Andrew Davis
Chicago Lyric Opera Chorus and Orchestra
9 November 2013
Lyric Opera Chicago
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
AmfortasThomas Hampson
TiturelRúni Brattaberg
GurnemanzKwangchul Youn
ParsifalPaul Groves
KlingsorTómas Tómasson
KundryDaveda Karanas
GralsritterJohn Irvin
Richard Ollarsaba
Opera News

Parsifal tends to engender passionate — and passionately disparate — reactions from its audiences. Even at its long-awaited world premiere, at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1882, some found the opera long-winded and less than inspired, while others considered its score to be the most beautiful music ever composed. Wagner’s Bühnen­weihfestspiel reentered the repertory of Lyric Opera of Chicago on November 9 in a visually dazzling new production by John Caird that will undoubtedly inspire some lively discussion of its own.

Lyric’s Parsifal was American tenor Paul Groves, in a notable role debut. As with his predecessor in this piece at the Civic Opera House — the much-missed Gösta Winbergh, who took on Parsifal when Lyric Opera last mounted the work, in 2002 — Groves has made the transition from Mozart and the lyric tenor repertory to heavier assignments. Groves does not wield an overpowering heldentenor, which may be a liability to some listeners, but he is an intelligent artist who skillfully dispatched the “pure fool” with his own natural voice and to fine effect. Groves had no trouble filling the huge auditorium with golden sound, and his approach allowed for some beautifully floated vocalism above the staff, particularly in a tastefully shaped “Der Irrnis und der Leiden Pfade.”

In her role debut as Kundry, Greek–American mezzo Daveda Karanas delivered a performance that was similarly lyrically satisfying. Her tone edged toward a squawk in the uppermost reaches of “Ich sah das Kind” (a common zwischenfach conundrum), but Karanas is quite musical and made a poignantly sympathetic figure of the tortured wild woman. Thomas Hampson deftly limned a rewarding Amfortas with impressive interpretive acumen. Baritone Tómas Tómasson was excellent as an aurally incisive, physically commanding Klingsor with an oddly erotic twist, while bass Rúni Brattaberg intoned Titurel sonorously. Best of all was Kwangchul Youn in a triumphant company debut as Gurnemanz. The Korean bass’s elegantly shaded rendering of the Act III narration emerged as the evening’s most vocally resplendent interlude. There was a mellifluous cadre of Flowermaidens, with kudos to Angela Mannino and Kiri Deonarine, who rode the high soprano line beautifully.

Caird’s production, in settings and costumes by Johan Engels, glowed resplendently under Duane Schuler’s lighting. The space was grounded by a raked disc, from which a series of luminescent, tubular trees grew during the prelude. Dancers befeathered in pure, iridescent white became a flock of swans suspended aloft via flight harnesses, and — in a nifty bit of stagecraft — also morphed into Kundry’s horse. Act II revealed Klingsor ensconced within a column of vapors and red neon, which subsequently exploded into a kaleidoscope of color as the Flowermaidens transformed the stage with undulating gowns of billowing gauze. 

There were a couple of kitschy glitches. Kundry’s gown for the seduction had a whiff of Project Runway about it, and all that swirling tie-dye fabric in the Flowermaiden scene inevitably conjured the Age of Aquarius. The show was generally lovely to behold, and the final tableau was ineffably moving, with Parsifal depicted surrounded by children, as one of those exquisite swans — subbing for Wagner’s designated dove — soared above him.

Andrew Davis and the Lyric Opera orchestra did a splendid job in the pit, with a rather brisk reading of the complete score that spanned just five hours. The choruses were drop-dead gorgeous. This was a very satisfying musical outing, and a spiritually resonant emotional experience as well. 

MARK THOMAS KETTERSON | February 2014 — Vol. 78, No. 8

Chicago Classical Review

Lyric Opera’s “Parsifal” offers vexing, variably sung Wagner

One of these decades Lyric Opera is going to get Parsifal right.

After the infamous, generally reviled Nikolaus Lehnhoff production of 2001–in the final scene of which a still-alive Kundry leads Parsifal out along a set of 12th-century railroad tracks—this year’s Wagner centennial gave the Chicago company another opportunity to do justice to the composer’s final and, for many, greatest work.

That didn’t happen.

The Lyric’s new production of Parsifal, which opened Saturday night, offers some striking visuals, fitfully impressive vocalism and quite glorious playing of this ineffably beautiful score from the Lyric Opera Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis.

Unfortunately, the positives were outweighed by moments of jaw-dropping theatrical kitsch, intrusive directorial revisionism and a singer who proved completely underpowered in the title role.

Wagner refused to call Parsifal an opera but rather a “stage-consecrating festival play.” Outwardly, the scenario concerns Parsifal and his attempt to regain the holy spear captured by the evil Klingsor who wounded the knights’ leader Amfortas through the seductive wiles of the eternal temptress Kundry. Though he is first mystified by the knights’ religious rites, Parsifal after many years and trials, returns the spear to the knights, heals Amfortas’s wound, releases Kundry from her curse, and takes his place as the knights’ leader.

Wagner’s five-hour canvas of noble, slow-moving music, stage ritual, and themes of sin, suffering, compassion, healing and transcendence can create a hypnotic effect that makes experiencing Parsifal almost a purifying ritual in itself, even for the religious skeptics among us. Johan Engels’ unit set is a throwback to the Minimalist style of post-war Bayreuth, a large raked circle on which the action plays out. The stage is bare apart from towering tree-like columns to represent the Montsalvat forest, which turn to sci-fi-like tubes for the Act 1 ritual. Klingsor’s lair is a single platform on a high, elevated platform with smoke and red laser tubes. The Flower Maidens are given flowing, pink and purple long-sleeved gowns, the scene offering an explosion of swirling, vibrant colors, to contrast with the muted greens and browns of the outer acts. Engels’ sets and costumes have a colorful quality and lean integrity that would have been effective on their own had it been left at that. The problem is that Engels and director John Caird have, in the modern tradition, dispensed with the opera’s inherent Christian iconography and instead thrown in a muddled mix of symbolism and unwonted visuals that seem to have been mined from Lord of the Rings and Thomas Kinkade paintings. The swan Parsifal kills in the opening scene is represented by a human figure with one wing who floats, Angels in America-like, in the background. While the elderly Titurel is sung offstage, as Wagner calls for, he is also represented on stage by a non-singing actor, a silver-gowned figure sitting in a massive golden hand like a royal M&M.

Kundry is escorted to Acts 1 and 3 by what appeared to be a hokey, faux-costumed horse and zebra that suggest Monty Python’s Pantomime Queen. Klingsor’s henchmen bind Kundry in huge red ropes, and do spastic Devo-like movements joined by leaping ballet dancers. Of course, it is not a dove as Wagner requests, but the androgynous human swan that makes an appearance in the opera’s elevated final moments. Even more off-putting than the corny visuals is Caird’s freely revisionist handling of the story.

The British director follows the prevailing politically correct ethos, inserting hoary new feminist cliches for the hoary old postmodern cliches. So, there are no flowers or sunny meadow in the Good Friday scene; instead he comes up with a bogus circle of Druid-like leafy-garbed female chorus members who encircle the principals swaying and waving their arms about and seeming to acclaim Kundry as their new priestess. Caird has the women join the knights in the final scene since, as the director states in a program note, it’s preferable to “the same dysfunctional all-male society.” Similarly, Kundry is elevated to almost co-equal status with the opera’s hero. It is she who heals Amfortas with the holy spear, not Parsifal. Once again Wagner’s moving denouement when Kundry dies peacefully, released from her earthly curse is simply jettisoned. Instead, she goes to comfort Amfortas in the shadows and apparently lives on once again, in complete defiance of the libretto.

Maybe someday Lyric Opera can do Wagner’s version of Parsifal. Now that would truly be daring and refreshing.

In what is becoming a refrain in the current Lyric Opera era, the production offered yet another grievous bit of miscasting, this time in the title role.

Paul Groves is an intelligent artist with a robust voice, but his move into Heldentenor repertoire seems extremely ill-advised, based on Saturday’s performance.

The American singer was a solid presence dramatically and brought a nice world-weary dignity to Act 3. Yet, in his first major Wagner role, Groves manifestly lacked the power for Parsifal. His lyric-dramatic tenor is at least one size too small for the role and even the isolated bursts of high tessitura were painfully beyond his capabilities. Groves either strained at top notes or passed on them altogether, as in Parsifal’s climactic cries of “Die Wunde!” in Act 2. It’s time to start asking why a major company like Lyric Opera is engaging artists in untried roles that they simply cannot sing.

The extended confrontation between Parsifal and Kundry in Act 2 had little intensity due to the lack of electricity in the singing of Groves and Daveda Karanas as Kundry. Some pitchy moments apart, Karanas fulfilled the role’s assignment worthily if without bringing much sex appeal to her seduction of Parsifal. Like Groves, the Greek-born mezzo-soprano lacks the volume and gleam the role demands.

Thomas Hampson’s baritone is light for the role of the stricken Amfortas as well, but his forceful singing at least brought some dramatic urgency, the occasional rawness fitting the plight of the anguished character. Hampson didn’t avoid the role’s usual pitfalls, overacting wildly in Act 1, though he brought a more restrained side to the final scene.

Gurnemanz is a signature role for Kwangchul Youn, and, in his company debut, the veteran South Korean bass delivered the finest singing of the evening. Possessing a sonorous instrument with burnished tone, Youn made a more fiery and volatile Gurnemanz than the usual benevolent old monk, and his dramatic vitality and sterling vocalism anchored the long exposition stretches of Act 1.

Tomas Tomasson sang with exemplary diction and refined tone as the villain Klingsor, effectively underplaying as much as possible while having to contend with some of the bizarre staging conceits.

Runi Brattaberg was a worthy Titurel, if lacking the black depths for the part. The Knights, Esquires and Flower Maidens were a notably well-blended and richly sung ensemble, composed of former and present Ryan Center young artists (John Irvin, Richard Ollarsaba, Angela Mannino, J’nai Bridges, Matthew DiBattista, Adam Bonanni, Emily Birsan, Tracy Cantin, Kiri Deonarine and Laura Wilde).

Under chorus master Michael Black, the Lyric Opera Chorus was first-class once again. The men sang with clarion strength and power as the knights and the women’s offstage choir rendered their parts with radiant purity in the Act 1 ritual scene, which proved the highlight of the evening. Sir Andrew Davis led a searching, masterful account of Wagner’s remarkable score. Apart from one errant trumpet player who should have been lashed by Klingsor, the Lyric Opera musicians delivered glowing, gorgeous playing throughout the five-hour evening.

Lawrence A. Johnson | Nov 10, 2013

Glammed-up Parsifal hits the Lyric stage in Chicago

What is perhaps even more remarkable than the unabashed grandeur of the new Parsifal at the Lyric Opera of Chicago is the degree to which its spectacle draws on the images and genres of 20th-century media technologies, not only of film and television but also popular music. This is – perhaps fittingly – especially true of Klingsor’s lair and the second act in general, in which the spiteful failed knight appears out of an orgy of neon tubing like a faded 70s space-rock frontman, complete with sparkly red boots. The impressive kitsch of this apparition is followed by the rather beautiful invocation, by the Flowermaidens, of Loie Fuller, the silent film-era dancer who spun hypnotically in veils tinted by hand to shimmer in a riot of colors.

But the production’s rich visual memory is not simply about reference. It is used to consistently and inventively fill the three axes of the stage space. The challenge in staging Wagner is to both create enough visual interest during often prodigiously long set pieces, and at the same time reserve enough visual novelty to structure the larger periods, the acts and the opera as a whole. Director John Caird and set designer Johan Engels find, time and again, gestures that are both expressively powerful and structurally clear.

Musically, this Parsifal is top notch. The stand-out for me is Thomas Hampson as Amfortas; here is an actor who can control the stage simply by standing there. His progression from the entrance of a feeble lord barely capable of speech to the enraptured cries at the end of the act is nothing short of a complete transformation. But it is so hard to pick favourites when the cast is this good: Paul Groves’ hilariously clueless Parsifal in the first act, and his depth in the third; Daveda Karanas’ wild but determined Kundry; and Kwangchul Youn’s terrific Gurnemanz, sung with a perfect voice for Wagner recitative, punchy and smooth.

The visual delights stuffed into this one opera (although it is a very long opera) might be enough to sustain a stingy opera house’s whole season. There are, variously, massive trees that transform into Willy Wonka-esque tubes, beautiful asymmetric swans, and a gorgeous effect with a semi-transparent mirror. But what is most impressive about this production in the end is its creation of a visual register that is bold enough to organize the experience of five hours of continuous music: the verticality of the second act against the horizontal plane of the first and third, the red of the middle act to contrast its bluer neighbors. It is possible, I think, to acknowledge that Parsifal contains some really wonderful stretches while granting that its pageantry and deliberation will occasionally cause the senses to numb. Caird and Engels have a modern touch and a dramatic flair; Parsifal can use it.

Dan Wang | 21 November 2013

Andrew Davis Leads Compelling Parsifal

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s exciting new production of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal—designed by Johan Engels and directed by John Caird—Engels fuses traditional elements of the medieval Grail legend with modern, representational concepts that suggest postmodern ideas. Rudimentary, abstract shapes represent trees and other set pieces. As a result the entire effort offers a convincing setting that accentuates the universal myths of redemption within a visually appealing space. Engels’ production looks handsome on the stage of the Civic Opera House; the larger scenes of the first and third acts fill up the stage, while some of the more intimate ensembles, particularly the duet between Parsifal and Kundry in the second one, are equally effective. The accoutrements of knighthood—that is, representational armor and weapons—are part of the staging, and help to mitigate the matter of gender for the roles which Wagner assigned male and female singers. Yet some anachronisms occur, as with the modern coat that Parsifal wears in contrast to the period-style tunics and chain mail for other knights. This sets him apart from the other characters and also accentuates the idea of Parsifal as a modern individual, supporting the mythic elements of Wagner’s drama.

At the core of the work is the music, convincingly conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Faithful to Wagner’s score, his interpretation supported the voices and in those telling instrumental passages, gave shape to Wagner’s scenic transitions. Rich, full strings blended nicely with burnished brass, and yet the woodwinds stood out for their varied sonorities.

As Parsifal, Paul Groves was convincing vocally and dramatically, with a vocal timbre appropriate for the character, and a fine sense of line. The Greek-American soprano Daveda Karanas gave an equally strong interpretation of Kundry, with a resilient, aurally compelling voice. Yet she also shaped the character dramatically, making it believable, despite the amalgam of personas Wagner packed into the role. In the second act, her performance was exceptional in its depiction of sometimes conflicted emotions, giving a sense of being a pawn of Klingsor, rather than a slave or thrall.

As Klingsor, Tomas Tomasson gave a riveting performance, giving the character dimensions that other singers fail to convey, with a rich, focused sound and thoughtful phrasing. It would have been good to hear more of him; when a performance is this strong, it feels unfortunate that the role is limited to the second act.

As to the other roles, Kwangchul Youn was note-perfect as Gurnemanz, with impressive diction and ringing tone. As Amfortas Thomas Hampson’s characterization seemed out of place within this production, and this particular performance was marred with some pitch problems. The chorus was well-rehearsed and attested to Michael Black’s efforts as chorus master. Overall, the result was a memorable Parsifal that added to the fine productions Lyric has already offered this season.

James L. Zychowicz | Civic Opera House, Chicago. 21.11.2013

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Premiere, PO
Technical Specifications
128 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 217 MByte (MP3)
A production by John Caird (2013)
Possible dates: 9, 13, 17, 22, 25, 29 November 2013