- Associated Press - Monday, February 21, 2011

BARCELONA, SPAIN (AP) - The Knights of the Holy Grail in a decaying Victorian mansion? Or in a rubble-strewn wasteland? Music lovers can take their pick between drastically updated productions of Wagner’s last opera, “Parsifal,” now running in Barcelona and London.

Barcelona’s housebound version, directed by Claus Guth, had its premiere Sunday evening at the Gran Teatre del Liceu and will travel to Zurich later this year. In London, the English National Opera is presenting a final revival of Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s post-apocalyptic vision that premiered there in 1999 and has since traveled the world.

Both productions run through March 12.

Wagner, who staged the premiere of “Parsifal” himself at Bayreuth, intended that Act 1 should open in a forest and Act 3 in a meadow. There’s nary a tree nor a flower to be seen in either of these re-imaginings, yet both manage to offer some fresh insights into this most mystical and puzzling of operas.

The story tells how Parsifal, a young “innocent fool,” redeems the knights from evil times that have befallen them. Their leader, Amfortas, has been seduced by Kundry and then gravely wounded with his own spear by his one-time comrade, the sorcerer Klingsor. Parsifal learns compassion by witnessing Amfortas’ suffering, and then he is able to resist Kundry’s wiles, destroy Klingsor’s power and return the spear to the knights.

In Guth’s rendering, we watch a brief “prequel” during the opening prelude: three gentlemen are eating dinner at Castle Montsalvat when a quarrel erupts and one of them storms out, making threats. It’s Klingsor, leaving behind Amfortas and his father, Titurel, still seated at the table.

As Act 1 opens, we see the castle as a two-story mansion with paint peeling off its walls that has been turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers. The knights take Communion by drinking from cups dispensed by doctors and nurses on rolling carts. Through use of a revolving turntable, we watch as Parsifal wanders from room to room, witnessing Amfortas’ agonies from his wound that never heals.

The production begins to stretch credibility when the curtain rises for Act 2. Instead of seeing Klingsor’s castle, we’re still in the same mansion _ as if he had simply moved to a separate wing of the house. The Flower Maidens who flirt with Parsifal are party girls in flapper dresses, and paper lanterns hang from the ceiling.

During the electrifying scene between Parsifal and Kundry that marks his religious awakening, Guth undermines the drama and sexual tension by making them enact their encounter in front of a crowd of male and female partygoers.

He also ruins a great moment in Act 3, when the knight Gurnemanz describes the miracle of nature on Good Friday, by superimposing distracting video over the set: images of an explosion, soldiers marching, women tilling fields, crowds massing.

Lehnhoff, by contrast, keeps his staging relatively simple. Though it’s never clear just what calamity has ruined the landscape _ a meteor? a nuclear war? _ the knights bravely carry on as long as they can. And the reappearance of Parsifal in Act 3, after years of wandering, is magical _ a forbidding figure in black armor slowly emerging from a dark tunnel.

Both companies field strong casts, but the standout was Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton, whose Parsifal in London was just about ideal. He summoned thrilling power for the dramatic outbursts but also could caress the vocal line with tenderness. His Gurnemanz, bass John Tomlinson, was a tower of strength, though his high notes now wobble badly. Baritone Iain Paterson was a frighteningly tormented Amfortas.

The one disappointment was mezzo-soprano Jane Dutton, who made a pallid Kundry. Conductor Mark Wigglesworth gave the score a masterful reading that was by turns elegiac and muscular.

In Barcelona, Klaus Florian Vogt displayed his uniquely sweet timbre that lacks only visceral power to make him a completely satisfying Parsifal. Hans-Peter Koenig sang beautifully, with particularly resonant high notes, as Gurnemanz. Anja Kampe was a fiery Kundry, and Alan Held a moving Amfortas. Conductor Michael Boder’s pacing dragged at times, particularly in the Kundry-Parsifal scene of Act 2.

Curiously, although Wagner pretty clearly intended that Kundry, newly baptized and redeemed, should die at the end of the opera, both productions have her live to see another day.

In Lehnhoff’s version, it’s Amfortas who dies, while Kundry and Parsifal seem to go off together _ down an abandoned railroad track into an uncertain future. In Guth’s production, Kundry sets fire to her party clothes, packs a suitcase and walks off. The final, provocative image shows Klingsor, stripped of his sorcery, reconciling with the now-healed Amfortas.

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