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Bayreuth Wagner revival shines

A review

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[August 28, 2009]  BAYREUTH, Germany (AP) -- Jackbooted Nazi storm-troopers. A mad magician in drag. And a German history lesson from the days of Bismarck to the time when the vanquished nation rises from the ashes of Hitler and World War II.

Performed Thursday at the Bayreuth Festival, this is Wagner's Parsifal, seen through the looking glass of director Stefan Herheim -- and it's arguably better for Herheim's efforts.

Herheim takes what is a tough opera to love for all but the most devoted Wagnerites -- a patchwork of pagan mysticism, Christianity and Buddhism, mixed with agonizingly slow-moving tableaus and lulling, though beautiful music -- and infuses it with visual punch and clever modern-day symbolism.

He works with what Wagner adapted from sages of old. A fellowship of knight-priests has fallen on hard times because Klingsor, an aspirant rejected in his bid to join them, steals the spear that pierced Christ's side and formed the complement to the grail Jesus drank from.

Enter Parsifal, the innocent chosen to recover the relic and redeem the fellowship by resisting the charms of Kundry, the seductress incarnate and other beauties in Klingsor's thrall. At the end, Kundry dies but is saved from hell; Amfortas, who let the spear be stolen while succumbing to Kundry, is relieved of suffering, and Parsifal takes the fellowship's crown.

Even in Wagner's day not all were enchanted.

Upon attending a Bayreuth performance in 1891, Mark Twain summarized it as focusing on a "hermit named Gurnemanz who stands on the stage in one spot and practices by the hour, while first one and then another character of the cast endures what he can of it and then retires to die."

Herheim clearly recognized the problem. So he sexed things up -- literally.

In Thursday's performance, a revival from last year, Parsifal is a problem child, seduced by his mother in the same brass bed that later serves Kundry as she tries her wiles on the young hero. Klingsor wears garters and heels. And Gurnemanz, Wagner's knight-hermit above reproach, tries, in an unguarded moment to make a move on Kundry.

More impressive is the thread Herheim weaves -- a century of German history replete with back-projected footage of the two world wars, smoking ruins left by the fall of the Third Reich, on-stage depictions of war wounded, fleeing Jews and -- toward the end -- Germany as a phoenix rising from the ashes.

The links are clear but effective. Sin begets misery in the knight-priest kingdom, and pulls the country into the vortex of destruction that ends only with the redemption wrought by Parsifal. Old and new are joined, and the result is an opera that is true to its roots but relates as well on the contemporary level.

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While the story is better for the rejuvenation, the music needs no makeover -- it is some of Wagner's finest, starting with the slow prelude of religious overtones, the "Transformation Music" of Act I, Act II's Flower Maiden Chorus and the "Good Friday Music" of the final act.

Conductor Daniele Gatti erred perhaps by slowing the tempo on what is already slow -- the performance ended nearly 20 minutes past schedule. Beyond that, he was faultless in coaxing a sonorous, flowing and perfectly balanced performance both from the pit and on stage.

Mihoko Fujimura was among the best of the principals as Kundry, doomed to centuries of reincarnated suffering for laughing at Christ on his way to Golgotha.

She is not as "mad" as Wagner would have her -- he wrote her mad-scene for much of the opera's first two acts, first as the wild-eyed helper of the fellowship, and then as Klingsor's love slave programmed to seduce Parsifal.

But her singing is faultless, easily mastering the four-octave fortissimo Kundry theme. Her intonation was effortless. So was her pitch and phrasing.

Christopher Ventris was her equal as Parsifal -- although he looked more convincing in the final act, first in armor and then in Christlike robes, than in the short-legged sailor suit he wore in his initial appearances.

Kwangchul Youn was Gournemanz, with his fine bass and powerful acting and Thomas Jesatko the ranting scheming Klingsor.

Weakest was Detlef Roth as Amfortas, the king of the warrior-priest realm -- but only because the other principals were so fine.

[Associated Press; By GEORGE JAHN]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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