Wagner's final opera, Parsifal, has been interpreted as everything from a deeply spiritual allegory of redemption to an ugly racist parable about protecting Christian purity from Jewish corruption. But the opera's score is tailored so well to its libretto that even the most uncharitable reading of Wagner's intent can't diminish the music's clarity, solemnity, and hypnotic power; though Parsifal is over four hours long, in a good production it's never tiring. At the center of the story, based on a medieval German epic, is the "innocent fool" Parsifal, prophesied to be the savior of the knights who guard the Holy Grail. Their chaste order has been defiled by a sorcerer, who has used their pagan servant, Kundry, to seduce and wound their leader, Amfortas, with the Sacred Spear entrusted to his care--the same weapon that pierced Christ's side. Parsifal resists Kundry and retrieves the Spear, but she curses him to wander in search of the knights' castle (those lost years conveyed by a long stretch of wonderfully unsettling music); at last he returns with the weapon to heal Amfortas, and baptizes Kundry--one of the most richly and vexingly symbolic acts in musical theater. For over three decades after Parsifal's completion in 1882, the Wagner family attempted to restrict performances of this "sacred festival drama" to Bayreuth, and it's still produced relatively rarely. The Lyric Opera first staged it in 1987, and this time the company's importing the provocative English National Opera production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff. A barren but fantastic aesthetic pervades Lehnhoff's staging, and the sets and costumes frustrate any attempt to locate the action in time or place--the knights dress like ancient Chinese warriors (a nod to Wagner's fascination with Buddhist concepts), but other characters wear what seem to be Victorian suits or aboriginal face paint. A railway line that runs offstage, aside from literalizing Parsifal's journey through life, simultaneously suggests cultural or technological progress and, in an allusion to Wagner's anti-Semitism, the trains that shipped Jews to the camps. Swedish tenor Gosta Winbergh sings Parsifal; baritone Mark Delavan is Amfortas; and bass Matti Salminen is Gurnemanz, a knight who doubles as narrator. Among the principals, the question mark will be Lyric veteran Catherine Malfitano as Kundry: she's a remarkable actress, but her voice is past its prime. Andrew Davis presides over the Lyric Opera Orchestra. Saturday and Wednesday, February 2 and 6, 6 PM, and Saturday, February 9, 1 PM, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker; 312-332-2244.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ken Friedman-San Francisco Opera.