The Sydney Morning Herald, August 10 2017
Peter McCallum
Wagner: Parsifal, Sydney, 9. August 2017
Parsifal review: Opera Australia's performance as close to ideal as possible ★★★★★*
In assembling a cast as close to ideal as one could decently expect, a conductor of venerable wisdom and experience in Pinchas Steinberg, and setting free the sound of a usually straitjacketed orchestra and chorus to weave and waft around the Concert Hall's ample acoustic accommodation, Opera Australia' concert performance of Wagner's most sonically sophisticated opera, Parsifal, creates for listeners a direct path to its essence.

That essence is pure spirit expressed in sound, both sullied and cleansed, both in anguish and in bliss.

Music has always gravitated towards the spirit – it is its natural domain. By stripping away the myriad plot details of Wolfram von Eschenbach's 13th century poem to leave a simple symmetrical three-act structure pivoting around a moment of self-realisation and transformation, Wagner not only crowned his own not-insubstantial achievements, but also created one of the greatest works in the repertoire.

It helps, of course, to have one of the world's great Parsifal singers, Jonas Kaufmann, in the title role. Kaufmann's approach is one of noble restraint.

There is never a hint of flamboyance or contrivance; the whole expressive weight is carried by the voice quality and immaculate polish of tone; by careful modulation of dynamic, colour and intensity; and by purity of diction and vowel.

In the first act and a half, when the character of Parsifal is protected from corruption by unknowing foolishness, Kaufmann was subdued and dissembling like a youth who had smashed the family car and wanted to be somewhere else.

He opened out with magnificently polished focus after the transformative kiss at the centre of Act 2, each phrase beautifully sculpted and graded, each crucial moment spellbinding.

Michelle DeYoung as Kundry also broadens in this crucial transformation. In the first act her voice was richly portentous and coloured. In the seduction of Act 2, she added enveloping warmth and forceful power.

It is key to the work that this duet be the fulcrum, and here it became a riveting point of central focus.

As the wise Gurnemanz, Kwangchul Youn sang with mahogany depth and wonderfully textured roundedness, sustaining this character's crucial framing reflections in the outer acts with centred dignity.

Taking the role of the wounded Amfortas, who represents the spirit in agony, Michael Honeyman's voice captured rich autumnal colours to bring out the character's poignancy.

The image Wagner created of the open bleeding wound to represent a self-inflicted fall from grace, brings to mind the art of Francis Bacon.

That image is taken further in the figure of the self-castrated Klingsor, to whose impotent malevolence Warwick Fyfe brought terrifying ferocity, a keen-edged incisive voice, madly wandering eye and brilliant character portrayal.

David Parkin was stern and sepulchral as the ageing Titurel. Under Steinberg, the great glory of the Opera Australia Orchestra and Chorus was the subtle balance of tone and floating sense of pulse, creating finely graded textures, some firmly grounded and richly blended, others rising above the bass like delicately fractured clerestory light.

Descriptions of Wagner's conducting stress his complete freedom, but Steinberg achieved the unbounded effect of chant and dreamlike association through inner discipline and carefully weighed balance.

Musically, this is one of Opera Australia's outstanding performances in recent decades, leaving the theatrical element to blossom in the imagination.

*While the Herald only rates performances out of five, Peter would have awarded Parsifal 5½ stars if permitted.

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