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Thursday, June 25, 2015

DVD Review: Miracles Out of Nowhere

The Royal Opera of Covent Garden mounts Parsifal.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The wounded and the penitent: Gerald Finely as Amfortas and Angela Denoke as
Kundry in a scene from Act II of Parsifal at Covent Garden.
Photo by Clive Barda © 2013 Royal Opera House of Covent Garden

Parsifal is the final completed stage work of Richard Wagner. For better or for worse, it is also the work that  lends itself most easily to radical interpretation. This latest DVD issue of the opera (released earlier this year on OpusArte) comes from the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden, and shows director Stephen Langridge's vision of the opera. He puts a secular spin on this story, re-imagining the Grail legend as a story of innocence lost and miracles achieved, although not always in a way that one would expect.

In Mr. Langridge's conception, this Parsifal is centered squarely on Amfortas and his wound. In fact the king (played by Gerald Finley) spends most of his time onstage in the first act, inhabiting a square plastic-walled "clean room" (a visual element in all three acts) that emphasizes the medical nature of his crisis. Mr. Finley's Amfortas is confined to this sick-room, being let out to perform the strange Grail ritual, in this case depicted as the daily bleeding of a child held captive by the Grail brotherhood for this express purpose.

Mr. Finley conveys the suffering and anguish of Amfortas effectively, moving with reluctance and putting agony into each note he sings. He commands a brotherhood of bankers in business suits, bourgeois figures clearly bored with the task of nursing heir injured leader and doing so only because of the blood magic that he alone can perform. He is also responsible for Titurel (the great Robert Lloyd) his cranky old father who still reigns despite being old and enfeebled. However there is noting feeble about Mr. Lloyd's firm and resonant singing in this small part. Willard White, another veteran bass is a strong and nasty Klingsor.

Leading these knights is René Pape, who now has years of experience singing the key role of Gurnemanz. This is a comfortable, sophisticated performance by a bass at the peak of his powers, from the calm and fatherly presence in the first act to the aged, greying (and slightly doddering) knight in the third faced with the decline of his order and his authority. Mr. Pape's narrations are accompanied by shadow-plays inside the onstage cube, depicting the wounding of Amfortas and the self-mutilation by Klingsor (Willard White.) These provide added visual stimulus without being cheesy.

The star of this show is Angela Denoke's Kundry. She takes over the opera every time she is onstage. Whether playing Kundry as the bald-pated androgynous messenger of the Knights in Act I, or as the flame-haired temptress in Act II she is always compelling and watchable. She forms a devilish pair with Willard White as Klingsor, (portrayed here as a leather-clad, spear-carrying pimp) and then sings Kundry's (attempted) seduction of Parsifal with a burning sexuality and energy that recalls a younger Waltraud Meier. She isa  mostly mute penitent in the last act, communicating everything through gesture, and movingly reunited with Amfortas (her lover?) in the final scene.

Parsifal is a good fit for Mr. O'Neill. The burly, bluff tenor plays the fool convincingly. His physical acting (especially as the blind Parsifal) reflects not only the singer's own skill but the director's attention to detail and gesture in the strange rituals of the third act. His hard, bright tenor softens for key moments and sustains the right tone when needed, such as the rising arc of the scene with the Flower Maidens and the Good Friday Spell. Here, his performance is physically impressive as well. In the climactic confrontation of Act II, Parsifal is not just "cursed." He is blinded by an enraged Kundry another blood sacrifice and another interesting new idea in this most malleable of operas.

Nothing can prepare one for the Good Friday Scene, where Antonio Pappano's lucid orchestral textures accompany a miracle that is not in the libretto: the restoration of Parsifal's sight thanks to the ministrations of Kundry  The music builds here with the details that ornament Mr. Pape's vocal line with radiance and clarity of tone. The second Transfiguration that follows has shattering power, with the dull muffled thud of the broken bells a clear contrast to the more ecclesiastical sounds of the first act. The final scene is devastating but not bleak. Parsifal, Kundry and Amfortas all walk away from the sick room, each of them well and truly healed.
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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.