Parsifal - a modern version for a modern audience by Michael Sinclair
After its landmark production of The Ring in 1998 the State Opera of South Australia has once again turned to Wagner, this time to present the Australian premiere of Parsifal. The company has been fortunate to lure back Jeffrey Tate to provide the musical inspiration for the production and after his revelatory Ring there were high hopes for this Parsifal.
Wagner's last opera, completed just before his death, is an enigma. Its overtly Christian themes are often too hard to swallow and suggestions of racism, anti-semitism and other overtones make this a minefield for any director. Elke Neidhardt's concept for the Adelaide production seemed fiendishly simple: to present the work in a modern way for a modern audience. By doing so Neidhardt has been able to demystify Wagner's most mystifying opera. This was a Parsifal on a most human scale, allowing the audience to become involved in the drama in a way that rarely happens.
Neidhardt and her designer, Carl Friedrich Oberle have chosen a very austere setting for the opera. Mirrors predominate throughout and continually changing projections set the mood of each scene. This was a very cold, bleak Montsalvat, even the faint rays of sunshine on Good Friday morning did little to raise the spirits. Klingsor's magic garden finally allowed the stage to erupt into colour. This act owed as much to Hollywood as to medieval legends: the flower maidens were a bunch of bathing beauties, while Kundry would easily have won first prize in a Marilyn Monroe look-alike contest. Cheap tricks, possibly, but Neidhardt is far too assured a director to allow a gimmick to get in the way of the drama. Kundry's seduction of Parsifal and his rejection of her proved to be the highlight of the evening.
Sadly there is little magic in this production. The dying swan is depicted on a projection, the spear does not hover over Parsifal's head, and the transformation scenes lacked the mystery and magic that Wagner intended. It is left to the grail to offer some magic with a laser effect that creates a fountain of red light, which at the end of the opera extends out into the auditorium to embrace us all in its glow.
If much of the production is cold and austere the singing most certainly is not. The State Opera have assembled a superb cast headed by Danish tenor Paol Elming in the title role. His effortless singing with a true Heldentenor ring was a joy to listen to and certainly confirms him as the leading exponent of the role today. Margaret Medlyn injected into the role of Kundry a dramatic intensity that made the Act 2 scene with Parsifal memorable, both musically and dramatically. Her ability to move from seductive to vitriolic was truly astounding. Jonathan Summers gave an anguished portrayal of Amfortas, while Daniel Sumegi's highly sexual Klingsor was strongly sung. Manfred Hemm sang Gurnemanz sympathetically with great beauty of tone.
However, it was Jeffery Tate who was rewarded with a standing ovation. Once again he made the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra play like gods, caressing Wagner's score with great beauty of tone to provide the deeply sensual experience that Wagner envisaged. Tate is a local hero in Adelaide, but sadly he will not be back for the 2004 Ring. He will be missed.