Watch a preview with general director Anthony Freud, music director Sir Andrew Davis, and creative consultant Renée Fleming (above).
Read an interview with internationally renowned director John Caird here.
Read a preview article by Lyric dramaturg Roger Pines (below).
Parsifal draws us into its own universe, creating its own mesmerizing spell.
Richard Wagner’s final opera achieves something possible with only the greatest works of art: as baritone Thomas Hampson says, “it invigorates our inner life as human beings.” The opera returns to Lyric this season in a magnificent new production by debuting director John Caird, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.
For general director Anthony Freud, Parsifal is “one of the most alluring, magically compelling scores ever created. In many ways it’s Wagner’s most beautiful and mysterious score, compelling in its breadth, atmosphere, and emotional impact. It can be enjoyed purely as a narrative – a mystical, mythical story of the knights of the Holy Grail – but underlying it is a range of complex theology that also offers endless opportunities for thought and discussion.”
With a story taken from the medieval poem Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, the opera transports us to Monsalvat, the castle where, surrounded by a brotherhood of devoted knights, Amfortas (Hampson) guards the Holy Grail. In the castle’s forest a youth, Parsifal (tenor Paul Groves), is apprehended for killing a swan. Gurnemanz (bass Kwangchul Youn/debut), a venerable knight, senses that this may be the “pure fool” prophesied as the savior of the physically and emotionally wounded Amfortas. When the brotherhood’s sacred rituals leave Parsifal uncomprehending, Gurnemanz sends him away. Parsifal finds himself in the magic garden of Klingsor (baritone Tómas Tómasson), a sorcerer previously rejected for membership in the brotherhood. Klingsor sends the mysterious, tortured Kundry (mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas/debut) to seduce Parsifal. When she kisses him, he instantly understands Amfortas’s suffering. Rejecting Kundry, he leaves to wander the world. Years later he returns to the Grail knights, mature and wise. He baptizes Kundry, heals the wounded Amfortas, and becomes the new guardian of the Grail.
Those are the basic events, but what is the opera really about? “For me,” says Sir Andrew Davis, “it’s about community, forgiveness, redemption – the ability that people have to find grace.” The quality of compassion is essential: according to the prophecy, “made wise through compassion, the pure fool” will heal Amfortas.
“Compassion and redemption – one is very dependent on the other,” notes Caird. “Parsifal’s redemption is entirely tied up with whether or not he learns compassion.” The piece may be awash with Christian symbolism (elements of Buddhism enter into it as well), but “Wagner’s essential message remains a huge mirror to the human condition,” says Hampson, “and the challenge to each individual to resolve that mirror in their life.”
A deep complexity pervades the major characters – particularly Amfortas, who embodies the opera’s essential conflict between the sacred and profane. Before the opera begins, he’d yielded to sensuality in the seductive form of Kundry. The spear with which Christ was wounded on the Cross had been Amfortas’s to guard, but he lost it to Klingsor, who then wounded him with it. The core of Amfortas’s despair, says Hampson, is that “he has betrayed himself, his own soul, his own heart, his own existence. He must find a way to make himself whole again. In some ways it’s a wound that can be closed only by this other person [Parsifal] who understands and forgives him as he forgives himself – that is the essence of compassion.”
For Amfortas, as well as for Kundry, Gurnemanz, and the title role, Wagner created devastatingly moving arias. The grandeur of the choruses and extended orchestral interludes remains unsurpassed anywhere in the entire operatic repertoire. “It took so long for Wagner to get Parsifal written,” says Hampson. “Perhaps he knew that he had to wait to find his musical language. It seems to me that Wagner is reinventing himself in Parsifal. The piece doesn’t seem to knock open the edges of atonality the way Tristan does, but I don’t think you can listen to Act Two of Parsifal and not completely accept that Elektra was around the corner.”
The Bayreuth theater was ideal for the musical side of Parsifal, but Wagner also wanted his detailed stage directions (spelled out in the libretto) brought to life in performance. “You don’t ignore Wagner’s stage directions,” explains production designer Johan Engels. “You absorb them. I think opera is a living piece of art. There’s always a danger that if you slavishly follow the directions, you end up with a piece that should be in a museum somewhere as the one and only production of Parsifal! As with Shakespeare, each new production of the piece can take on new meaning for each generation.”
Caird’s thinking began with his desire “to come up with visual imagery that is comparable in some way with the sheer scale, beauty, and majesty of the music.” Collaborating with his designer, he had to examine how to present the opposites existing in this piece: “a natural and an unnatural world, a world of monasticism and a world of sensuality, a world that is strictly regimented that turns into a world that is destroyed and dysfunctional.” The formidable visual challenges of each act include “the very long transformation scenes in which something has to be continuously happening in order to keep the stage picture alive.”
Lyric’s new production begins in the forest where we first meet Gurnemanz, Kundry, Amfortas, and finally the youthful Parsifal. The stage eventually transforms itself for the opera’s second scene in the hall of the Grail. Within the hall is a symbol created by Engels as a strong focus of the space: a large, open, gold-colored hand. This, for Caird, is “a metaphorical symbol of brotherhood” and “an emblem that unites the brotherhood in its quest for simple humanity.”
Act Two brings more challenges, beginning with the opening scene: Engels has given Klingsor “a lava-like world of pulsing red,” in which Klingsor summons Kundry to his service. “He’s set himself up as a god,” says Caird, “so his world has to be intensely sensual but completely unnatural.” Then, in Klingsor’s magic garden, Parsifal is tempted by the Flowermaidens. Engels’s inspiration here is Loie Fuller (born in what is now Hinsdale, Illinois), who captivated turn-of-the-last-century Paris by using long pieces of silk in her dancing.
By Act Three Amfortas’s agony has increased almost beyond endurance, and the brotherhood has totally deteriorated. The hall of the Grail, says Engels, is now “ripped apart, columns have fallen, and we’re taking out pieces of the floor, so the knights will literally be climbing through holes trying to form some kind of order in that space.” Relief comes with Parsifal healing Amfortas and becoming the brotherhood’s savior.
The opera ends with a benedictionlike chorus sung by women’s voices, traditionally from offstage. It has always bothered Caird that “Wagner has created a world that ignores the very existence of women as independent beings.” The women’s voices represent to the director “a clear indication of a return to the idea of the feminine in the last five minutes of the opera.” Caird enables them to appear, sharing in the redemption. The director adds, “Personally I can’t see how that story can possibly end with only the blokes as celebrants.”
There’s one more innovation, recalling Caird’s legendary staging of Nicholas Nickleby, where certain non-human production elements (a coach being the most memorable example) are brought to life by human performers. Examples in Parsifal are the swan in Act One, then in Act Two the spear thrown by Klingsor and caught by Parsifal. In such cases “we never hide the tricks that we do,” says Engels, “but at the same time you generate the imagination of the audience, letting them create the world and giving them the ability to take flight.”