The San Francisco Opera's production of Wagner's "Parsifal" is a
stupendous show that producer Nickolaus Lehnhoff describes as a "science
fiction fable for the 20th and 21st centuries." It's deeply spiritual and
intensely dramatic. "Parsifal," when done right, becomes it's own
living, breathing organism that transcends the physical plane. This one does.
It is what heaven sounds like.
The set in Act 1 is very close. There are stone walls that rise straight up. Piles of rocks on each side, along with some chairs gives a feeling of decay and decadence. The Grail Knights look like terracotta warriors from the tomb of Emperor Qin.
Gurnemanz narrates the story of Titurel getting the Grail and Klingsor being banished. Klingsor then grows his garden of flower maidens to enslave the Grail Knights. He tells of Amfortas' wound, how he set out to stop Klingsor, lost, and was wounded by the Holy Spear that pierced the side of Christ on the Cross.
Parsifal is a wild man when we first meet him. He reminds one of young Siegfried, or Siegmund; strong, fearless, and dumb as a post. He tries to walk away when Gurnemanz upbraids him for killing the swan. Slowly he comes to understand the wrong he's done, and repents. Kundry tells the story of Parsifal and that he's feared by the wicked.
Gurnemanz tells us that the Grail teaches that "They banish evil, who repay it with good." A shaft of light falls on the Grail, and we find out salvation is at hand. Symbolism abounds as rays of light revolve, the meteor at the back spins and the wall rises to form a mountainous cliff at the back. There are chairs attached to it, as if to help to scale it. Amfortas can't, Parsifal will.
The Grail Scene is the embodiment of God in music and theater. The Grail glows through an opening in back of the wall. Parsifal gains strength and nourishment from the glow as he stands tall amid the Knights of the Grail. The sacred music becomes a vehicle into ourselves, to the God within each of us, and through that, to the universal God around us.
Titurel has risen, head and shoulders up through a trap door in the floor. After the ceremony he disappears again. Parsifal looks for him, then Amfortas looks. He sets his crown down, Parsifal picks it up, and looks at it from all angles. He sets it at various positions around his head, and it's almost like Prince Hal in Henry IV's death chamber. Parsifal has become wise in the Grail, and also in the temptations of the flesh that snared Amfortas.
Act 2 opens with a scrim of gargoyles with Klingsor framed in a gold circle above the stage. He conjures a spell to summon Kundry. We learn of her curse. She was "Herodias, and who else...now she's Kundry." She laughed at Christ on the Cross and is doomed to live until one comes along who can resist her.
Parsifal enters The Flower Garden of Klingsor. The Flower Maidens, are in Chinese Dancers' costumes from The Tang Dynasty, complete with sleeves and head gear that makes them look like flower versions of mermaids. They enfold Parsifal seductively but he resists their temptations. Kundry appears in big golden robes. She almost entices Parsifal to fall. When he sees and feels Amfortas' wound, all becomes clear to him. Kundry begs for one hour, one kiss. She sheds her big gaudy clothes, the head dress, and simply appears as a shapely woman to tempt him. Catherine Malfitano is sultry with an edge. One one kiss she manages to give him makes him feel Amfortas' wound and her curse. He tells her "I am sent to deliver you as well if you abandon desire." Wagner began Parsifal as a play about Buddha, and it transformed into one of Christ. In Act 2, especially, he bridges the gap between the two, and it simply becomes a play of God.
In the final act the set is pure desolation. There's a railroad track that runs from off stage at the back and ends abruptly. It's the end of the line. Titurel has died because Amfortas will not uncover the Grail. Each of the Knights are foraging for themselves. Parsifal enters dressed as a samurai warrior. He "came on the path of folly and suffering." He has suffered many wounds because he dared not defend himself with the Holy Spear. It's Good Friday and never has he seen such beautiful flowers. Gurnemanz says it's because "the flowers sense that on this day no human foot will tread on them."
Parsifal is now The Redeemer. He remembers the Flower Maidens and wonders if they, who wilted before him yearn for deliverance. The Knights look like a defeated army, but Parsifal is anointed King, and performs The Office of the Grail. Everything is transcendence and triumph.
The cast was first rate from top to bottom. Kurt Moll was the anchor of the production as Gurnemanz. He's the one who kept everything in place. Christopher Ventris was a strong and determined Parsifal, while Franz Grundheber was the broken Amfortas. Tom Fox was a chilling Klingsor.
In the past I have always been critical of Donald Runnicles conducting Wagner. He always seems to push things along too fast and loses much of the beauty. In this "Parsifal" he finally gets it right. He lets the music breathe. Wagner lets his notes melt one into the other, and Runnicles is outstanding for the most part. Irene Dalis, once told me that the legendary conductor Hans Knappertsbusch would not tell you when to sing. He would tell you it is now okay when you are ready. Runnicles, while not allowing quite that kind of breadth, was close, and just let the music unfold. With the possible exception of Act 3 of "Tristan und Isolde," "Parsifal" is probably the hardest of the Wagner operas to conduct, because it is so deliberate. The natural tendency seems to be to push it, especially when the production is in the realm of five hours. Some of the real greats fail here. Runnicles in this is superb.
"Parsifal" is the crowning achievement of the greatest consummate artist ever. In it Wagner creates as profound a portrait of Christ as the greatest paintings of Rembrandt or Leonardo da Vinci. The added element of music removes it to a plane of existence that allows for the suspension of time and space, creating life in a manner that the physical limitations of painting prohibit. San Francisco Opera's production captures all of these finest aspects of Wagner's finest opera, my favorite bar none, "Parsifal."