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Geneva’s Parsifal ends in embrace

John Fiore
Associated Press

By Bradley S. Klapper

GENEVA – Geneva's new "Parsifal" production escaped the boos heard after several recent Richard Wagner opera premieres at the Grand Theatre, with a richly colored staging accompanying music that was at times so sensuous the allegory of Christian salvation seemed destined to end in embrace.

Perhaps it was a nod to Wagner the young revolutionary, and not the moralizing elder, that Swiss director Roland Aeschlimann chose to finish the German composer's final opera with spiritual and earthly redemption.

Instead of falling lifelessly to the ground, the bewitched temptress Kundry walked halfway across the stage during Thursday night's opener to seek out the Holy Grail's shamed keeper Amfortas. In place of a scripted solemn bow to the hero Parsifal, Amfortas takes Kundry in his arms as both are relieved of suffering.

After more than four hours of often sublime music under American maestro John Fiore, and a stage that alternated in ethereal blues, greens and violets, the ploy worked. And after loud boos at a 2008 "Lohengrin" production that situated medieval Belgium in Communist Party headquarters, and mixed reaction to a 2005 "Tannhaeuser" staging featuring a pornographic actor, the modern but subdued rendering of Parsifal won over Geneva's conservative collection of Wagner aficionados.

"It was very beautiful to watch, and it was important that it was faithful to Wagner's idea," said Georges Schuerch, president of the local Wagner society. He said he would attend Sunday's second performance as well.

There were scattered "Bravi" from the crowds. The largest were for experienced bass-baritone Albert Dohmen and for the conductor Fiore, who kept the orchestra tidy through the score's infinite melody and leitmotifs. Where soft winds were called for, the lulling sound was entrancing; at moments of triumph, the big brass cracked the air.

The story of Parsifal is a complicated mixture of pagan mysticism, Christianity and Buddhism, and the Geneva production seeks to break it down to the basics.

The opera starts with the forces of good in trouble, as the knight-priests guarding the Holy Grail have lost the magical spear that pierced Christ's body and formed the complement to the chalice Jesus drank from. The impure Klingsor, a former outcast of the fellowship, now has one-half of the hoard of the world and has the grail in his sights.

Only an innocent fool can save the knights and their leader, Amfortas, who is refusing his grail duties out of shame for losing the spear while succumbing to Kundry's seduction. Parsifal enters an idiot child, but after withstanding the charms of Kundry and the other beauties of Klingsor's realm, retrieves the spear and heals Amfortas of his flesh and spiritual wounds. Kundry is redeemed as well.

Aeschlimann paints the Kingdom of the Grail in a mist of heavenly azure, with the knights' names inscribed on the stage. As the knights in trench coats congregate for their sacred ceremony, a floating vault appears with jumbled letters and symbols like the riddles of the universe. The grail is uncovered and the mess clears away, shooting an effigy of Jesus into the air and then a bright light as if shining through a black hole.

But then things turn swampy, as the opera enters Klingsor's green haze of a valley below. Light has been replaced by a giant hypnotist spiral as Klingsor's spell forces Kundry to do her dirty work. Then it's a menacing spear hanging vertically on the stage, highlighting the omnipresent threat Parsifal faces and his holy task even as Klingsor's sexy flower maidens lavish the hero with caresses.

In this version, Parsifal nearly loses his shirt. It would have been less appealing if not for the strikingly handsome German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt, whose looks were as important as his clean, untiring voice in making Aeschlimann's staging a success.

Finally, the opera returns to the knights on a billowy white bed. The grail is revealed again, and Parsifal climbs the mantle toward truth's shining light as the music returns to Wagner's hymn of love and praise.

The largely German cast provided delightful diction, with Vogt looking and sounding the part of a Wagnerian heldentenor.

Dohmen gave a dignified, elegant performance as the moderating knight Gurnemanz, and Lioba Braun was equally sultry in Kundry's red dress and convincing in her remorse, even if some higher notes were forced. Andrew Greenan was a menacing Klingsor, but Detlef Roth seemed a bit too epileptic as Amfortas and wasn't helped by some rather buffoonish white paint on his face.