Despite all the religious language in Richard Wagner’s final opera, “Parsifal” is about sex, or the renunciation thereof.
Act One of the Lyric Opera‘s nearly five-hour production at the Civic Opera House opens in the Monastery of the Holy Grail with monks assigned to guard the chalice, which legend says is the cup Jesus used at supper on the eve of his crucifixion. The monks also once had the spear that pierced his side.
Into their midst come two people: first, their king Amfortas, who is afflicted by a similar wound that will not heal. It seems that while he was being seduced by an evil woman, his sacred spear was stolen and used on him. Later, a clueless young hunter named Parsifal arrives and shoots a beautiful swan flying over the monastery.
We hear about another character, Klingsor, who once aspired to be a monk, but was too sensual and was refused. He has castrated himself and established his own castle and grounds. The evil woman is his slave and when the innocent Parsifal wanders into Klingsor’s flower garden, she tries to seduce him.
As in Beethoven’s only opera “Fidelio,” most of the story has taken place before the curtain goes up. We learn of it in a lengthy narration by the monk Gurnemanz. We know going in, however, that it will be a long night; plus Wagner rarely supplies toe-tapping tunes.
His music, however, is beautiful and it is delivered at Lyric by a constellation of superior singers. Warm-voiced American tenor Paul Groves is excellent in the title role, awkward and innocent at first, but confident and compassionate by the third act. A Lyric favorite, baritone Thomas Hampson, plays Amfortas, and despite being swathed in heavy furs, borne in on a cot and occasionally staggering around in agony, he delivers a magnificent performance. The monk Gurnemanz is sung by the fine Korean bass Kwangchul Youn in his Lyric debut. The evil woman, called Kundry, is portrayed and sung memorably by Greek-American mezzo-soprano Daveda Karnas, also making her Lyric debut. Baritone Tomas Tomasson of Iceland is a powerful Klingsor.
The first and third acts are graced by acrobatic dancers flying above the stage as white swans, but the greatest visual pleasure comes in the second act, which opens in Klingsor’s flower garden. It is abloom with female singers and dancers arrayed like a vivid bouquet, gowned in all the colors of the rainbow. Their voices are clear and sweet, their dances graceful and they are there to charmingly seduce chaste young men from the nearby monastery. After Parsifal resists, he retrieves the sacred spear. In the third act, healing and blessing come to the now-ruined monastery.
So how to approach this lengthy performance? It’s not for the faint of heart, but the music is enchanting, so just sit back and enjoy it as it is played gloriously by the Lyric Orchestra under the baton of Artistic Director Sir Andrew Davis.
“Parsifal” runs through November 29 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. On weekdays, a Union Pacific North Line train arrives at Ogilvie Transportation Center at 5:33 p.m. and the curtain rises at 6 p.m. You will get out in plenty of time to walk, not run, to board the 11:35 p.m. train back home. For tickets and information, call 312-332-2244 or visit Lyric Opera’s website.