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Solid Music Making in Controversial Lenhoff Parsifal

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
06/18/2000 -  and 21, 24, 27, and 30* June, and 2 July, 2000
Richard Wagner: Parsifal
Kurt Moll (Gurnemanz), Franz Grundheber (Amfortas), Christopher Ventris (Parsifal), Catherine Malfitano (Kundry), Reinhard Hagen (Titurel), Tom Fox (Klingsor), Richard Walker (First Knight of the Grail), Philip Horst (Second Knight of the Grail), Peggy Kriha Dye, Elena Bocharova, Todd Geer, Kyu Won Han (Four Esquires), Elizabeth Bishop (A Voice), Nicolle Foland, Peggy Kriha Dye, Zheng Cao, Tammy Jenkins, Donita Volkwijn, Elizabeth Bishop (Flower Maidens)
San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Donald Runnicles (Conductor)
Nikolaus Lenhoff (Stage Director)

For its first production of Wagner’s Parsifal in twelve years, the San Francisco Opera turned to Nikolaus Lenhoff, who produced its Ring Cycle when it was new, for a production shared with the English National Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The San Francisco Opera is not best known for non-traditional productions and this Parsifal wanders farther a field than most stagings seen at the War Memorial Opera House.
Nikolaus Lenhoff’s production eschews most of the traditional elements of Parsifal including any overt visual references to Christianity. The themes Wagner explores regarding redemption, suffering, the relationship between sexuality and spirituality, atonement and renewal are all still present. But rather than making any attempt to answer the questions or even clarify them, Lenhoff further obscures and abstracts the questions, making them both more enigmatic and challenging.
Lenhoff sets Parsifal in a post-apocalyptic world of desolation, isolation and deprivation. Raimund Bauer’s bleak, unwelcoming set centers around a large, beige platform, sparsely strewn with debris, which curves up at the back the stage and rises to tower over the performers. In the first act, a wall in which an enormous meteor is lodged conceals the back half of the set for the first scene. Upon Parsifal’s entrance, the meteor spins and rotates to provide an opening through which Parsifal enters.
Little of the visual magic is retained in Lenhoff’s vision of Parsifal. Instead, he focuses on character and relationships, and working with a uniformly excellent cast, he brought out a series of superb performances. However little his visual world may illuminate Wagner’s final work (and Lenhoff does not seem set out to do anything of the sort), his direction and staging illuminate the characters from within.
Andrea Schmidt-Futterer creates a timeless world with costumes spanning time and civilizations from the recent past back to ancient historical times. The costumes are a dazzling array of styles and looks, often jarringly inconsistent but each striking and somehow suitable at the moment. In particular Kundry’s costumes embody this approach. First see as a wounded bird-like creature in Act I, Kundry emerges literally from her cocoon in Act II as a predatory insect like creature both alluring and appalling.
With Catherine Malfitano in her first Wagner role, Kundry’s dramatic possibilities were explored in great depth. Malfitano is a stage animal, willing to fling herself about the stage, able to shift moods with mercurial ease and letting out hair-raising screams with the best of them. Vocally, Malfitano is stretched to her limits and beyond. By the time of the performance reviewed, well into the run, the tone was often ragged and harsh with little of the vocal allure that Kundry needs for her second act confrontation with Parsifal. But Malfitano is an intelligent, canny performer and she manages to cope with the vocal demands with careful attention to the text and a complete knowledge of what she can do with her voice.
In his U.S. debut, Christopher Ventris needed no compromising in order to bring to life the role of Parsifal, traversing the journey from impetuous youth to enlightened adult with vocal finesse and dramatic truth. Ventris’ tenor sounds light and lyrical but projects easily and is large enough to be heard in the heavier passages without sounding pushed or strained. He is also an accomplished actor and conveys the stages of Parsifal’s growth with convincing naturalness.
By now, Kurt Moll’s Gurnemanz is an interpretation for the ages. His rock solid bass with its waves of full, rich sonorities, beautifully focused tone and clearly projected diction set the standard for this and other roles in his repertory. Moll captures the compassion, conflict and conviction of Gurnemanz with a noble simplicity and commanding stage presence.
As Amfortas, the tortured, wounded leader of the Knights of the Grail, Franz Grundheber gave his finest performance to date for the company, singing with conviction, and a steady, warm tone. His intensely felt but carefully restrained portrayal suggested a man almost out of his mind with suffering, but Grundheber never let the interpretation get out of hand, balancing it with a spiritual resignation to his pain.
Tom Fox gave a brilliant interpretation of Klingsor, the magician. Fox’s voice is not particularly distinctive in timbre or size, but he compensates with skillful use, solid technique, attention to the text and theatrical flair that imbues his performance with individuality. Restricted to singing most of his role while seated within a large gold ring suspended above the stage, which limited his physical mobility, Fox still evoked Klingsor’s malevolence and power without flattening the role into a cardboard cutout.
In Lenhoff’s production, Titurel, the dying father of former leader of the knights, is already half in his grave, only visible from the waist up and virtually immobilized. Through purely vocal means, Reinhard Hagen managed to convey Titurel’s fading but unwavering strength and conviction that have enabled him to survive.
Pulling all these performances together into a musically cohesive whole was Donald Runnicles. With the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus operating at peak performance, it was Runnicles contribution, which made this Parsifal one of the outstanding highlights of recent seasons for the company. The orchestra poured out a lush carpet of sonorities with each section sounding their best despite the demanding playing schedule. The chorus once again proved why it is such a major asset to the company with a smooth, blended sound and extraordinary dynamic range and response.
With exemplary musical values and adventurous dramatic values, the San Francisco Opera closed its summer season with a resoundingly successful production of one of the most challenging works in the repertory. Parsifal may not be a great audience favorite, but few left before the end and responding with enthusiasm for the entire cast.

Kelly Snyder



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