As clearly visible on all photos, the Sydney Opera House has two “sails”, interconnected major sections. One of them houses concerts, the other operas. Opera performances, however, are not exclusively taking place in the Opera Theatre. Over the years, essential works of the operatic canon, neglected for a variety of reasons (some valid, others questionable) by Opera Australia, have been produced in the Concert Hall by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Due to the current renovation works in the Opera Theatre, OA has come up with a number of alternate programmes in new venues; one of these is three unstaged performances of Wagner’s Parsifal in the Concert Hall.
The risks were considerable and not only financial. The nation’s flagship company has not performed any of Wagner’s operas in Sydney for many years, let alone Parsifal. The necessary physical and mental stamina required for a non-repertoire opera lasting five-and-a-half hours is immense, particularly regarding those protagonists who are constantly at work during the performance: the orchestra and its conductor. The question begged to be asked: would the orchestra of OA, unprotected by the anonymity of their regular environment and unaccustomed to such exposure, be able to emerge for all to see and hear; would it soar like Parsifal’s spear and perform magic? The answer was reassuringly in the affirmative.
These finely trained but seldom appreciated musicians gained a formidable and inspiring ally in conductor Pinchas Steinberg, in his company debut. The septuagenarian maestro kept proceedings firmly in hand, without any fuss but with an unfailingly sensitive ear to detail, and, even more importantly, to the balance. Right from the first extensive, longing sigh of the Prelude, cushioned sonorities of the brass, finely tuned solo woodwind passages and delicate, yet lush resonances of the strings promised much and delivered even more. Despite the fact that the orchestra sat behind the soloists, no singer was covered at any time by the might of the Wagnerian orchestra; a major feat in an opera that was performed with no less than 107 orchestral musicians at its 1882 première. The playing always remained sympathetic and delicate – almost too much so at times; thus, the tumultuously descending rapid scale announcing Kundry’s wild arrival sounded understated rather than tortured, and the audience had to wait until the end of Act 1, the uncovering of the Grail, before the release of the first genuine orchestral fortissimo.
Overall, the stars lined up perfectly for a notable performance (pun intended). Among the outstanding local and visiting artists, two of the world’s leading Wagner singers excelled and contributed to a truly memorable evening. Undoubtedly, the person everybody wanted to see and hear was Jonas Kaufmann in the title role; I was, however, equally captivated by Kwangchul Youn’s mesmerising performance as Gurnemanz. Both of them were outstanding in their humble artistry and utterly human personification of their role. Every word in Youn’s excellent diction had meaning and importance, and every one of his lines was coated in the honeydew of his warm bass voice; a voice that he, with enviable judgement, hardly ever raised over mezzo forte. With the sensitive orchestral accompaniment, there was no need, which paradoxically lent extra strength to the role of Gurnemanz, who narrates much of the action in Act 1.