Most symbol-encrusted and convoluted of the Wagner music-dramas, “Parsifal” does not lend itself to every operagoer’s idea of a jolly evening at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Combine that with the elements of a typical Robert Wilson staging, for which “symbol-encrusted” and “convoluted” may also serve as earmarks, and the problems just might increase. Yet Saturday night’s “Parsifal” premiere, the first of a seven-performance engagement, drew a huge last-minute box office run, kept a near-capacity audience stable with minimal defections, and drew far more cheers than boos at the end.
Noted for his conceptualized stagings sometimes at odds with the text — “you have washed my feet” says Parsifal to Kundry, while Kundry stands, washrag at the ready, half a stage-width away — Wilson has evolved a milieu for Wagner’s sacred drama that transports his German-singing Spanish guardians of the Holy Grail to a setting evocative of classic theater some distance away.
Designer Frida Parmeggiani’s men’s robes have the squared-off shoulders and the high shovel hats of Japan’s Noh theater, and Wilson works hard on his characters to produce the bent-back hand postures of that theatrical style as well. The contrast with sung German is, to say the least, odd.
The stage concept itself might evoke a surprise or two. Not that “Parsifal” performances are all that common — the last in Los Angeles was a visit from the San Francisco Opera in 1964 — but expectations usually run to massive choruses in a cathedral-like setting with the Grail casting its sacred gleam over all. Wilson’s Montsalvat Castle is a bare white space with a donut-shaped mirror in the middle into which the Grail receptacle sits in act one — with the chorus offstage — but which becomes a flame in act three. The “Magic Flower Garden” in act two is a cactus-shaped metallic protuberance.
This is, then, a “Parsifal” both exotic and austere, rescued to some degree by musical matters, by Kent Nagano’s well-reasoned conducting and performance by the orchestra best described as “tidy,” and most of all by the vibrant, resonant performance by imperishable Finnish bass-baritone Matti Salminen as the wise and noble Gurnemanz.
Much has been made, of course, about the aging Placido Domingo in the title role, which he has been singing with some success at the Met and elsewhere for several years. Well and good, but there is a quality of youth and beauty in Parsifal’s music, most of all in the ardent music of self-discovery in the second act, which no longer resides in the 64-year-old voice of Domingo, and in that scene in particular, up against Linda Watson’s genuinely seductive Kundry, it was greatly missed.