Arts Festival Review: ParsifalReviewed by Dominic Groom
17 and 19 March
Michael Fowler Centre
Simon O’Neill, Sir Donald
McIntyre, Margaret Medlyn, Paul Whelan, Martin Snell
NZSO conducted by Anthony Negus
At this Festival, Parsifal has been promoted as the monolithic high art event. It stood head and shoulders above other offerings – circuses, various avant garde theatre productions, DJs and representations of the dangers of lodging our identities on the internet – as a work from a great tradition with proven pedigree. Parsifal also brought the mystique of Wagner opera to Wellington for the first time in nearly a decade – people had been talking since the pre-Festival buzz began of the six-hour medieval opera and the war of attrition that it would wage on hapless audiences. It definitely represented the finale of the fine music (formerly known as classical music) programme in this Festival that, frankly, had little to offer, and it was also the most significant contribution to the Festival by a largely New Zealand group (orchestra and soloists). In any case, this was the eagerly awaited black-tie event for Festival-goers and music-lovers, and it did not disappoint.
Wagner lifted the narrative of Parsifal from medieval poetry, but retained its grandeur and mysticism. The story concerns the knights guarding the Holy Grail and the spear that wounded Christ in the side. Their king, Amfortas has been wounded by the evil wizard, Klingsor, a former knight himself who could not maintain his purity who now has taken the spear. The knights, largely voiced by the ageing but wise Gurnemanz, are mortified by the ill health of their king but can do nothing – the legend states that a perfect innocent is required to return the stolen spear and restore the king. Parsifal’s arrival is inopportune, but he may also represent the fool so needed by the kingdom.
After seeing the king’s suffering, Parsifal is driven to seek the spear, resists seduction by flower maidens and Kundry, the wild ingénue who consorts with Klingsor while seeking redemption through an association with the knights. Parsifal’s innocence overcomes the magician’s sinister powers and his evil designs on the Grail are thwarted. The suffering knights are redeemed, Amfortas is saved, Kundry is forgiven for her sins and Parsifal is crowned as their new saint-king.
Hugely impressive was Simon O’Neill in the title role. Although his gestural range was somewhat economical, it was still a heartfelt performance that captured the foolish innocence, suffering and regal serenity of this mysterious and saintly individual. Vocally, O’Neill was stunning, producing a Heldentenor sound that carried majestically. He was smooth and carefree with the flower maidens, solemn and powerful in his return as king, but also thrilled with a raw intensity that was particularly affecting in Parsifal’s defiance of Kundry.
As Kundry, Margaret Medlyn was secure and accurate, particularly during Act 2, where she wooed the hapless Parsifal under the evil magician’s direction. Her acting was energetic and, at times, the most interesting of all the cast, although the transformations of her character from wild woman to temptress to solemn servant of God by the end of the third act may have caused some confusion to the unprepared concert-goer against a limited backdrop of stage and costume. While her presence was deeply felt, she never filled the hall with her voice or reached Kundry’s potentially spine-tingling heights of madness or seduction.
Martin Snell and Paul Whelan were the remainder of the core cast. Whelan’s suffering as the wounded king, Amfortas, was certainly noble although not so compelling as the other major roles. Whelan was in fine voice, but his performance reflected Wagner’s somewhat underwhelming writing of the role. Klingsor made his appearance in the second act and Snell sung with power and a sinuous sound that was as compelling to the audience as it was to Medlyn’s Kundry. The other cast members – stalwarts and emerging talent alike – performed credibly, revealing no weak links. The flower maidens were particularly expert and Madeleine Pierard again underlined her credentials as a star of the future. The NZSO, under conductor Anthony Negus, was most assured in the brilliant passages, but perhaps lacked some of the homogeneity required during the more solemn accompanying work. The trombones and trumpets were among the culprits here, not helped by their elevated positions that directed their sounds straight into the audience, sometimes drowning out the soloists.
However, this production was all about the commanding presence of Sir Donald McIntyre, as a driving force behind an all-New Zealand Wagner project and in his quiet leadership on stage. His was a most sympathetic characterisation of old knight Gurnemanz, the opera’s most immediately likeable character. In Acts 1 and 3, he made some of Wagner’s drier, narrative music warm and involving, while also singing with clarity and power over the orchestral climaxes. He acted as a noble and reassuring presence for the younger male singers especially, and, in ensemble scenes, one could feel genuine reverence for the artist, his character and the man.
That this Parsifal was semi-staged, with few props, lighting effects and modest costumes, was a disappointment to me. I understand that a huge budget would have been required to provide the castles and magical gardens that Wagner calls for, but the minimal presentation required just too many leaps of the imagination to achieve the full impact of the integrated music, drama and spectacle that Wagner envisaged. This could not change the fact that this was an emotional, elevating and exhausting evening that highlighted ambitious and difficult music and a heart-warming display of masses of home-grown talent.