The Noblessner Foundry (Noblessneri valukoda) in Tallinn’s Kopli district forged a singular interpretation of Richard Wagner’s "Parsifal" on Saturday night.
The event, one of a four-night run at the venue, was a massive undertaking for the Estonian National Opera and a special showcase for Tallinn in its role as European Capital of Culture 2011.
The crumbling seaside Noblessner Foundry inspired a "Parsifal" heavy on apocalyptic imagery, and a portrayal of rundown humanity in need of redemption. The setting was stunning and thought provoking. This was Wagner brought out of its 19th century philistinism, addressing contemporary life with stark settings and irony.
Richard Wagner took the grail legends of Europe’s Middle Ages, especially Wolfram von Eschenbach's "Parzival" from the 13th century and adapted them for musical theatre at Bayreuth in Bavaria, the Mecca of all things Wagnerian. He authored all aspects of the opera’s production, including the libretto. It was first performed in 1882 and not performed away from Bayreuth for twenty years. In short, it was a work driven and controlled by the vision of the composer. It would be interesting to note Wagner’s comments on the production at Noblessner Foundry.
Over the last 130 years, there has been a plethora of interpretation and criticism on the meaning of "Parsifal", much of it conflated with the sometimes less than savory private musings of Wagner himself. One thing that everyone agrees upon, even Nietzsche, Wagner’s onetime friend turned fiercest critic, is that the music, if not the message, is fantastic. This was on display Saturday at the Noblessner, which proved to be an acoustically worthy choice of venue. For these wonderful sounds we can thank the Estonian National Opera’s orchestra and its music director and conductor Arvo Volmer as well as a stellar cast of singers. As always, the orchestra played brilliantly and on-time, the famous leitmotif of "Parsifal" seamlessly melding with the opera’s action.
As far as the singing goes, the crowd favorite was Eike Wilm Schulte as the morally and physically wounded grail king Amfortas. A smallish and not young performer, his baritone vocal prowess amazed.
The heavy lifting for this "Parsifal" fell on the shoulders of the USA’s Richard Decker, Austria’s Manfred Hemm and Irmgard Vilsmaier of Germany as Parsifal, Gurnemanz and Kundry respectively. Each more than held their own in this demanding test of endurance; five plus hours including intermissions.
Robert Innes Hopkins's sets for the opera, inspired by its place of performance, were minimalist and symbolic. Act III saw a greenhouse stand in for a forest glen. This approach worked and created the atmosphere of metaphysical barrenness which is afflicting the grail knights and which Parsifal works to overcome.
Act II saw a wonderful dose of irony that Wagner probably didn’t intend in the original. A throng of gorgeous flower maidens attempt to seduce Parsifal in order to sway him from his quest. This couldn’t help bring to mind another grail story, "Monty Python’s Holy Grail", where a chaste Michael Palin is "saved" by John Cleese form the mortal danger of a convent full of amorous nuns in need of a spanking.
At Parsifal’s conclusion the world is made whole again. The evil Klingsor (a great effort from Austria’s Martin Winkler) has been vanquished in Act II. Parsifal comes home to the grail knights to release Amfortas from his suffering and assume the role of grail king in possession of the magical spear of destiny in the final act. Act III was powerful. Gurnemanz has been reduced to a hobo, the grail knights are dispirited and Parsifal appears as a kind of post-modern slob cum redeemer. But single-mindedness and the compassion of the "holy fool" win out. A story worthy of reflection. With a nod to Nabokov appropriate enough to an opera at a foundry: the evaporation of certain volatiles and the melting of certain metals are still going on in my coils and crucibles.
Review by Mike Amundsen