Indiana University Jacobs School of Music 2019-20 Review: Parsifal
Chris Lysack, Renee Tatum, Mark Delavan Lead Unbelievable Cast in Wagner’s Final MasterworkBy Logan Martell
On Nov. 13, 2019, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music staged the second performance of its production of Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal.”
This epic work was brought to life through a fascinating mixture of traditional and modern techniques, both styles supporting each other and lending a wealth of meaning to the unfolding story. Given the vocal demands of the primary roles, the cast of student artists was joined by more seasoned professionals, who, under the baton of conductor Arthur Fagen brought much experience to their interpretations.
This production comes as a rather auspicious event, marking the first time in 43 years that this work has been performed on the stage of IU’s Jacobs School of Music. As the school celebrates its 200th year, one can hardly imagine a work more fitting to consecrate the stage than Wagner’s “Parsifal.”
The most notably modern aspect of this production was the extensive use of projections on a thin screen at the edge of the stage. Beginning with the prelude, the audience watched a series of images, among them medieval works of art depicting Arthurian lore, before a long, winding staircase seems to pull the viewer along, as if following the legend presented minutes earlier.
Through these projections, the audience saw moments of the story not usually depicted, such as Parsifal’s storming of Klingsor’s castle, Amfortas’ seduction and loss of the spear, and the last minutes of Parsifal’s grieving mother. These projections also helped immerse the audience in the various locations, as seen from the hanging branches in Act one’s forest, as well as a visually impressive transition from the forest to Montsalvat as we see Parisfal and Gurnemanz walk through starry space, complete with brightly-shining nebulae.
Later, when Gurnemanz expels Parsifal from the castle, the instant transition back to the forest strongly established his removal from their realm altogether.
In the title role, Chris Lysack outlined a very compelling arc from Parisfal’s initial foolishness to a more reverent maturity. After shooting down the swan, he listens to Gurnemanz’s exhortations while visibly reassessing himself, his newfound concern being sincere while not dampening his spirits.
His physicality often consisted of bold, wide stances, with his energy lending a slight bounce to his bearing. His youthful enthusiasm came across well in his interactions with the knights of the grail as he found himself taken with their rite of communion; as they lightly beat their breasts, their gazes fixed upwards to some heavenly splendor, Lysack followed in their gesture with a playful expression while trying to figure out where to focus his attention.
After their departure, Parsifal silently re-enacts the rite while standing upon the dais, providing for humorous foreshadowing before being reprimanded by Gurnemanz; this direction also lent new meaning to Gurnemanz’s line “why are you standing there?” referencing the youth’s location rather than his stunned and clueless frame of mind. After being removed from Montsalvat, the still-chipper Parsifal, catches the sight of a moving spotlight, chasing it offstage like a cat following a laser-pointer from heaven as the first act is brought to a close.
During his lighthearted romp with the flower-maidens, Lysack used a more casual, conversational tone, but this soon vanished as Kundry explained Parsifal’s origin and the manner of his mother’s death. This knowledge forcing him to lie down, it’s in this position that Kundry gives him the kiss which opens his eyes to the events which befell Amfortas, his cry of “Now it [the wound] bleeds in me” full of compassionate pain.
During the opening of the third act, we saw, in a projection, a brief montage of Parsifal’s wandering in search of Montsalvat, with him cloaked in a simple brown robe; while this masked his identity sufficiently without requiring the suit of armor described in the libretto, it lacked the imposing visage that made Gurnemanz suspect him to be a threat.
As Gurnemanz, Kristinn Sigmundsson’s venerable bass made a compelling fit in providing much of the story’s background. Often acting as a teacher, this sense of authority carried wonderfully as he regaled the younger knights with the story of Amfortas’ wounding and Klingsor’s revolt against the order, his voice bearing strength and experience through the extended passages.
Returning in Act three, Sigmundsson’s ostensible aging is achieved rather simply, having changed from a light, fur-lined, regal coat to layers of humble winter clothing thrown together. His vocality, however, sounded to be wearier, as if weighed down by concern for Amfortas, this was heard well with his phrase “in maddened defiance craved only for death,” bolstered by the cadence from the double basses.
The regal lines from the bass likewise ended grimly as he recounted the death of Titurel, ending his phrase in a grieved manner. After gladly anointing his new king, this weariness transitioned well to a firm rejoicing quality as he outlined the phrases which helped establish the renewal of Spring, ending with the phrase “Nature is absolved, and wins her innocence this day.”
In the role of Kundry, mezzo-soprano Renee Tatum delivered a remarkably nuanced performance, conveying much of the character’s torments and long-lived contradictions.
Making a powerful entrance, bolstered by smoke and blowing leaves, her impact on the younger grail knights, along with her lightly-swaying, almost sensual demeanor, established her as a figure to be treated with great caution. After presenting basalm to Gurnemanz, she lies down against a rock, only stirring for instances such as, when telling the knights of her background, Gurnemanz correctly surmised that her suffering was the result of a sin committed ages ago.
Tatum’s scenes in the second act were filled with wonderfully complicated emotions, given all the more impact thanks to her dramatic vocal power. After her seduction of Parsifal was initially repulsed and the youth learned the truth behind many of the prior events, Tatum dispelled her own glamor to reveal the extent of her wounded state, removing her wig of flowing red locks to reveal a head of aged, white hair.
As she recounts her mocking of Christ which led to her cursed state, Tatum’s line “I saw Him – Him and mocked…!” was ended with a pained cry that elicited much sympathy for the fallen woman. Through these poignant instances, Tatum was undoubtedly magnetic.
Her appearance in Act three was naturally more subdued, distantly interacting with Gurnemanz before serving Parsifal and washing his feet. While the final scene required much less of her, this production saw an interesting and distinct change in the ending, with Kundry living through the events of the story. Rather than dying, it is Amfortas who is relieved of his mortal coil’s burden; while this direction seems to treat her with more kindness, it lacked the redemptive quality which brings the character ultimate peace from the many centuries of struggle and suffering that plagued her so, leaving her place unknown as she silently watched the renewal of the Grail knights and their rite of communion.
Two Suffering Men
As the fallen knight Klingsor, Mark Schnaible cut an imposing figure through much of his time onstage. His costume included a frightful mask with two pairs of horns; while this added an appropriately dark and mysterious flare to his countenance, much of Schnaible’s face was hidden, leaving it up to his voice and physicality to convey the character’s emotions. Many of his phrases were tinged with great bitterness, such as when he lists off Kundry’s many names when waking her, or when warning her of Parsifal being “shielded by his folly,” ending the phrase with a biting quality.
When Kundry mocks his gelded state, Schnaible’s directions saw him taken aback, lowering himself to sit on a pile of stones in a manner reminiscent of Amfortas’ earlier suffering, nicely establishing the connection between the two wounded characters. When battling Parsifal, the spear toss instead came down to a brief grapple between the two, with the young knight wresting the spear from Klingsor; the collapse of his castle was achieved in spectacular fashion as the projected vines and roses crumbled away, with smoke and dead petals blowing onto the stage accompanied by the blaring orchestral horns.
Finally, in the role of Amfortas, Mark Delavan portrayal finely captured the king’s aching majesty. His lines during the communion scene bore a self-directed scorn as he wished for atonement through death. Delavan’s dramatic baritone was resonant through even his more relaxed phrases, with his pained vocal leaps allowing for a heightened and sympathetic power as he led the rites of the order.
In Act three, we saw the ruin that has befallen Montsalvat without the renewing power of the grail, with broken pillars, and the knights likewise staggering their way to try and receive the grail’s blessing. As they turn upon their king, Amfortas continues to provoke them, clearly wanting them to end his suffering with their swords. To this effect, he even snatched the funeral shroud from the body of Titurel, leading to a shocking reveal of the body’s white, decomposed state as the knights cried out in horror.
After being healed by Parsifal and the spear, Delavan’s relief and redemption came as a breath of fresh air, making itself heard through his gladdened baritone as he passed the crown and leadership of the grail knights to Parsifal. His death, while peaceful, gave a rather subversive impression in my mind. His yearning for death in order to atone for his sin was the result of his tremendous grief, and in this production he received both death and atonement. While it’s not necessarily a punishment to die, especially after being absolved from one’s sin, Kundry being spared from this fate seemed to suggest otherwise.
The program’s students comprised the ensemble, serving as the grail knights or flower maidens. For the communion scene, their lines came with a measured firmness that did not lack for a pious warmth. These qualities made it all the more interesting when the lack of the grail’s powers brought them to the point of nearly killing their former king. The flower maidens of Act two made for a lighthearted reprieve from the constant dramatic weight of the work, engaging in beckoning harmonies as they attempted to seduce Parsifal.
Throughout the night’s performance the cast of artists demonstrated not only a breadth of musical expertise and dramatic understanding, but the stamina needed to sustain the impact of the opera. While one can fairly claim that this production relies on a number of special effects, these instances did not detract from the performance or the plot, instead bolstering the mythic nature in ways that Wagner himself might have employed were the technology available in his time.
In all, it was a fantastic performance of one of opera’s greatest masterpieces.