“Parsifal” sets sights low

Classical Music Critic

I’m sure there was a time when a “God is dead” approach to “Parsifal” would have been both shocking and fascinating. But it turns out you can’t kill God. Artists can’t, anyway. So the only way to go is to kill man. Not just a single hero. Not even an army of Wagnerian heldentenors. But everyone. Kill off everyone and then you’ll get some attention.

I’ve given some thought to the End of Man in recent days, which might explain my similarly recent bad temper. While this subject might be too much for Puccini or Verdi, it certainly could be accommodated in the goliath maw of “Parsifal.” It’s the story of a young man who stumbles upon the Knights of the Grail but is sent away because he doesn’t understand their rituals. He then stumbles upon the evil Klingsor, vanquishes him before first thwarting Kundry’s attempts to seduce him, stumbles about for years and then makes his last stumble back to the Knights and shares his wisdom, thus saving the day and proving the prophecy the Knights had been long harboring in their hearts.

Those thoughts came to mind when a day before Wagner’s last and most enigmatic opera opened at Lyric Opera of Chicago I received photos for publication, taken at the dress rehearsal. I saw an apocalyptic world with people in spaceships.

My heart flickered when the stage was revealed opening night. It was strange and otherworldly. Jumbo shoots made of pliable, slinky-like material emerged and color was highlighted and we were in an Abstract Expressionist Forest. So had we found something? Can a world raft with untamed negative externalities find an answer in human wisdom, symbolized by Parsifal? Can we step back from the brink?

Good questions, yes? Well, that’s not the way stage director John Caird went at all, so I’ll have to leave those matters for precincts outside these pages. What Caird did was far more pedestrian. It’s not a green “Parsifal,” it’s not a mean “Parsifal,” it’s not even a dreamy “Parsifal.” It’s a mushy “Parsifal” with politically correct overtones. What a crashing bore.

There were fleeting moments when I thought Caird might have found a way to break out of Wagner’s perverse world of knights who abjure sexual relations and focus their energy on sacred relics. Parsifal, a mere son of man, brings light to the knights, but in Caird’s world, I find no wisdom. Only a certain tidiness which ensures that when things are wrapped up after nearly five hours, Amfortas and Kundry share a little cuddle in the corner: whether this is Platonic bonhomie or the beginnings of a sexual revolution, I have no idea. And Parsifal suffers the little children to come to him, while he holds up the grail for their giggles as if he were some unthreatening PBS children’s television host. A kind of “Parsifal” for families, I guess.

After the charming forest we are taken to the Hall of the Grail. Neither abstract nor expressionist, instead an incoherent spaceship where floor ventilation is a primary concern. The only prominent features after the sturdy floor grates are some large clear tubes and an enormous golden hand upon which is perched an old man in a position so obviously uncomfortable you cannot let your gaze on him last for more than fleeting seconds, or you lose the thread of the music and get lost in the fear of this guy’s chiropractic bills. There are gratuitous hand gestures littered about the story, which presumably link to this big golden hand, so that we are laden with Caird’s metaphors on top of Wagner’s. Seriously, are our music conservatories suddenly awash in seminars bewailing the lack of symbolism in Wagner, so that directors feel that they have to take on the re-writing of the opera on top of everything else?

You know the world hasn’t completely fallen apart because this maybe-apocalyptic land has clothes designers who aren’t afraid to shout. And so we are given Klingsor (Tómas Tómasson), a dude who can’t decide if his look should be that of a rough rugby hooligan or a hard rocker not too fierce to cover himself in absurd makeup. We are also given his counter-part, Amfortas (Thomas Hampson), a sort-of for-profit prophet (he husbands the Grail) who dresses the part by swooning around in a garish mohair cloak which would make Lady Gaga blush, and garnishes it with a forever woe-is-me, bad puppy expression on his shave-needing face.

These two baritones are pitched in moral battle, each with himself: Klingsor, who wants sex but can’t have it owing to the fact that he castrated himself; and Amfortas, who doesn’t want sex but had it and now suffers such pains you wish Dr. Kevorkian would make a cameo appearance and put him (and thereby the audience) out of his agony.

When Kundry (Daveda Karanas) sings, with audible fear, “Horror grips me,” it would be so much easier to believe her if nothing happened but her shaping of that poignant phrase. Unfortunately, it is coupled with strange demons who wrap Kundry in for what all the world looks like red inner tubes from a bike shop. Suddenly we are in the comic sci-fi world of Stanislaw Lem.

In the second act we find a new breed of magic Flower Maidens, a breath of fresh air from set and costume designer Johan Engels. And by that I mean that we are presented with a formidable group of women dashing hither and thither, unfurling their newly-washed sheets behind and before them to dry in the breath of fresh air. Laundry Maidens. With a catalog of bedclothes running from cheap-bordello red to marijuana-compassion tie-dyes. Parsifal directs his energies to ensuring that none of the Laundry Maidens trod on him. He’s like a lost goat, weaving in and out of the billowing sheets, bleating about clover. It’s got visual interest, for sure, but is so jarring your teeth rattle. If someone is smoking something that makes tie-dyed linens visually compatible with Wagner’s “Parsifal” music, they need to share some of that stuff with me.

When Caird doesn’t actually employ these women as moving clotheslines, he has far more success. When Parsifal sings in Act III of his memories of the Flower Maidens, they appear as normal women who drift into the Abstract Expressionist Forest and bend gracefully in its Abstract Expressionist Breezes.

This “Parsifal” is hardly a complete waste. Sir Andrew Davis leads the orchestra in a shimmering account of the music. The sound is sparkling and luminous and Davis isn’t afraid to keep the tempi on the fast side.

Paul Groves is a game Parsifal, whose straightforward approach works well. Kwangchul Youn is a convincing Gurnemanz who has style and staying power. Kundry is rendered appropriately complex by Karanas, who manages to always fit into Caird’s odd little world.

The Lyric Opera Chorus, prepared by Michael Black, is stunning. From the powerful male choruses to the glowing strains of women’s voices as if coming from Heaven, the choral singers are always splendid.

Where you come out of “Parsifal” depends upon how you go in. If you aren’t ready to tackle the big questions it asks, but instead offer big yet empty visuals, the result can only be disappointing.