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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Opera Review: The Trumpet of the Swan

Parsifal at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Hunting license: Gurnemanz (Kwangchal Youn) confiscates Parsifal's (Paul Groves) bow  in Act I of
Parsifal, as Kundry (Daveda Karanas) looks off. Photo by Todd Rosenberg © 2013 Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Parsifal (by director John Caird, making his house debut) is at once modern and old-fashioned, re-imagining Wagner's medieval iconography (Spear, Grail, magic garden) in a way that makes sense to a modern audience and still respects the rich stage history of this opera at Bayreuth and elsewhere. Mr. Caird's production uses six principal dancers (the choreographer is Tim Claydon) to create a vision of flying swans, woodland creatures (Kundry arrives by anthropomorphic horseback) and more movement than one usually sees in this static opera. The results are emotionally satisfying and magical, and familiar enough to please even the most conservative Wagnerite.

On Wednesday night, Sir Andrew Davis conducted a chamber-like performance, indulging in the sensual pleasures of the score but never allowing the action to drag. This was a rich, involved performance from the Lyric Opera Orchestra, with firm brass and a carefully molded melodic line. When the full fury of the enemble was unleashed (the finale of Act II, the fneral march in III) the effect was devastaiong. At sublime moments (the two Grail scenes, the Good Friday Flower Maidens scene) the texture was delicate and mesmerizing.

Tenor Paul Groves made his first pilgrimage in the title role. Mr. Groves is getting his feet wet (literally, in Act III) in this repertory, singing with a pliant, firm tone in the first two acts. Unusually, he appeared onstage  in the opera's Prelude, hunting the flying swans with his bow and arrow and preparing the audience for his later arrival in Act I. His scene with Kundry (soprano Daveda Karanas) was a masterpiece, ardently sung and convincing in his new-found understanding of suffering. The third act was generally strong, though the big notes in "Enheilet der Graal" were an audible effort.

Ms. Karanas is new to the Lyric, a medium-sized soprano with the chameleon-like ability to add power to her voice when needed in critical moments. In an unusual innovation, her Act I slip into magic sleep became an actual onstage abduction, as she was roped in red plastic tubing and dragged away by Klingsor's ninja-like agents. Her costume "colorized" as she changed from tattooed harridan to a Gloria Swanson-like seductress--a parody of what the self-castrated magician Klingsor might think sex actually is.

She sang the central part of the long Act II narrative ("Ich sah das kind") with dulcet, even creamy tone, before evoking pure nail-biting terror in "Ich sah...ihn," the narrative of Christ's crucifixion. Her mute acting in Act III (where the character has just one line) helped maintain narrative flow when most Kundrys just stand passively through the action. This is a mark of good stage direction by Mr. Caird.

As Gurnemanz, Kwangchal Youn was clad in drab gray but brought rich colors to his voice, and hushed awe in the long narratives of the outer act. Mr. Youn saved his best singing for the Good Friday scene, offering comfort to an emotionally shattered Parsifal. Thomas Hampson's haggard Amfortas has not changed much over the last decade, except for a little more wear on the voice from all those nights of suffering. Klingsor (sung with a jagged edge by Icelandic baritone Tómas Tómasson) was a barbaric rock star out of the 1980s (think David Lee Roth) complete with full face-paint and a two-toned mullet. In a twist, Klingsor menaced Parsifal directly at the end of the second act. Armed with the sharp-tipped Spear he stared the hero down, only to be defeated and wounded in a direct correlation of the injury inflicted on Amfortas.


The twin domains: that of the Grail Knights and the evil magician Klingsor share the same set, a Wieland Wagner-type acting disc with a stark cyclorama painted in Abstract Expressionist style. Modern industrial plastics create synthetic trees and temple columns, and Titurel is enthroned on a giant golden hand. Klingsor's world is decked out in sleazy Miami-style neon. The Flower Maidens are a tie-dyed fantasy, though later seen without their glad rags. They return in the third act, sharing Kundry's baptism and redemption.

In Act III the Knights' enclave is a ruin, with collapsing stage items--including the big golden hand. In the final tableau, this becomes Parsifal's throne as he shares the Grail with the knights, maidens and a younger generation of squires, signaling a new balance in Montsalvat and potential for growth in this once cloistered community. And above the stage, flying in triumph, the resurrected, and presumably uninjured swan.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.