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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

What delusion causes us to seek deliverance and yearn for damnation. --- Amfortas
By Laura Hitchcock Richard Wagner and Robert Wilson are synchronicitous in more ways than sharing the same initials. Director Wilson uses some staging techniques of Japan's Noh theatre and costume elements of classical Egypt to imbue Wagner's last opera, Parsifal, with a power and abstract mystery that reinforce its metaphysical themes. By stripping the visual and emotional elements to the bone, the music is emphasized. But this is not a recital by any means. Wilson uses enormous moving props, such as a feathered wing descending slowly from the ceiling in Act I to represent a swan shot by Parsifal or a long-haired motionless man lying on a moving forestage who represents dying king Titurel, father of Amfortas.

Based on the one of the Holy Grail legends, the four-hour opera follow Parsifal, a "holy fool", raised by his mother in a forest because she wants him to escape the fate of his warrior father who was killed in battle. When he shoots a swan with a bow and arrow he made himself, he is taken to the castle of Montserat. Here he meets the king Amfortas, surrounded by the Knights of the Holy Grail. The king suffers from a wound that will never heal inflicted by a spear, said to be the one that impaled Christ. He is being punished for succumbing to lust for the beautiful immortal Kundry who was sent to seduce him by the evil sorcerer Klingsor.

The Grail Ritual is painfully performed by Amfortas. Parcifal doesn't understand what is happening and asks no questions. Gurnemanze, the oldest knight, angrily drives him out. In the following two acts, Parsifal visits the enchanted castle of Klingsor, a failed Grail Knight who was expelled from the Order and wants the Grail for himself. He sends a troupe of exquisite witches to seduce Parsifal but they are no more successful than Kundry. Parsifal, "the pure and gentle perfect night" in Mallory's "Morte d'Arthur" clasps the spear and, after years of painful wandering, returns to Montserat and heals the wounded king, before replacing him as King.

Unlike more passionate Parsifal productions, there's no touching in this one. It's tell, not show. Parsifal is surrounded by witches in long filmy garments but he sings about them as if they were part of a dream. The text describes a kiss given him by Kundry which is implied, not personified. Nonetheless, Wilson's vision is a gripping one. The sweep of the veil descending from Kundry's headdress across the floor, the tension generated by the slow Noh movements of the cast, give the production a feeling of imminence. It builds. The legend itself is almost peripheral to the mystery of spiritual intensity. If the King betrays himself and deviates from the path of single-minded devotion he has chosen, he is wounded for life. Only a healing touch from an unspoiled man who has also suffered will bring him peace.

Conductor Kent Nagano's fiery direction is the life between the lines of Wilson's austere vision and measured pace. Placido Domingo has never been in better voice. One only regrets that Parsifal is a smaller part than Gurnemanz or Kundry. The international cast includes American soprano Linda Watson who plays Kundry with brooding power and the great Finnish basso Matti Salminen who recreates his acclaimed interpretation of Gurnemanz. German bass-baritone Albert Dohmen brings immense dignity to Amfortas and Hartmut Welker, a noted interpreter of Wagnerian roles, plays Klingsor. His musicality and thwarted slyly wicked interpretation overcome his wonderful costume, a high-collared cape reminiscent of nasty magicians in 1940s comic books.

This rarely-performed opera makes an unforgettable centerpiece in the program General Director Placido Domingo has assembled for the Los Angeles Opera's 20th Anniversary Season.

Composer: Richard Wagner
Director: Robert Wilson
Conductor: Kent Nagano
Cast: Placido 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).
Scenic & Lighting Design: Robert Wilson
Set Design: Stephanie Engeln
Running Time: Four hours and twenty-five minutes, with two twenty-minute intermissions
Running Dates: November 26-December 17, 2005.
Where:.Los Angeles Opera, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Ph: (213) 972-7211.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on November 30.

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