Victorian Opera has mounted an awesome production of Parsifal, Wagner’s great Bühnenweihfestspiel, in Melbourne’s cavernous Palais Theatre, featuring outstanding principals, an exceptional chorus and a simply brilliant Australian Youth Orchestra. Roger Hodgman's minimalist, powerful staging featured a box split by a jagged tear into front and back sections, visually depicting the brokenness of the black suited Grail knights. Props were kept to a minimum. The effect was strong, clear and precise. Subtle variations by Richard Roberts’ designs and Matt Scott’s lighting made each scene unique.

Burkhard Fritz (Parsifal) and Peter Rose (Gurnemanz) © Jeff Busby
Burkhard Fritz (Parsifal) and Peter Rose (Gurnemanz)
© Jeff Busby

Wagner peppered Parsifal with rituals, symbols and language from the Christian tradition and this production underscored this. The Grail’s unveiling in Act 1 seemed more influenced by contemporary Catholic concelebrated Mass than anything from Wagner’s time. This added gravitas, enhancing the solemnity and timelessness of the action, underscoring the Lutheran theology of atonement and redemption recurring in Wagner’s libretto.

The 75-strong Australian Youth Orchestra, under the gentle guidance of Richard Mills, responded brilliantly. Their clever, mature interpretation impressed, the sound they produced inspired. The orchestra overfilled the pit, putting timpani and harps at audience level, allowing Thomas Robertson’s ear-catchingly smooth command of his timps to stand out.

Peter Rose’s sonorous bass evoked a friendly, compassionate Gurnemanz, bold and confident, his voice beautifully rich, warm and welcoming, a joy to experience. He was unlike the Grail knights who hoed into Kundry, arrogant and officious, abusive in their superiority. Maybe they wore black shirts for a reason.

Katarina Dalayman was fantastic as Kundry, bringing a sophisticated portrayal to the role. The wild, sly temptress could camouflage herself in a moment into a pile of old rags, yet when the young Parsifal appeared, she surveyed him with interest, even displaying a knowing smile as she started to remember. Her smoky mezzo suggested a woman with knowledge and deep unfathomed mystery.

Burkhard Fritz (Parsifal) © Jefff Busby
Burkhard Fritz (Parsifal)
© Jefff Busby

Burkhard Fritz, comfortable as Parsifal, the innocent fool, attempted the illusion of a simple young man out of his depth, bemused by it all, with some success when first dragged on stage by the knights for killing a swan (held up in evidence complete with pierced arrow). Fritz can act (most of the time) as well as sing. His uncomfortable bemusement when led into the hall of the knights, his recoiling when offered the cup to drink, his slow realisation of what he had witnessed, and his dejected departure when Gurnemanz shooed him away, was convincing.

In Act 2, a not yet wiser Parsifal stumbled into Klingsor’s snare where he was accosted by a bevy of glittering sirens in 1920s-style silver dresses. Their amazing singing was supremely tempting, their fawning alluring, but all they did was put Parsifal on his guard. Although his actions became wooden, Fritz’s voice told the story, growing anxiety announcing his wising up. Feeling the pain of Amfortas, he steeled himself against making the same mistake. Big-gun temptress Kundry, in ox-blood dress and beauty makeover, reluctantly entered the fray.

Derek Welton (Klingsor) and Katarina Dalayman (Kundry) © Jeff Busby
Derek Welton (Klingsor) and Katarina Dalayman (Kundry)
© Jeff Busby

Dalayman and Derek Welton – a silver-suited, red-haired, Klingsor presiding in a version of a stewards’ box on a racecourse – had clearly had words. With fresh yet urgent voice, he had commanding her to seduce our hero. Starting reluctantly, Dalayman was soon singing most persuasively and in earnest, a fascinating, controlled and powerfully directed onslaught. Again we heard Fritz’s Parsifal growing in resolve and wisdom. However, the famous spear scene seemed botched. Klingsor thrust it forward, paused, then Parsifal just took it. The ceiling-to-floor backdrop fell, as did Klingsor. Kundry lay on the ground, and a brilliant timpani roll wrap up the act.

Back in the land of the Grail, Gurnermanz, like everyone else, had grown weary and despondent. The orchestral prelude warned us of what to expect. Music like this cannot be easy to play. Rose was pottering about, Kundry in the background, when a bedraggled Parsifal staggered in. When they recognised each other, Rose was at his best with his sad description of the mess the knights were in, his sweet blessing of Parsifal, and his hopeful voice that Parsifal might redeem them.

James Roser sang a pain-ridden Amfortas to perfection, from his first appearance, wearing white blood stained pyjamas, carried on a litter to perform the Grail unveiling. We could hear the pain in his voice, his rich baritone resounding as he agonised for salvation. And at the rear of the stage, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, as the ageing Titurel, forcefully urged Amfortas on with convincing forcefulness.

This was one of most compelling Parsifal’s I have experienced. The quality was excellent, the Australian Youth Orchestra full of poise and maturity, all the singing impressive. Victorian Opera should be proud.

*****