Parsifal

Eun Sun Kim
Houston Grand Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Date/Location
27 January 2024
Wortham Theater Center Houston
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Cast
AmfortasRyan McKinny
TiturelAndré Courville
GurnemanzKwangchul Youn
ParsifalRussell Thomas
KlingsorAndrea Silvestrelli
KundryElena Pankratova
GralsritterLunga Eric Hallam
Cory McGee
Gallery
Reviews
Texas Classical Revies

Fine cast brings the spiritual drama despite misguided staging in HGO’s “Parsifal”

Houston Grand Opera has never proclaimed an official Richard Wagner cycle. But since the present writer came to town in 2013, the company has staged Tristan and Isolde, The Ring of the Nibelung, The Flying Dutchman and now Parsifal. That’s a statement, whatever you label it.

HGO’s Parsifal, which opened Friday at Wortham Theater Center, may be the most compelling of the unofficial Wagner series to date—especially on the musical side.

Wagner’s final work, a drama of the knights of the holy grail and their new leader, doesn’t rival the sonic spectacle of his other works. It unleashes nothing as exciting as the “Ride of the Valkyries” or as cataclysmic as Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene.

Wagner’s blend of Christianity and medieval legend, has its own power: characters gripped by spiritual or physical agonies; a vision of salvation offered to them by the holy grail; music that evokes the grail’s glow of hope as readily as a temptress’ caresses and the sufferers’ cries for release from their pain.

HGO’s production captured all of those elements potently Friday night. Tenor Russell Thomas brought ample tone, ringing and youthful, to his role debut as Parsifal, the “pure fool” who learns compassion, discovers his spiritual power and saves the struggling knighthood.

The delicacy that enriched Thomas’ Radames in HGO’s Aida right before the pandemic was also evident here—mainly in Act 3, as the newly enlightened Parsifal marvels at nature’s beauty (in the Good Friday music).But the vigor and security of Russell’s singing did even more to bring Parsifal to life. He conveyed the impetuosity of the innocent young wanderer and in Act 2, Thomas’ blazing tones and sheer abandon put across the immensity of the forces roiling the hero-to-be. The tenor at times turned to heavier, grittier tones to capture Parsifal’s ruefulness on realizing how ignorant he had been until then.

Thomas’ clarion tone returned at the opera’s climax, as Parsifal triumphantly steps forth to become the knights’ leader. Unfortunately, on his very last note, Thomas’ voice went out of pitch, putting a tinge of discord into what should have been euphony.

However heroic his voice sounded, Thomas did not cut a heroic figure onstage. In the most dramatic moments, he usually seemed to be focused mainly on planting his feet and facing the music’s challenges in an old-fashioned, stand-and-deliver manner. But sometimes the sheer process of taking in a gulp of air and tackling a phrase galvanized his appearance to a degree.

On the other hand, soprano Elena Pankratova was as potent theatrically as she was vocally as the mysterious, tormented Kundry, temptress and sometime aid to the knights. In Act 1, where Kundry returns exhausted from distant travels, Pankratova sang with a mezzo-soprano’s earthiness and heft. But in Act 2, after a sorcerer’s spell forces Kundry to try to seduce Parsifal, Pankratova revealed what sounded almost like another voice, sweeter and silkier. In “Ich sah das Kind,” describing the child Parsifal with his mother, Pankratova’s singing was as caressing as the scene she was evoking; moving into temptress mode, she carried herself just as gracefully.As Parsifal rejected Kundry’s advances, Pankratova unleashed yet another side of her voice, full-throated and fierce.

Playing the opera’s other main figure of suffering, the physically and spiritually wounded knight Amfortas, bass-baritone Ryan McKinny let fly with much the same sonorous tone he wielded as John the Baptist in Strauss’ Salome for HGO last spring.

On his first entrance, as Amfortas thanked Kundry for bringing balm for his wounds, McKinny offered a bit of gentleness. But at the end of Act 1, as Amfortas prepares to lead the grail ritual, McKinny’s voice welled up voluminously alongside his character’s agonies. McKinny’s cries of “Erbarmen”—have mercy—boomed out into the theater.

Bass Andrea Silvestrelli evoked the evil of Klingsor, the sorcerer, in his voice’s ferocious bite and impact.

Except for occupying the same vocal range, Silvestrelli could hardly have sounded more different from bass Kwangchul Youn—who portrayed Gurnemanz, a knight who serves as the opera’s voice of faith and stability. Youn filled Gurnemanz’s music with poise, stateliness and grandeur.

But he offered more than round, resonant voice. In Gurnemanz’s long Act 1 monologue describing how the knights came to obtain the grail and spear, Youn’s voice hushed when he mentioned the grail—capturing his wonderment in sound. In Act 3, Young filled the Good Friday Spell with nobility, but he gave it gracious, softer touches as well.

Bass-baritone André Courville lent gravity to the brief interjections by Amfortas’ doomed father, Titurel. The beefed-up HGO Chorus included a hearty-sounding band of men as the knights, and the flower maidens conjured up by Klingsor in Act 2 sang with playfulness and grace.

The foundation for all of this came from conductor Eun Sun Kim and the HGO Orchestra, who relished the grace, glow and grandeur of Wagner’s score. From the first phrase of the prelude, Kim let Wagner’s music flow and sing—bringing out its fervor, even at its most lyrical. The orchestra played with refinement in the mellifluous moments and drive in the agitated ones. Even when Kim kept the group quiet in deference to the singers, it still brought the music color and atmosphere.

The two big choral scenes were especially telling. In Act 1’s grail scene, the chorus sang with warmth and ardor as the music swelled and subsided. In Act 3, the orchestra gave a somber gravity to the march that opens the last scene, and the chorus’ men chimed in to build it to an anguished, pungent climax.

As many of today’s stage directors do, John Caird played down the story’s inherent ecclesiastical side. His knights were a group whose ritual hand gestures—a sequence culminating in the right hand held up palm-forward—had nothing to do with Christianity, even though they passed around bread and wine in the Grail Scene as per tradition.

Johan Engels’ costumes for the knights, focusing on floor-length coats, gave them a vaguely military air; his set for the Grail Scene was dominated by a giant golden hand, with Titurel seated at the base of it.

This didn’t add any evident layers of meaning, but it didn’t particularly detract, either. What did detract came in Act 2.

Klingsor’s flower-maiden temptresses waved billowing fabrics attached to wands affixed to their hands. That made a colorful spectacle as they swirled around Parsifal, but it also meant they couldn’t cozy up to him: They just waved the fabric as he roamed among them. Nothing seductive about that.

Caird added his own twist to Act 3, where the flower maidens—who usually disappear in the middle of Act 2—trooped back onstage during the Good Friday Spell, executing a new set of choreographed arm and hand gestures. That distracted from Parsifal’s and Kundry’s anointment, a turning point in their status. Then the maidens reappeared in the last scene, evidently to be redeemed alongside everyone else.

In the program, Caird says he added them to show that the knights have brought in women to make their group a healthier society. But that might serve better as fodder for a sequel to Parsifal, rather than giving a spurious contemporary political message that has zero to do with Wagner’s opera.

Steven Brown | Jan 20, 2024

The Dallas Moring News

A splendidly cast Parsifal

Never staged in Dallas, Parsifal, Wagner’s last opera, had a top flight cast in Houston. The production, originally staged by John Caird for Lyric Opera of Chicago, did the job, if without clarifying all the opera’s actions. I saw the Jan. 21 matinee.

Parsifal is a stew of Christianity (sin, suffering, sacrifice and eucharistic blessing), with bits of Buddhism, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer mixed in. Ultimately, it’s about redemption, brought about by a “pure fool made wise by suffering.”

Literally a lost soul at the beginning, Parsifal stumbles into a community of knights guarding the Holy Grail, the cup used at the Last Supper and subsequently to catch Jesus’ blood at the Crucifixion. Amfortas, the ruler of the community, has lost strength and willpower because of a painful wound that will not heal.

The wound was dealt sometime earlier by the evil sorcerer Klingsor, when Amfortas was led astray by the half-servant, half-seductress Kundry. Resisting Kundry’s blandishments, the newly sympathetic Parsifal snatches from Klingsor the spear that wounded both Amfortas and the crucified Jesus. The spear heals Amfortas’ wound, but he passes leadership of the Grail community to Parsifal, who at the end blesses all with the newly unveiled holy vessel.

For the outer acts, designs by the late Johan Engels employ columns alternately suggesting trees and a damaged castle interior. In Act Two, KIingsor is surrounded by red-lighted tubes and gnarly clusters.

The knights are dressed in quasi-military long gray coats; in Act Three they’re wounded warriors. Floating half-winged figures represent swans at the beginning, and a blessing dove at the end. The Flower Maidens are gowned in flowing pastels that spread like wings in Tim Claydon’s choreography.

The veteran knight Gurnemanz is the moral heart of the Grail community, and he has a lot to sing in the long opera (four and a half hours, with two intermissions, in Houston). The role could hardly be better inhabited than by Kwangchul Youn, his gloriously creamy bass allied to an unassumingly noble demeanor.

Russell Thomas embodies Parsifal’s evolution from roughhewn youth to grounded leader, with a well-focused tenor admirably balancing heroism and lyricism. Ryan McKinny’s agreeably granular bass perfectly suits Amfortas, but Caird’s staging has him flinging about far too much for a suffering man otherwise borne about on a stretcher.

Elena Pankratova captures Kundry’s strange ambivalence with soprano blazes as well as mezzo depths. Andrea Silvestrelli is the sonorous, sinister Klingsor. The old ruler Titurel hasn’t much to sing, but André Courville delivers his orders from a giant, upraised gold hand upstage. Upraised hands, suggesting either affirmation or distance, are recurrent gestures for the chorus.

Even lesser Knight and Esquire roles are superbly sung, and both male and female choral contingents, prepared by Richard Bado, sing with admirable polish — and, where needed, astonishing power.

Eun Sun Kim, HGO’s principal guest conductor, led the Jan. 21 performance with clarity and economy, and she kept the music moving. The orchestra took a few hushed minutes of the prelude to come completely into focus, but thereafter managed the score’s extraordinary demands with suppleness and security.

Scott Cantrell | Jan 25, 2024

Houston Press

Parsifal Weaves its Own Lengthy Musical Magic at Houston Grand Opera

I don’t think I’m too far off the mark to say that Parsifal (1882), Richard Wagner’s final opera, is on no one’s list of most favorite Wagner works. While it contains some of his most sublime music, nearly transcendent you could argue, the opera is a quasi-religious tract stuffed with Christian symbolism, Buddhist reincarnation, veganism, paganism, sorcery, respect for the natural world, and a never-ending diatribe on guilt.

Every character in some way suffers enormous pangs of guilt, great big tsunami waves of the stuff. They can’t stop singing about it. With two intermissions, it takes about five hours for them to find redemption.

Parsifal thinks he has killed his mother when he wandered off into the forest as a young man. Amfortas, the king of the grail knights, has been seduced by Kundry, a big no-no for the chaste men of Monsalvat, and he has been pierced by the spear that wounded Christ on the cross, causing him a never-healing wound. In a previous incarnation, Kundry laughed at Christ in his final agonies, and has been eternally cursed. She has had many avatars over her eternal lifetime: Herodias, Hell’s Rose, the Nameless One. She is a witch who can fly through space and time.

Evil sorcerer Klingsor, who now possesses the holy spear, was once a knight-to-be, but even after castrating himself to gain their favor, he was rejected and now rules the neighboring kingdom and gets his revenge by seducing the grail knights through his magic flower maidens. Gurnemanz, the opera’s long-winded narrator of all previous travails suffered under this forest assemblage of noble knights who protect the grail and, once, the spear, longs for the anointed one, the holy fool, who will reclaim the spear and set their brotherhood right with the world.

Titurel, the former ancient king and father of Amfortas, will die if the grail isn’t uncovered in their ceremony, which Amfortas refuses to do because of the unbearable pain the goblet’s radiance causes him. It pierces through his sin. The guilt circles over these characters like a great stain.

This is all heady stuff, some blasphemous, some radiantly pure of heart, some lilting as a lullaby. Wagner called Parsifal a “sacred festival play,” and finagled his gracious benefactor King Ludwig II of Bavaria to secure the rights only for his own opera house in Bayreuth, keeping it in the family so to speak.

The ploy worked until the Metropolitan Opera in New York, through pirated copies of the score, presented it in 1903. At that time there was no international copyright law, so Wagner was forced to relinquish Parsifal to the world. It’s always a rare instance when the opera is given, usually around Easter naturally, and Houston Grand Opera last performed this Aryan behemoth 33 years ago during their 1991-92 season.

Regardless of Wagner’s bloviating libretto, the opera possesses an ethereal magical spell all its own due to its music. Wagner called it “cloud-like,” and it is. Some of it is so diaphanous, it floats away on subtle key changes and impressionistic orchestration; some of it is magisterial and august with blaring horns, pounding tympani, and distant church bells. It is certainly visceral, and there’s no other sound in opera quite like it. It’s the forerunner of Debussy and Ravel’s limpid textures. For its time, it was the most modern music around.

There’s great emotion to it, heartfelt and personal, as it delineates not only what the characters see around them, but what’s going on inside them. The modulations and unresolved chord progressions perfectly capture the unsettling mood that hovers over all of them. Parsifal is the culmination of Wagner’s own long-winded treatises on music for opera, his “gesamtkunstwerk,” or total art work where every element – design, music, words, expression – has its rightful place.

Listen to Act III’s “Good Friday Spell,” an orchestral excerpt long favored by conductors. You can see through the soft melodies as the woodland blooms and glows under the magic of Good Friday – well, not so much in this production – but it’s all there in the music. A tone painting of incomparable spring, fresh and dew-bespotted. This is Wagner at his most tender, most refined and subtle.

If you want your Parsifal to look like something out of Star Wars, this John Caird production will be catnip. With its steel-banded trees lit from within, industrial flooring, a Kabuki-inspired Klingsor, knights in Obi-Wan Kenobi great coats, Ninja minions who ape Klingsor’s movements, flower maidens who’ve stepped out of a turn-of-last-century Loie Fuller routine, an aged Tinurel who looks like an Incan mummy from Cuzco, and gymnastic swans who swan about in the background with only one wing, then this is your show.

For those of us who just want great opera done with intelligence, not so much. I suppose the designers were going for a timeless look, a symbolic way to stage Wagner without resorting to heavy natural sets. (When you see photographs of the original Bayreuth production, you wonder how they ever put that on. It’s so literal – a temple modeled after Siena’s domed cathedral; a magic garden inspired by an Almalfi folly; a forest straight out of the Bavarian woods. Although state-of-the- art for its time, it’s all a little too much Victoriana, puffed and padded.) It would have been great to look at, though, as compared to this tie-dyed, disco extravaganza.

When Klingsor’s kingdom collapses as Parsifal makes the sign of the cross with the spear, the music tumbles in a grand heap but the red neon tubes of the magician’s parapets remain frozen in place, as does Klingsor. Sure, the floor covering is swept away, but that’s a poor excuse for the great coup de theatre Wagner demanded. He knew how to end an act.

You may want to close your eyes during most of this, but that of course induces sleep, which would be anathema for this HGO production with its magnificent singing. They must be heard, so no dozing. This wont be the first time that an opera is flawed in execution, but the sound is exemplary. It wont be the last, either, trust me.

Formerly heard in Houston, tenor Russell Thomas co-starred in HGO’s 2021 Aida. As we said at the time, “…Thomas (Aida’s closet lover, Radames) has the clarion sheen of immortal Richard Tucker and the silky smoothness of young Placido Domingo. His “Celeste Aida,” one of the most renowned and difficult tenor arias in the rep, was a masterclass of phrasing and musicality.” He has lost none of that. Parsifal, while not an exceptionally deep character, is, like any Wagnerian role, fraught with difficulty. While not a typical heldentenor part, it possesses passionate outbursts and smooth legato. Like Domingo and Jonas Kaufmann, both exemplary Wagnerians, Thomas uses Italianate phrasing to marshal through the thorny passages Wagner throws at him. He sounds silky, with flawless diction and effortless power.

Power and velvet is what dramatic soprano Elena Pankratova possesses in spades. Her Kundry, perhaps visually not the most alluring temptress, especially in that puce and magenta concoction the costumer has saddled her with, nevertheless seduces us with her rich and creamy voice. She navigates easily through the sonic highs and lows of Kundry’s hellish predicament, and brings needed warmth and compassion to her later penitent. (She’s also allowed a happy ending in this opera, instead of collapsing in death as intended. She canoodles with former lover Amfortas, now healed by the touch of the spear that wounded him, as Parsifal blesses the congregants. She’s been through hell, why not give her a happy ending? Finally, a good choice by Caird, I’d say.)

Amfortas is sung by bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, who’s always a pleasure to watch. A consummate actor, his sonorous voice is but a noble extension. Like all the others in this opera, his suffering goes on and on, but with his unmatched stage presence he is always watchable, as his deep voice is immensely listenable. He turns anguish into pleasure.

Making his HGO debut, bass Kwangchul Youn, as Gurnemanz, can return any time he likes. He has the unenviable task of leading us through the lengthy history lessons that Wagner writes. They are page turners, but Youn easily sails through them with keen foresight and dramatic acumen.

And then there’s bass Andrea Silvestrelli, as evil Klingsor, who knows his way around an opera stage like it was his own magic garden. His commanding Hagan in HGO’s Götterdämmerung (2017), Fafner in Das Rheingold (2014) and Siegfried (2016), his poignant Philippe II in Don Carlos (2012) or his exceedingly funny Osmin in Abduction from the Seraglio (2008) – he can do it all. Klingsor is just another feather in his crown.

Guiding these disparate forces as if second nature is maestro Eun Sun Kim, last heard here when she lavishly conducted Puccini’s Turandot in Robert Wilson’s frozen HGO staging (2022). She certainly knows her Wagner. Not one nuance went unsung in her dramatic reading. Layered and dense, the magic, the nature, the majesty were all there.

Parsifal is not to everyone’s liking. It’s long, can be tiresome, and Wagner was always in need of a good editor. But it is some sort of masterpiece, bloated as it is and filled with questionable material. But it is Wagner, and rare to see staged.

While we do not like how this one looked, the sound was unbeatable. Believe it or not, five hours went by smoothly, if not totally transformative. By the way, there’s a special drink they’re peddling at the bar, the Kundry Spritz. I didn’t have one, but it sounds like a great idea. Five hours will seem like four.

D. L. GROOVER | JANUARY 20, 2024

Rating
(5/10)
User Rating
(3/5)
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 538 MByte (MP3)
Remarks
In-house recording
A production by John Caird (2024)