Since his operatic debut with the Canadian Opera Company in 1997 (Symphony of Psalms and Oedipus Rex) and subsequent Siegfried there, the director François Girard has made Opéra de Lyon something of a second musical home. His new Parsifal unites both houses, adding in the Met for good measure in a co-production that travels to New York next, in February. There are distant echoes of that 2005 Siegfried in his second engagement with Wagner, and though his style has perhaps become simpler he still uses human bodies en masse to create sculptured pictures on stage.
In Parsifal’s prelude—mimed in a manner that is fascinating and distracting in equal measure—a shiny curtain seems to reflect the audience but imperceptibly gives way to disclose a line of figures on stage, who appear to be looking at (or for) something while forming new groupings, the men all removing their jackets, ties and shoes. Soon they are huddled in a closed circle, while the women are gathered on the other side of a fissure that opens up in Michael Levine’s stage. Dressed in black, they could be widows or temptresses, and while remaining segregated they are a constant presence rather than an unseen threat. Opposing worlds are thus established from the start, and when Kundry arrives, dark storm clouds start moving. An unearthly atmosphere hangs over the entire act, with a huge moon and other cosmic elements coming into play (video design by Peter Flaherty) in the Grail scene, featuring magnificent chorus work.
Musically and theatrically, this was a high point of the performance (March 17) due to some unevenness in the cast. Georg Zeppenfeld was the evening’s outstanding principal, a young-sounding Gurnemanz of firm and focused tone. Elena Zhidkova was not far behind, her Kundry lithe and feline with a darksome glow. But Gerd Grochowski’s Amfortas was less notable, patchy in the middle of his voice, and though Nikolai Schukoff was a reliable, impetuous Parsifal, he lacks the golden tone ideally needed.
And nothing that followed in Girard’s staging was quite as remarkable—in fact, aspects turned surprisingly traditional—although he and Levine did pull off a visual coup in Act 2 by transporting us down the fissure and into a cave flooded with blood-red water. A narrow opening in the rock widened to reveal the domain of Klingsor (Alejando Marco-Buhrmester), where waiflike Flowermaidens executed Carolyn Choa’s jerkey choreography. For the pivotal Kundry-Parsifal encounter, Girard failed to come up with anything more than a bed whose white sheets were soon stained red; when Klingsor’s spell was finally broken, the red lighting changed to white. Act 3’s stage was essentially the same as in Act 1, with the men now digging graves, though Kundry was finally able to cross the chasm during the Good Friday Music.
Some orchestral tiredness was audible in Act 3, yet the opening of the evening had been special for the way in which Wagner’s shimmering textures floated and glowed. Kazushi Ono was masterful at drawing the keening trumpet out and folding it back in again during the prelude, but he didn’t fully command the flow or flexibility required, and nor did he seem to probe all the score’s mystical weight. Still, a major achievement in a stimulating season: it is not hard to see why Lyon’s general director, Serge Dorny, has built such a reputation for his house, or why he is hotly tipped to succeed Nicolas Joel at Opéra de Paris.