Tuesday, November 12, 2019

In a bicentennial celebration, Indiana University revisits its legacy of presenting Wagner's 'Parsifal'

Richard Wagner was a child when Indiana University was founded in 1820, not a prodigy on the order of his
The Flower Maidens work to get the attention of Parsifal (Chris Lysack)
near contemporary Mendelssohn, and in fact requiring many years to secure his reputation as a musician to reckon with.

The connection between his eventual eminence as a ground-breaking composer and the educational establishment's growth over two centuries runs through IU's history of mounting his last opera, "Parsifal," almost annually from 1949 to 1976. After 43 years of turning its attention to other operas, IU is observing its bicentennial with a new production of the work on the current season.

It opened last Sunday, where it will be repeated Wednesday (when I will see it) and conclude Saturday night at the Musical Arts Center on the Bloomington campus. It is being directed by Chris Alexander, whose extensive credits in Germany preceded multiple engagements by the Seattle Opera and other American companies. "Parsifal" is the fourth IU opera production he has directed.  Jacobs School of Music professor (and Atlanta Opera music director) Arthur Fagen will conduct. Katy Tucker, with a host of New York City video and scenic design credits in opera and other productions, is the set and projections designer.

Leading roles are taken by guest artists. Chief among them are Chris Lysack (Parsifal), Mark Delavan (Amfortas), Mark Schnaible (Klingsor),  Kristinn Sigmundsson (Gurnemanz), and Renee Tatum (Kundry).

The work was from its origin on restricted for public performance to one venue: the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, where it began life as the theater's dedicatory work, embargoed elsewhere in order to pay off the composer's debt to his patron, Ludwig II. It broke free of those confines gradually, finding great receptiveness elsewhere in the 20th century, starting with the Metropolitan Opera in 1903.

Its incorporation of old Christian legends and its emphasis on the necessity of redemption has led to its description as a religious opera, but many think the phrase "an opera about religion" more accurate. Its literary sources are transmuted by the librettist-composer into an ethical and spiritual exploration of the difficulty of expiating sin and helping to save an endangered community through selflessness and compassion. It has overtones of racial-purity themes that have contributed so much to Wagner's negative reputation. But many feel it transcends its focus on a restricted sphere in order to underscore a wider message.

That's not to say "Parsifal" doesn't delve deeply, however, into disturbing matters that both attract and repel. The late philosopher Brian Magee, referring to Wagner's art in general, talked about its persuasive power, which "Parsifal" exercises in abundance. ( "Nothing in the world has made so overwhelming an impression of me," Jan Sibelius said of it.) Magee points out that Wagner's works "give us a hotline to what has been most powerfully repressed in ourselves and bring us consciousness-changing messages from the unconscious." Unsettling though that insight may be, the majesty with which it is expressed in "Parsifal" makes the opera suitable to be part of IU's 200th birthday party.



[Photo by Sarah J. Slover]





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