Andrew Davis
Chicago Lyric Opera Chorus and Orchestra
2 February 2002
Lyric Opera Chicago
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasMark Delavan
TiturelBjarni Thor Kristinsson
GurnemanzMatti Salminen
ParsifalGösta Windbergh
KlingsorEgils Silins
KundryCatherine Malfitano
GralsritterScott Ramsay
Philip Torre
Chicago Tribune

It’s not your father’s, or Wagner’s, ‘Parsifal’

Like a spaceship launched from an alternative Wagnerian galaxy, Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s 1999 production of Wagner’s “Parsifal” finally touched down at Lyric Opera on Saturday night.

Audience opinion was divided between those who found it a stimulating reinterpretation of Wagner’s great swan song and those who were put off by its pervasive ugliness and wholesale negation of the work’s philosophical essence. There was a smattering of boos after the curtain came down at the end of the five-hour performance.

I went in with high hopes, having admired the director’s Lyric stagings of “Elektra” and, to a lesser extent, “Flying Dutchman.” But all I could feel as I left the theater was sadness that a rare opportunity had been wasted. Why lavish so strong a cast, conductor, orchestra and chorus on an opera Wagner never wrote? Now it could be argued that a “Parsifal” that doesn’t kick up controversy is no “Parsifal” at all. Producers have long wrestled with how best to deal with its convoluted Christian mysticism and Schopenhauerian symbolism. Some, like Lehnhoff, simply ignore these elements and impose their own postmodern concepts on the work. But the elements are there — in Wagner’s libretto and detailed stage directions and, most of all, in the slow, luminous, diaphanous music that is among the most subtly beautiful he ever wrote.

You knew confusion would lie ahead when one essay in the Lyric program book discussed “Parsifal” as “a drama of redemption for a world gone awry” while a director’s note insisted that Wagner’s music “speaks of hopeless human destinies” and “modern man’s rootlessness.” Time and again, Lehnhoff and his fellow provocateurs — Raimund Bauer (set designs), Andrea Schmidt-Futterer (costumes) and Duane Schuler (lighting) — contradicted what the music was telling us, or turned the text inside out, or both.

Lehnhoff rewrote the opera’s ending, having Parsifal (Gosta Winbergh) and Kundry (Catherine Malfitano) exit via railroad tracks that vanished into an existential mine shaft. The Grail knights followed the couple, thereby dissolving their order. Amfortas (Mark Delevan) found healing in death, but not before cradling the disinterred remains of his father Titurel (Bjarni Thor Kristinsson) in a necrophiliac embrace. Those magical A-Flat Major harmonies at the end gave off a redemptive glow nowhere to be found in the stage action.

Furthering the idea of isolated, alienated mankind wandering in time and space without hope of spiritual redemption, Bauer created an all-purpose unit set that placed the Grail temple — here, a bombed-out bunker — in a rocky lunar landscape.

There was no meadow, spring, color, flowers or the Grail itself (though Francis Rizzo’s surtitles spoke of them throughout). Worse, the designs created hardly any contrast between the knights’ realm and that of the disgraced former knight Klingsor’s (Egils Silins) magic kingdom. The gray-on-gray costumes — Kundry’s Act 1 garb made her look like a fugitive from a road company of “Cats” — turned nearly everyone into grotesques. The Flowermaidens, wearing furry, knobby ears and dresses with long flared sleeves, were as unseductive a lot as I have ever seen in this opera.

An opera where not much happens for hours on end needs first-rate singing, and this “Parsifal” fortunately had that. The vocal pillar was Matti Salminen, his noble, magnificently cavernous bass ideal for Gurnemanz, the opera’s primary storyteller. He made the elder knight a believably compassionate presence in the drama.

Malfitano’s move into selected mezzo-soprano roles is wise at this point in her career. She brought her strange and complex character to life with her usual compelling dramatic intensity. And she sang well, keeping her vibrant voice under firm control most of the time.

Winbergh was reportedly suffering from an indisposition, but it wasn’t evident from his stalwart vocalism. Without effacing memories of Jon Vickers’ inimitable Parsifal here in 1986, the Swedish dramatic tenor grew in vocal strength throughout the long evening, and his transformation into the wise, unhappy warrior of Act 3 was memorably achieved.

Delavan introduced a nicely tortured Amfortas, whose splendid performance seemed a throwback to the days of Wagner baritones with powerful but still lyrical voices. Silins’ menacing magician — his rich bass flowing fully and easily — and Kristinsson’s solid Titurel both scored imposing debuts.

Davis was conducting his first “Parsifal” on what turned out to be his 58th birthday. No doubt in time he will penetrate the score’s mysteries even more deeply and allow Wagner’s long paragraphs to unfold with even more serene grandeur and inevitability. For now, his warmth, lyricism and sensitivity to internal orchestral balance, and the committed performance he drew from the orchestra and chorus (bravo to director Donald Palumbo), spoke eloquently for themselves.

John von Rhein | February 04, 2002

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Premiere, HO
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 546 MByte (MP3)
A production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff (1999)
Gösta Winberg died 9 days after the last performance of this production.