Decades in the making, Richard Wagner’s monumental opera Parsifal was based primarily on Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 24,000-line epic poem about the knight who became keeper of the Holy Grail. While the composer’s own prose scenario was completed in 1865, his scoring of it wasn’t finished until 1882, when he directed it at Bayreuth's Festspielhaus just a little over a year before his death.

Stefan Vinke (Parsifal) and Nina Stemme (Kundry)
© Danielle Liniger

To summarise the sequences of the opera’s events is no easy task, nor did the music itself always have a positive reception. It was in in 1880 that a Cincinnati critic writing for The Commercial wrote: Wagner’s is “music with a stomach ache. It has knots and cramps and spasms, increasing in volume suddenly and subsiding as quickly, but never quite coming to a state of internal rest”.

Today, however, the Parsifal narrative is set against what many consider some of the world’s most luscious and emotive musical interludes. Scored for six principal singers, and some dozen lesser roles among knights, soldiers, and flower maidens, the opera’s drama is a turbulent mix of magic, seduction, punishment and redemption. For his Zurich Opera production, Claus Guth and his designer Christian Schmidt chose to interpret the work outside the context of the time in which it was written. The Grail Knights' search for a redeemer is correlated with the disorientation and quest for meaning in the years following the First World War, and ultimately reflects the disorder in Germany that led to more turmoil in the 1930s. But it is no less a reflection on the power of symbols. Allusions to the Christian sacraments and homage to the attributes of faith not only run rampant, they cement the very framework within which this great work operates.

Omer Kobiljak and Alexander Kiechle (Grail Knights)
© Danielle Liniger

The opera’s thematic content reinvents a Christ figure in the form of the knight, Parsifal, whose deep religious conviction transforms him from a heartless, bumbling “fool” – who shoots down a sacred swan – to the hero, all in some four hours of stage time. As the lead, Stefan Vinke projected powerfully at high volume throughout, and he gave poignancy to Wagner’s demanding libretto. But from the end of Act 2, his middle voice faltered, particularly audible in his scene with the seasoned Nina Stemme, who took the role of Kundry with utter sovereignty. Her character, a highly misogynist version of Mary Magdalene, has been eternally condemned for having mocked the crucified Jesus, and her salvation comes after only after the curse on her is magically lifted. Encouraging in Guth’s production, unlike the scripted version of the opera, is that Kundry’s life is spared at the end. She simply slips off stage-left, carrying a heavy suitcase, unnoticed at the grand celebration of the Grail’s being safe and sound under new management.

Wenwei Zhang (Klingsor) and Lauri Vasar (Amfortas)
© Danielle Liniger

Wagner’s libretto also spells out the heroics and conflicts of loyalties. Amfortas, the tragic figure whose open wound mirrors that of Jesus on the cross, is ultimately healed by the elixir of the Grail, and Claus Guth joins him and Klingsor in friendship and purpose at the end of the production. Amfortas was brilliantly sung by the gifted Lauri Vasar, whose tortured body – laid out on the bier for treatment – uncannily resembled that of Hans Holbein’s The Dead Christ. The lion-like Wenwei Zhang sang the immoveable, self-castrated and wholly wretched Klingsor entirely believably. As Titurel, Pavel Daniluk’s was a solid performance of tremendous conviction, while Christof Fischesser gave resonance and profound emotive power to his role as Gurnemanz, council and priest.

The Zurich opera’s rotating stage suggested the passage of time and settings nicely. The first act is shown in a hospital for wounded veterans, but alternates with rooms of a bourgeois villa that houses the coveted Holy Grail, the chalice said to have received Christ’s blood at the Cross. The set’s interchangeable parts – courtyards, stairwells, upstairs platforms – serve the full length of the opera. Further, Andi A Müller’s masterful design of a stage-front gauze screen periodically shows video: lumbering feet, freedom-seeking travellers, and the peaceful harmony of a cloudy sky, all of them marvellous.

Zurich Opera Chorus
© Danielle Liniger

Under Simone Young, the Philharmonia Zürich also fleshed out Wagner’s complex score with remarkable energy. The strings and woodwinds, particularly, set tightly pointed markers throughout, and often pulled on the heartstrings enough to make even a brave man cry. What’s more, under the newly-appointed choir director, Janko Kastelic’s direction, the opera house’s superb choir, SoprAlti, and supplementary singers, gave an indispensable, refreshing dimension: the sense that none of us were far from the majesty of Heaven ourselves. To describe this production as “inspired” only does it moderate justice. Any opera house anywhere would be hard put to do better.