The Australian, August 11, 2017
Murray Black
Wagner: Parsifal, Sydney, 9. August 2017
Parsifal powerful but could use more of the rite stuff
Parsifal was Richard Wagner’s operatic swan song. In its renunciation of worldly pleasures and desires in favour of redemption and transcendent grace, it encapsulated the composer’s intellectual and spiritual journey.

It also is the most problematic of Wagner’s operas to present in concert. By eschewing any visual or design element apart from lighting, this Opera Australia performance unwittingly diluted the opera’s impact.

The religious ceremonies in the first and third acts, for instance, are accompanied solely by long stretches of orchestral music. Despite being exquisitely played by the Opera Australia Orchestra, one had little sense of their ritual power. Ultimately, one was left marvelling at the genius of the music but slightly unmoved by the drama.

Wagner had strong views about how tempos should be employed in his operas. Fortunately, conductor Pinchas Steinberg unerringly chose the right tempos. His measured pacing enabled the composer’s expansive, long-breathed lines to soar. Maintaining good balances and clear textures, his subtly applied doses of accelerando and smoothly shaped crescendos generated momentum and excitement when needed.

German tenor Jonas Kaufmann was acclaimed for his performances as Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2013. His interpretation here was just as fine. Through voice and gesture alone, Kaufmann charted the protagonist’s spiritual journey. All wide-eyed, clear-voiced innocence in Act I, his exquisite soft-grained sotto voce passages captured his character’s sense of wonder and ultimate serenity while his forceful clarity and ringing top register power realised Parsifal’s moments of anguished uncertainty.

Although Kaufmann was the star drawcard, his castmates were equally outstanding. American mezzosoprano Michelle DeYoung made a spectacular impact as Kundry. Strong across her range, her sinuous phrasing, strong dynamic control and appealing tone colours conveyed Kundry’s dual role as siren and penitent. Displaying remarkable stamina and superb diction, Korean bass Kwangchul Youn (Gurnemanz) sang with stentorian power and a focused sense of line, embodying his noble character’s moral authority.

Firm-voiced baritone Michael Honeyman gave an expressive performance as the guilt-racked Amfortas. By contrast, the hard-edged timbre of fellow baritone Warwick Fyfe created a gripping portrayal as the evil sorcerer Klingsor. Bass David Parkin was an imposing Titurel while six of Opera Australia’s leading sopranos and mezzos made an alluring bevy of flower maidens.

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