Three days after seeing the Metropolitan Opera’s broadcast version of Wagner’s Parsifal, I attended Climbing Toward Midnight, Jack Symonds’ compositional response to this same opera, directed by Netta Yashchin. This act of homage differed hugely from its parent work in terms of scale: a 70-minute work for two singers and four instrumentalists could have little in common with Wagner’s five-hour music drama with a cast and orchestra in proportion. Sonically, too, there were obvious differences: in place of Wagner’s lush late romantic harmonies and gorgeous colours, it was mostly written in the acerbic, expressionist idiom characteristic of Symonds’ other stage works. However, there were subcutaneous musical connections between the two: the opening motive (according to the composer, the foundation for the entire work) was derived from the delicious B minor to G minor progression at the beginning of Act II of Parsifal.

Maya Gavish and Mitchell Riley © Louis Dillon-Savage
Maya Gavish and Mitchell Riley
© Louis Dillon-Savage

The plot of the new work also took Act II of Wagner’s last opera as its departure point, in particular the complex relationship between Kundry and Parsifal. In the original, Kundry has been condemned for having laughed at Christ to act as a temptress, luring the Knights of the Grail to their destruction, and as a result, perpetuating her own tortured existence. Parsifal, the pure fool, is awoken to knowledge by her kiss, but resists her, which eventually allows her to escape her curse. In Climbing, Christian mysticism has been set aside, leaving just a twisted psychological drama. This Parsifal succumbs to Kundry, and his eventual rejection of her seems (in the absence of a Christian mandate of purity) to be motivated by misogyny and sexual neurosis – at least, that was how I read the uncomfortable business near the end, when Kundry is pelted with clothes, scrubbed with some abrasive substance, force-fed with bread, and doused with wine. Admittedly, the original libretto is not innocent of darker Freudian urges: even there, Kundry’s self-identification with Parsifal’s deceased mother gives their kiss a strongly Oedipal flavour. In the new work, these hints were made grotesquely overt when Kundry donned a pregnant suit for the central portion of the work.

The strongly expressionist feel of the whole was furthered by Symonds’ decision to amplify the text of Act II of Parsifal with poetry from the fin-de-siècle poet Georg Trakl. Moreover, he freely adapted the original, including some lines from Acts I and III (for instance, Kundry’s “To serve” [“dienen, dienen”] and “Sleep I must” were severed from their original contexts, recontextualised as part of the pervasive, cryptic symbolism). The composer, perhaps wisely, avoided competing with Wagner at some of the more famous moments: in particular, Kundry’s infamous “und lachte” (“and laughed”) was set to a descending perfect fourth in a low tessitura, rather than the original fall of a compound seventh which takes the soprano from near the top to near the bottom of her range.

An insert in the program informed us that because of injury, Lucinda Mirikata-Deacon would only sing, while Maya Gavish took on the role of acting surrogate. This departure from the original plan of using just two singing-actors turned out to be a masterstroke, especially when it allowed the talented dancer to “become” the mother for a spell, while the singing Kundry narrated the story from an opening high on the back wall. Mirikata-Deacon has a marvellously rich and creamy voice, big and thrilling, and clearly has a major career ahead of her. Mitchell Riley, as Parsifal, was also excellent, secure amid the chromatic challenges of the score. The set was appropriately spare, consisting of haphazard geometric shapes which were well-utilized by the cast.

The four-piece orchestra also deserves plaudits for having risen to the enormous challenges laid on them: each part involved many virtuosic difficulties, although two haunting passages of thirds between cello and viola were what remained particularly in this reviewer’s mind. Another lovely moment was when the viola and voice entered into a rhapsodic duet at the text “O how the light burns”; this emerged out of a passage which recalled the contrapuntal first movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 131. Symonds carried off with aplomb the dual roles of pianist and conductor, although the exigencies of marking the pulse, cueing the singers, and playing his notes left him at times looking like a frenetic octopus. At one particularly busy point, the bass clarinet had to take over the conducting duties.

Ultimately, Climbing Toward Midnight is distant enough from Parsifal not to seem like a desecration, and yet responds in an intriguing way to what Symonds described in his note as “arguably the most controversial and reviled of [Wagner’s] operas”. That’s a controversial view in itself, and what has resulted is a controversial new work. Still, if you like your drama edgy and your music spare, be sure to get to see this: it’s another fascinating production by Sydney Chamber Opera.