Fine cast brings the spiritual drama despite misguided staging in HGO’s “Parsifal” 

Sat Jan 20, 2024 at 1:48 pm
By Steven Brown
Russell Thomas (kneeling) in the title role of Wagner’s Parsifal at Houston Grand Opera with Kwangchul Youn as Guernemanz and Elena Pankratova as Kundry. Photo: Lynn Lane/HGO

Houston Grand Opera has never proclaimed an official Richard Wagner cycle. But since the present writer came to town in 2013, the company has staged Tristan and IsoldeThe Ring of the NibelungThe Flying Dutchman and now Parsifal. That’s a statement, whatever you label it.

HGO’s Parsifal, which opened Friday at Wortham Theater Center, may be the most compelling of the unofficial Wagner series to date—especially on the musical side.

Wagner’s final work, a drama of the knights of the holy grail and their new leader, doesn’t rival the sonic spectacle of his other works. It unleashes nothing as exciting as the “Ride of the Valkyries” or as cataclysmic as Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene. 

Wagner’s blend of Christianity and medieval legend, has its own power: characters gripped by spiritual or physical agonies; a vision of salvation offered to them by the holy grail; music that evokes the grail’s glow of hope as readily as a temptress’ caresses and the sufferers’ cries for release from their pain.

HGO’s production captured all of those elements potently Friday night. Tenor Russell Thomas brought ample tone, ringing and youthful, to his role debut as Parsifal, the “pure fool” who learns compassion, discovers his spiritual power and saves the struggling knighthood.

The delicacy that enriched Thomas’ Radames in HGO’s Aida right before the pandemic was also evident here—mainly in Act 3, as the newly enlightened Parsifal marvels at nature’s beauty (in the Good Friday music). 

But the vigor and security of Russell’s singing did even more to bring Parsifal to life.  He conveyed the impetuosity of the innocent young wanderer and in Act 2, Thomas’ blazing tones and sheer abandon put across the immensity of the forces roiling the hero-to-be. The tenor at times turned to heavier, grittier tones to capture Parsifal’s ruefulness on realizing how ignorant he had been until then.

Thomas’ clarion tone returned at the opera’s climax, as Parsifal triumphantly steps forth to become the knights’ leader. Unfortunately, on his very last note, Thomas’ voice went out of pitch, putting a tinge of discord into what should have been euphony.

However heroic his voice sounded, Thomas did not cut a heroic figure onstage. In the most dramatic moments, he usually seemed to be focused mainly on planting his feet and facing the music’s challenges in an old-fashioned, stand-and-deliver manner. But sometimes the sheer process of taking in a gulp of air and tackling a phrase galvanized his appearance to a degree.

On the other hand, soprano Elena Pankratova was as potent theatrically as she was vocally as the mysterious, tormented Kundry, temptress and sometime aid to the knights. In Act 1, where Kundry returns exhausted from distant travels, Pankratova sang with a mezzo-soprano’s earthiness and heft. But in Act 2, after a sorcerer’s spell forces Kundry to try to seduce Parsifal, Pankratova revealed what sounded almost like another voice, sweeter and silkier. In “Ich sah das Kind,” describing the child Parsifal with his mother, Pankratova’s singing was as caressing as the scene she was evoking; moving into temptress mode, she carried herself just as gracefully.As Parsifal rejected Kundry’s advances, Pankratova unleashed yet another side of her voice, full-throated and fierce.

Playing the opera’s other main figure of suffering, the physically and spiritually wounded knight Amfortas, bass-baritone Ryan McKinny let fly with much the same sonorous tone he wielded as John the Baptist in Strauss’ Salome for HGO last spring.

On his first entrance, as Amfortas thanked Kundry for bringing balm for his wounds, McKinny offered a bit of gentleness. But at the end of Act 1, as Amfortas prepares to lead the grail ritual, McKinny’s voice welled up voluminously alongside his character’s agonies. McKinny’s cries of “Erbarmen”—have mercy—boomed out into the theater.

Bass Andrea Silvestrelli evoked the evil of Klingsor, the sorcerer, in his voice’s ferocious bite and impact.

Except for occupying the same vocal range, Silvestrelli could hardly have sounded more different from bass Kwangchul Youn—who portrayed Gurnemanz, a knight who serves as the opera’s voice of faith and stability. Youn filled Gurnemanz’s music with poise, stateliness and grandeur. 

But he offered more than round, resonant voice. In Gurnemanz’s long Act 1 monologue describing how the knights came to obtain the grail and spear, Youn’s voice hushed when he mentioned the grail—capturing his wonderment in sound. In Act 3, Young filled the Good Friday Spell with nobility, but he gave it gracious, softer touches as well.

Bass-baritone André Courville lent gravity to the brief interjections by Amfortas’ doomed father, Titurel. The beefed-up HGO Chorus included a hearty-sounding band of men as the knights, and the flower maidens conjured up by Klingsor in Act 2 sang with playfulness and grace.

The foundation for all of this came from conductor Eun Sun Kim and the HGO Orchestra, who relished the grace, glow and grandeur of Wagner’s score. From the first phrase of the prelude, Kim let Wagner’s music flow and sing—bringing out its fervor, even at its most lyrical. The orchestra played with refinement in the mellifluous moments and drive in the agitated ones. Even when Kim kept the group quiet in deference to the singers, it still brought the music color and atmosphere.

The two big choral scenes were especially telling. In Act 1’s grail scene, the chorus sang with warmth and ardor as the music swelled and subsided. In Act 3, the orchestra gave a somber gravity to the march that opens the last scene, and the chorus’ men chimed in to build it to an anguished, pungent climax.

As many of today’s stage directors do, John Caird played down the story’s inherent ecclesiastical side. His knights were a group whose ritual hand gestures—a sequence culminating in the right hand held up palm-forward—had nothing to do with Christianity, even though they passed around bread and wine in the Grail Scene as per tradition.

Johan Engels’ costumes for the knights, focusing on floor-length coats, gave them a vaguely military air; his set for the Grail Scene was dominated by a giant golden hand, with Titurel seated at the base of it.

This didn’t add any evident layers of meaning, but it didn’t particularly detract, either. What did detract came in Act 2.

Klingsor’s flower-maiden temptresses waved billowing fabrics attached to wands affixed to their hands. That made a colorful spectacle as they swirled around Parsifal, but it also meant they couldn’t cozy up to him: They just waved the fabric as he roamed among them. Nothing seductive about that.

Caird added his own twist to Act 3, where the flower maidens—who usually disappear in the middle of Act 2—trooped back onstage during the Good Friday Spell, executing a new set of choreographed arm and hand gestures. That distracted from Parsifal’s and Kundry’s anointment, a turning point in their status. Then the maidens reappeared in the last scene, evidently to be redeemed alongside everyone else.

In the program, Caird says he added them to show that the knights have brought in women to make their group a healthier society. But that might serve better as fodder for a sequel to Parsifal, rather than giving a spurious contemporary political message that has zero to do with Wagner’s opera. 

Parsifal will be repeated 2 p.m. Sunday, 6 p.m. Jan. 27 and Jan. 31 and 2 p.m. Feb. 4 at Wortham Theater Center.

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