Friday, August 11, 2017

When world class is ordained magnificently so - Opera Australia's Parsifal in concert at Sydney Opera House

Two elements of Opera Australia's much-anticipated performance of Richard Wagner's Parsifal might not go down too well with the composer, who conceived opera as Gesamtkunstwerk - a complete work of art - a fusion of music, voice, drama, setting and design. Firstly, the nuts and bolts of a fully staged production were forgone for a concert presentation in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall (the originally intended home for opera in the larger shelled section of the venue). Secondly, conductor Pinchas Steinberg's Israel-born status brings to mind the composer's rejection of the German-born Jewish court conductor at the Munich Opera, Hermann Levi, presiding at the work's Bayreuth premiere in 1882. To King Ludwig, who sponsored the opera, Wagner had expressed alleged dissatisfaction in having a Jew conduct "this most Christian of works". 

M. Honeyman, K. Youn, J. Kaufmann, P. Steinberg and M. DeYoung
Wagner lost on the second account in Bayreuth where Levi took the baton. On the first account, 135 years later, Wagner would hopefully be proud of Opera Australia's world class concert interpretation directed by Hugh Halliday and Steinberg's patient approach and graphic musical rendering.

With over four hours of time-distorting music drama - what Wagner described as "Ein Bühnenweihfestspiel" ("A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage") - the Opera Australia Orchestra nudging 100 untiring musicians, 16 passionate soloists and an 80-strong chorus, the story of the unassuming and ignorant Parsifal, who is destined to become the saviour of the Grail Knights, is enacted with heartfelt commitment, captivating detail and deep respectfulness. 

Amongst them all, in the title role and a certain drawcard who the world wants to brand its greatest tenor, Jonas Kaufmann brought his trademark, deliciously handsome, intense and warmly burnished sound to one of opera's most humble characters. Kaufmann, depicting Parsifal's youthful unease in the dignified attire of tuxedo, sensitively championed Parsifal's humility and subsequent enlightenment and compassion. With the backing of experience in the role, Kaufmann's smooth effortlessness, complex depth and grip on the text made an edifying performance as his pensiveness took on the demeanour of a man who knows not how to relate to his world. The star tenor didn't disappoint.

Pinchas Steinberg, Michelle DeYoung, Simon King and Michael Honeyman
American mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, who tantalised Melbourne audiences in excerpts of Parsifal's blustery Act II alongside Stuart Skelton last year with the MSO, dug deep into her role as Kundry, the wild woman and seductress of the knights. Broad in range, from cavernous drumming lows to a full-bodied middle and topped with mighty chilling lighting strikes of the voice, DeYoung delivered the complete multi-dimensional package, not without a dismissive smugness of expression that comes with her character's tormented and exiled soul. 

But if Kaufmann was the drawcard, Korean bass Kwanchul Youn was the evening's firm foundation as the veteran Knight of the Grail, Gurnemanz. Straight shouldered and planted with commanding confidence, Youn embodied the wisdom of the sage and charisma of an orator with his thrilling, intoxicatingly well-enunciated declamatory delivery, shades of warmth and seemingly infinite reserves of power from subterranean lows to billowing highs.

Australian baritone Michael Honeyman moves from strength to strength with every role he tackles and continues to impress in Wagnerian territory. Honeyman's role debut as Amfortas was accompanied with soul-searching gravitas, golden-edged resonance and purity in depicting the ruler of the Grail kingdom, aggravated by guilt and suffering in pain, his wandering, at times fixed, wide-eyed gaze full of inner anguish.

Pinchas Steinberg and Jonas Kaufmann
As the magician Klingsor, who was expelled by the Grail knights for his impure desires and established himself in the valley outside Montsalvat, Warwick Fyfe brought his unique combination of vocal and performance style to his villainous character (with Vincent Price coming to mind) in a magnificent display. With powerfully heated stentorian might, as if delivered from a smelter within, the energy that Fyfe delivered came skilfully forged and phrased, adding further weight to the heights he can reach after his excellent Alberich in Opera Australia's Ring. 

Smaller roles were filled marvellously by a strong contingent of local regulars at Opera Australia with David Parkin well-grounded and resonant as Amfortas' father, Titurel and Eva Kong with Anna Dowsley opening eloquently as the First and Second Esquire before joining Stacey Alleaume, Jane Ede, Julie Lea Goodwin and Dominica Matthews, who, as the six Flower Maidens, harmonised gorgeously. Graeme Macfarlane, Simon Kim, Dean Bassett and Alexander Hargreaves made great work of the Third and Fourth Esquire and First and Second Knight respectively, with Hargreaves having a particularly secure and appealing baritone. 

Back of stage, when the Opera Australia Chorus of knights and flower maidens took to their feet, they sang with beautifully structured layering and superb gradations in volume, the men especially moving with their thrilling crescendos. A fine silken beauty shone through the 20 children in their midst.

Most attentive to drawing the soloists into to the music, Steinberg kept a firm hand on what were buoyant and invitingly paced results. Each of the Vorspiel and orchestral interludes, in particular, demonstrated the refined musicianship and the score's wide-reaching colours.

It all came presented pleasingly with Halliday making sensible choices for the comings and goings of the soloists and John Rayment's subtle lighting that, in the final moments, tinged the acoustic discs above the stage in red as the Grail is 'unveiled'. 

While the Opera Australia 2017 Sydney season was looking thin while renovations are currently in progress at the Opera House Theatre, the company have, nonetheless, made a successful step onto the Concert Hall stage which won't be forgotten. 

Opera Australia 
Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House 
Until 14th August

Production Photos: Keith Saunders

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