Thursday, November 14, 2019

Spectacle of 'Parsifal' links firmly to musical excellence at Indiana University

Environmental consciousness has been raised across the world in recent years, so it should come as no surprise that the relationship between human and natural health gives an extra layer of pertinence today to Richard Wagner's "Parsifal."
Parsifal (Chris Lysack) regards the recovered sacred spear under eyes of Kundry (Renee Tatum).

The space in which the action of the opera takes place is particularly germane to Indiana University Jacobs School of Music's production of the work, which received its second of three performances Wednesday evening at the Musical Arts Center. S. Katy Tucker's set and projection designs brilliantly enhance the significance of the action and the primacy of a timeless arena for salvation.

The quest to restore health to a community threatened by human weakness and the black magic of Klingsor retains its centrality, but the theme of restoration in the wider world also receives emphasis. In the last act, the approaching spring gradually diminishes the natural bleakness at the same time that Parsifal's heroism and spiritual awakening bring vitality back to a damaged brotherhood, with the Spear repossessed and applied to the long-unhealed wound of the ruler Amfortas (Mark Delavan). The gray, low-lying rocky landscape is relieved by the greening of the horizon and the projection of budding foliage on the scrim fronting the stage.

In the opening scene, the bleak isolation and remoteness of the Grail Knights' community is signaled by the domination of huge trees harboring deep shadows.  A fresh disturbance brings the hero Parsifal onto the scene, as he has shot down a sacred swan regarded as one of the community's mainstays, a deed that would seem arrogant were it not for Parsifal's deep-seated ignorance. Contrition and stern schooling will soon follow.

One of stage director Chris Alexander's triumphs is his management of the collective indignation that galvanizes
Gurnemanz and the  bed-ridden Amfortas  confront physical and spiritual pain.
the knights, led by the veteran Gurnemanz (Kristinn Sigmundsson). Indeed, all the scenes of collective energy, whether amusingly though forebodingly secular (the Flower Maidens' wiles in the second act) or exalted (the first-act Sacrament that Parsifal observes without understanding and the Good Friday climax in Act 3) offer the appropriate affirmation of community. In an opera focused on the struggles of a handful of main characters, the social context — remote as it may be to 21st-century understanding — is never overshadowed.

As for those guest principals, there was hardly a sign of weakness in singing or characterization throughout the work's four-hour span. Parsifal (Chris Lysack) credibly emerged from his "fool" carapace to attain the status of champion by the last act. Initial bewilderment, particularly well-etched in the awe-inspiring scene change in the first act as Gurnemanz guides him from the forest to the domed hall, recedes.  His performance early on had just a few notes of comedy that helped engage sympathy for a hero who, like many of us, takes a while to rise to the occasion of an unlooked-for personal challenge.

Klingsor holds forth from his castle, seeking to weaken the Grail Brotherhood.
Sigmundsson's performance had the requisite gravity and sturdy embodiment of the threatened knightly virtues. The contrast, vocally and dramatically, with the other main bass role (with the contrast written in musically, thanks to its baritone colors), was acute. Delavan's Amfortas was moving and effective, sounding genuinely anguished in the long monologues the suffering knight delivers in the first and final acts, with no sacrifice of tone or pitch.

The role of the villain bass Klingsor was filled  vividly by Mark Schnaible. His instrument was slightly grainy, a suitable quality for his overburdened character, and he sang with creditable clarity despite the horned mask the production called for.

The magician's power had the right domineering quality, especially when positioned confidently in his castle, the centerpiece of which was a large turntable. Of course, the villain's limitation is his famous self-wounding —the result of his failure to purify himself for the brotherhood — that drives his malevolence. (My impression of this pathetic character will forever be associated with a remark Michael Steinberg once made to me at a training institute for music critics: he rejected a New York competitor's avoidance of contact with musicians for the sake of professional purity, calling it "the choice of Klingsor." Ouch!).

Tatum's Kundry was a richly nuanced portrayal,  making sense of the tension between the worlds of virtue and vice as conceived within Wagner's peculiar representation of Christianity. She moved gracefully and purposefully in such a way as to reinforce Kundry's divided nature – whether she was more under the spell of Klingsor as temptress or as a penitent seeking expiation for her age-old sin of mocking Christ.

Her wind-swept entrance in the first act, accompanied by some near-miraculous technical effects, did not yield to anticlimax as Tatum's well-grounded performance took shape. (The recovery of the sword from Klingsor, however, seemed a regrettable concession to practicality: Parsifal simply wrenches it from Klingsor, rather than taking advantage of its suspension in mid-air after the villain flings it, as the libretto states.)

The crucial contributions of the Knights, the Flower Maidens, and other choral forces, also including offstage voices of celestial import, were unfailingly well-balanced and rich in tone.

Arthur Fagen conducted, illuminating the complex score and supporting the singers well.  Tempos were neatly judged and given a lot of flexibility in reflecting the action. The orchestra presented the Prelude in exemplary fashion; the music brings to the fore all the material that will be developed later, as billowing clouds introduce us to Tucker's video virtuosity.

Particularly impressive was the string tone in Act 3; from the first measures onward, it had an almost supernatural glow — well-suited to the drama's ascent to its high plane of redemption and serenity in the final half-hour. The physically constrained world of "Parsifal," true to the space-time blend touted by Gurnemanz to the hero as the authentic realm of Grail magic, has taken on renewed health in an arena beyond both geographical and chronological bounds. We can only wish for our diminished world a similar environmental benediction.

[Photos by Sarah J. Slover]


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