wagner work from the third major company in Melbourne in the past four months, Parsifal is distinguished by its status as a local premiere. Victorian Opera is presenting the four-hour opera with a long dinner break and regular interval, bringing the evening to a very enjoyable six hours.
Parsifal plays again at Palais Theatre, Melbourne in 22 and 24 February 2019.
Photos: Jeff Busby