WAGNER'S PARSIFAL offers as many temptations to a director as do the Flower Maidens who try to distract the title character from his quest. In this story of an "innocent fool" recruited by the Knights of the Grail to find the spear that pierced Christ's side, Wagner found a mix of Christian and Arthurian legend, sin, sex, and redemption, to which he added generous doses of Schopenhauer and Buddhism. The allusions and illusions are so multilayered and the desire to "interpret" them so seductive, the risk of any staging is that everything in it ends up being about something elseallegorical ritual rather than compelling theater.
But director Francois Rochaix is, as he told me, first and foremost "a storyteller." He keeps this Parsifal (through Sunday, Aug. 24, at McCaw Hall; ticket office, 206-389-7676) on track through three acts of 100, 67, and 74 minutes, respectively, by emphasizing the dramatic character clashes and downplaying the subtexts. And he gets sympathetic help from designer Robert Israel, who has designed some beautiful tableaux recalling Renaissance religious art. Though the set is a bit of a cliché (the usual raked trapezoids), Israel's costumes for the Flower Maidens are startling: Lurid, even surreal, they're bound to be controversial, particularly the 1920s bathing bloomers on one Maiden and the huge pink Flying Nun hat seemingly straight out of a Baz Luhrmann Sound of Music. The wizardly realm of the failed knight Klingsorwho has stolen the spear and conjured the Maidens to protect itis supposed to contrast with the ascetic world of the Grail keepersand, boy, does it.
SEATTLE OPERA CHOSE Wagner's last work to inaugurate its renovated home, and Rochaix's second priority, naturally enough, was to flaunt what this new facility can do. After Parsifal recaptures the spear, Klingsor's four-story-high domain plunges breathtakingly out of sightdemonstrating the stage's new trapdoor and lift. On a 79-foot-by-34-foot screen for digitally projected backdrops, icy glaciers morph into a verdant garden, and back again. This system may not be much use for, say, The Barber of Seville, but for any opera that involves magic, like Parsifal, it'll enable some stunning effects.
In the auditorium, the first balcony's been extended a couple rows; spacious and close to the action, it feels like a second main floor, not like you're sitting in the air. The walls were brought in about 15 feet on each side, and the balcony sides now wrap around and down, leading almost to the edge of the orchestra pit, making the new space more intimate. The proscenium's also been raised, lessening the divide between the onstage action and our world. Israel seems to have designed his set to interact with all these changesit's fronted by a flight of steps that lead to the pit, and that's where Rochaix puts much of the action. Both stage and auditorium meet in the middle, focusing our attention on the center of one vast unified space that the audience and singers seem to cohabitincreasing the immediacy of what can be a fairly arcane, slow-moving opera.
And the acoustics? Spectacular. McCaw Hall made every opera I've heard anywhere else sound in retrospect as though I'd had cotton in my ears. It helped to have Stephen Milling, whose opulent baritone and visceral, dramatically insightful delivery was the talk of SO's 2001 Ring, to open the show. His first notes, in the role of knight/narrator Gurnemanz, provided my first gasp of the evening. Vocally, the whole production is splendidly cast, with some favorite Seattle Opera villains, Greer Grimsley as Amfortas (the wounded leader who can only be healed by the spear) and Richard Paul Fink as Klingsor; Linda Watson, whose high notes resounded and shimmered like bells, as the temptress Kundry; and the fresh, bold tenor of Christopher Ventris in the title role.
Even before the curtain rose, the Seattle Symphonylongtime Wagner experts both in the opera pit and on the concert stageenchanted me, lovingly guided by conductor Asher Fisch. McCaw Hall takes the orchestra to an even higher level than did the opening of Benaroya Hall in 1998, making possible a new vividness and transparency.
No doubt, Speight Jenkins is in for some nasty letters from reactionary opera mavens complaining that this isn't how the Met did it in 1949. But look behind the stagecraft and you'll discover a production faithful to opera's four-century-old core values: acoustic presence, narrative sweep, human emotion. If Parsifal is any indication, SO is eager to use its state-of-the-art technology to enhance, not replace, these values. McCaw Hall's potential is unlimited, and though this production sets a very high standard, I've never been so excited about the company's future.