Festival announces Parsifal as the opera

Submitted by NZ Opera News on August 12, 2005 - 11:30.

The Festival, in conjunction with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, will present Wagner’s Parsifal in a semi-staged concert version in the 2006 Festival, in Wellington.

This will not be the only opera in the festival, Festival Director Carla van Zon explained. There are surmises that a New Zealand work will also be featured. As with CNN, read New Zealand Opera News, and be the first to know.

The two performances of Parsifal will be conducted by Wagner specialist Anthony Negus and feature an all-New Zealand cast that brings together two generations of Wagnerian singers. Sir Donald McIntyre, to some of us the greatest living exponent of this repertoire, will sing Gurnemanz. The title role will be sung by Simon O’Neill, who recently understudied Placido Domingo in Die Walküre at the Met, New York.

Margaret Medlyn will sing Kundry: she sang that role in the Adelaide production in 2001. The Bulletin wrote of her:  “Margaret Medlyn displayed a full palette of colours and toning … She spellbound her audience as her attempted seduction of Parsifal moved through every emotion from the maternal to the voluptuous. Her animal cries and incantations embellished a musical intelligence that held firm throughout.”

Paul Whelan will be Amfortas and Martin Snell, Klingsor.

Wagner’s domination of the world of opera in the late 19th century was challenged only by Verdi. Parsifal is his last and greatest opera, his ‘farewell card to the world’ — and it is written on a grand scale. Composer and pianist Franz Liszt wrote excitedly to a friend after its first performance in 1882 “…it [Parsifal] ranges from the sublime to the most sublime”.

Conductor – Anthony Negus, director – Bernd Benthaak, designer – Tolis Papazoglou and repetiteur - Rosemary Barnes.

There’s a large cast of smaller but not unimportant roles:

  • First Knight: Patrick Power
  • Second Knight: Roger Wilson
  • First Squire: Jenny Wollerman 
  • Second Squire: Linden Loader
  • Third Squire: Stephen Chambers
  • Fourth Squire: Paul Chappory
  • The Flower Maidens: Madeleine Pierard, Janey MacKenzie, Morag Atchison, Annabelle Cheetham

This will be the first complete Wagner opera performance in Wellington since the 1997 semi-staged performance of Das Rheingold by the NZSO. There has been no fully staged offering since the 1990 Festival production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in which McIntyre also starred, in the role of Hans Sachs. The only other staged Wagner opera in the past century was Auckland Opera’s 1992 production of The Flying Dutchman.
Wagner has not been so neglected in Australia. There have been the Adelaide productions of Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1998 and 2004, Parsifal, also from Adelaide, in 2001; a Parsifal also at the Brisbane Festival; The Flying Dutchman, Tristan und Isolde, Tannhäuser, Meistersinger and Lohengrin over recent years from Opera Australia.

Parsifal was Wagner’s last opera, written when he was near 70 – when he was beginning to disturb those of his supporters who saw him as a fearless religious sceptic. But Wagner did not really lose his radical character or come to adhere to conventional religion  or become conservative in his political views. His extreme anti-Semitism is another matter altogether and it must be seen alongside his anti-Catholicism and anti-clericalism generally.

As Bryan Magee shows in his recent book, Wagner and Philosophy, he might have become disillusioned with the usefulness of politics and the likelihood or efficacy of revolutionary change, but he did not ‘move to the right’ as is common with some people as they age. He lost his idealism; he never became politically conservative.

At the same time he became fascinated with the metaphysical ideas that he took from his thorough reading of Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Forstellung (The World as Will and Representation – Wagner read its over one thousand pages many times – four times within the first year of his discovery of it - September 1854).

Magee holds that the apparently religious character of Parsifal does not derive from any assumption of religious belief, but of Schopenhauer and aspects of Buddhism that influenced Schopenhauer, elevating the primacy of sex and emotion in humanity, and seeing music as the purest representation of ‘Platonic’ ideals.

We remark on this element of Parsifal, both because of the quasi-religious quality evident on first reading the text, but also because it, as well as the genius of the music itself, will provide the susceptible listener/reader with philosophical and aesthetic riches to sustain him as long as he lives.

When Mahler heard Parsifal for the first time he said that ‘this experience, hallowed and unsullied, would stay with me for the rest of my life’. Some comments on the Parsifal experience:

“Nothing in the world has made such an overwhelming impression on me. All my innermost heartstrings throbbed.”  Sibelius

“This is one of the most beautiful monuments that has ever been erected to the eternal glory of music.”    Debussy

“Every time I glance at the score of Parsifal, I say to myself, ‘this is the sublime one’.”   Toscanini

“When I came out of the Festspielhaus, unable to speak a word, I knew that I had experienced supreme greatness and supreme suffering.”   Mahler

“His last work was a prayer. In his heart he dedicated Parsifal to the everlasting God. ...in this way he created his own prayer.”   Liszt

“Words cannot give you anywhere near the tremendous impression, shattering yet life-enhancing, which this work made on me.”    Berg

Then again, there are the sceptics:

“It is not so much that we resent Wagner’s hypocrisy in lecturing us on the virtues of innocence and purity of heart - as if Robert Maxwell had written a book on business ethics - it is so staggeringly pretentious.”    Denis Forman.