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.

Jonas Kaufmann © Keith Saunders
Jonas Kaufmann
© Keith Saunders

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.

Pinchas Steinberg and Jonas Kaufmann © Keith Saunders
Pinchas Steinberg and Jonas Kaufmann
© Keith Saunders

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.

Similarly, Kaufmann used his famed Heldentenor not to show off but to credibly build up the arch of his role from the swan-killing ‘guileless fool’ (der reine Tor) at the beginning to the incorruptible hero who will regain the spear and, like a latter-day Jesus, save Amfortas and his kingdom by the end of the opera. Kaufmann’s wealth of experience in this role, assisted by his focused commitment, resulted in a heartfelt interpretation.

The role of Klingsor, who is behind all evil deeds in this work, is restricted to Act 2. Warwick Fyfe, whose artistic progress over the last decade or so has been phenomenal, proved to be a worthy opponent to Parsifal, dramatically as much as vocally. Unlike Youn, he never dropped his passionate hatred (and his well-treated voice) much below boiling point. Fyfe’s representation of Klingsor’s impotent frustration was as astute as it was frightening.

Pinchas Steinberg, Michelle DeYoung and Kwangchul Youn © Keith Saunders
Pinchas Steinberg, Michelle DeYoung and Kwangchul Youn
© Keith Saunders

In such august company, Michael Honeyman, as Amfortas, sounded adequate, but not much more. His vocal qualities are unquestionable; however, more empathy and artistic presence is needed to credibly deliver the wounded king’s eternal pain. David Parkin as Titurel sounded majestic and authoritative even from his position behind the orchestra.

Of the female roles, the six Flower Maidens were individually stylish and seductive but in their ensemble overbearing. Their collective lack of volume control was intensified by Kaufmann’s gentle responses as he resisted both their physical and vocal challenge. Michelle DeYoung sang the role of Kundry with pained passion; the qualities of her attractive voice were, however, at times diminished by an excessive vibrato.

No other Wagner opera offers as much to the chorus as Parsifal. The OA and the Children’s Choruses sang with obvious enthusiasm and added many colours to an already glowing performance.

Klingsor’s opening line is (albeit referring to something altogether different) “Die Zeit ist da”. Indeed, “the time has come” for Opera Australia to prove that its forces are more than capable of delivering a highly satisfying performance of such a demanding work, as Wagner’s last music drama. And, by extension, of other, similar repertoire.