Los Angeles Opera’s “Parsifal”

Of all of Wagner’s great music-dramas, his very last one, Parsifal, is usually regarded as the most difficult to love. It has a reputation for being lugubrious and slow. Long ritualistic scenes involving the Holy Grail and its guardian knights seem to slow down an already static drama. Whereas Wagner’s more popular works contain passage after passage of brilliantly evoked images (rainbow bridges, dragons, swords, giants, flying horses, storms at sea, orgies in Vensusberg, marching pilgrims, lovers rushing breathlessly to a tryst, etc.), Parsifal seems at first hearing to be far less “literal,” hardly descriptive at all, and much more introverted and meditative than a works like the Ring, The Flying Dutchman, Tristan or Tannhauser.

Those that love and understand this glorious piece can hardly agree, and anyone who has seen more than one decent production or two knows that Parsifal does not necessarily have to seem static and excessively slow. A great deal of excitement can be stirred up by the right kind of conductor and stage director, especially in Act Two when the evil magician, Klingsor, sets Kundry and the Flower Maidens out on a mission to seduce the innocent hero. In fact, all evening long, Kundry can be a dramatically riveting role given a mezzo-soprano who is free to be “demented” (in the Ethan Mordden sense of the word) and who is not restrained in her gestures and vocal interpretation by a stage director such as — oh, let’s say, Robert Wilson – a man who gets his way whether performers and defenseless dead composers like it or not.

What Wilson does do is transform whatever he’s working with into a sort of trendy museum “installation” — only that it’s up there on the stage of the opera house. The singers are ordered to move about like automatons and to pose like quasi-Egyptian and/or Classical friezes, the drama is subordinated to complicated and largely irrelevant lighting effects, and the plot is obfuscated to the point that even those who actually know what’s going on in the opera don’t have a clue as to what’s going on – with the end result that (unless the composer is living) everything comes out Robert Wilson, no matter who else may be unwillingly involved.

So, what’s really being reviewed here is certainly not Wagner’s Parsifal (and absolutely not my Parsifal), but Wilson’s installation – in this case a collaboration with set designer Stephanie Engeln, costume designer Frida Parmeggiani, lighting designer A. J. Weissbard, and Wilson’s Los Angeles representative, Nicola Panzer. Yes, many of the visuals these people achieve are quite stunning. After all, over 100 hours of lighting rehearsals alone have allegedly gone into this show (a wild claim considering about 20 hours is the max for most Met productions!), and watching shifting projections of a sort of Mark Rothko-eque painting on the cyclorama is not without its charms (despite Weissbard’s limited color pallet vis-à-vis Rothko), and the makeup and crazy stylized costumes are often interesting.

But unless you are sitting dead center, you see the black leggings masking the theater wings, and that wrecks much of the effect. In addition, various elements of the installation are ugly – chiefly because we can see the wires and cables that make them work, but also because these same elements are vaguely ridiculous: an oversized peppermint Life-Saver that copulates occasionally with an inverted art-deco snow cone. On the scrim and cyclorama we get shifting squiggly lines – and, at one point, a giant swan’s wing and a highly angular, scythe-like bird-of-paradise.

Meanwhile, Wagner’s many descriptive passages (Kundry’s wild ride, the gathering of the Grail Knights, the collapse of Klingsor’s castle etc., etc.) are totally without any staged representation – the excuse for this being that, well, this is one of Wagner’s very profound, meditative works and needs little staging. True, the Gunther Schneider-Siemssen type of literalism seen these days at the Met has become tiresome and old-fashioned looking – but Wilson goes too far in the other direction. I think Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner achieved much greater results with this kind of thing decades ago at Bayreuth. And neither of these producers stifled the contributions of their formidable rosters of now legendary singers.

Ah, but there is always the old “if you do not like what you’re seeing on stage, just close your eyes and listen to the music” school of advice – which would be fine, really, if the Wilson approach didn’t so horribly deaden the musical proceedings. Domingo, for all his fine form and beautiful vocalization, cannot really dig into the part – nor can Linda Watson (just OK as Kundry here), nor Albert Dohmen (a fine Amfortas). Fabulous Matti Salminen, however, produced an outstanding Gurnemanz despite all the odds against him. On the other hand, it was difficult to know what to make of Hartmut Welker as Klingsor, simply because of the staging; this fine singer did not seem at his best. Meanwhile, the adult and child choristers were kept so far away from audience visualization, I don’t think they could always follow the conductor either. And, as for the much praised conductor Kent Nagano, usually someone I like – I am not certain he really understands Wagner’s score. It may be heresy to say this, but he may be one of the most overrated conductors around today. This was not a memorable Parsifal. Just listen to some of the classic recordings and you’ll see what I mean.

Domingo is to be praised for letting us conservative Californians see what all the Robert Wilson fuss is about. I just wish his work had something more to do with the music – or, really, that it could stand on its own as art. It does not illuminate Wagner except in the most oblique and general way. It says – this is serious business, folks. It’s a ritual. A very profound one. And then it fails to clarify. It’s also death on an opera about being reborn to a new life.

By David Gregson
Saturday November 26, 2005 5:00 p.m.
Wednesday November 30, 2005 6:30 p.m.
Saturday December 3, 2005 6:30 p.m.
Thursday December 8, 2005 6:30 p.m.
Sunday December 11, 2005 2:00 p.m.
Wednesday December 14, 2005 6:30 p.m.
Saturday December 17, 2005 2:00 p.m.

Plácido Domingo — PARSIFAL

Matti Salminen — GURNEMANZ

Albert Dohmen — AMFORTAS

Linda Watson — KUNDRY

Hartmut Welker — KLINGSOR

James Creswell — TITUREL

Vale Rideout — FIRST KNIGHT

Dean Elzinga — SECOND KNIGHT

Sarah Jane McMahon — FIRST ESQUIRE

Patricia Risley — SECOND ESQUIRE

David Robinson — THIRD ESQUIRE

Peter Nathan Foltz — FOURTH ESQUIRE

Margaret Thompson — ALTO SOLO

Abbie Furmansky — FLOWER MAIDEN

Jessica Swink — FLOWER MAIDEN

Patricia Risley — FLOWER MAIDEN

Martina Rüping — FLOWER MAIDEN

Sarah Jane McMahon — FLOWER MAIDEN

Margaret Thompson — FLOWER MAIDEN


CONDUCTOR – Kent Nagano

STAGE DIRECTOR – Nicola Panzer

SET DESIGNER – Stephanie Engeln

COSTUME DESIGNER – Frida Parmeggiani


4 hours 34 minutes

One hour prior to each performance.
Michael Hackett will lead the pre-performance lecture.
Pre-performance lectures are generously sponsored by the Flora L. Thornton Foundation and the Opera League of Los Angeles.

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