Monday, March 21, 2011


National Theater
March 19

Like all the other characters, Eva Urbanová is on the rocks.

You know what organized religion is like? A rock. A lot of rocks, actually, boulders big enough to sleep on, and gravel deep enough to swim in. Add Wagner to the mix and it gets really heavy, with everything framed in stone and everyone moving like they have blocks of granite tied to their feet.

Such is the central metaphor of the National Theater’s new Parsifal, which premiered Saturday night, five weeks shy of Good Friday. Despite the bulk and the timing, there wasn’t a complaint in the house – in fact, quite the contrary. Whether it was the quality of the production, or the six-month drought since any new opera has debuted at the theater, the reception was warm and enthusiastic, especially for the impressive work in the pit.

Wagner’s final opera – or more accurately, Bühnenweihfestspiel, a “stage-consecrating festival play” – is a five-and-a-half-hour religious extravaganza that employs the story of a recovering knight-errant to extol the virtues of purity, chastity and spiritual devotion. The first act culminates in a long ceremony so close to a real Mass that for decades, it was customary not to applaud afterward. The second act delves into black magic and treachery, which tempts but fails to corrupt the title character, who wields a Holy Spear in the third act that he uses to perform a Good Friday miracle.

As if all this weren’t weighty enough, director Jiří Heřman opens the production with a man lying in a large, framed bed of gravel that takes up most of center stage. It stays there the entire night, variously functioning as a blank slate for prayer labyrinths, a ritual site, healing baths, a meadow – or simply a cumbersome box that the characters have to walk around or stumble through. Buttressed by piles of boulders that eventually rise around it, and an imposing stone proscenium and scrim, it’s a heavy center of moral gravity.

Fortunately, Heřman keeps most of his usual excesses in check – there’s only one brief scene of boys running around in underpants – and with the help of clever lighting, changing stage configurations and a large cast of singers, dancers and extras, he creates a grand opera spectacle worthy of the composer’s creation and intent. Solemn pacing, elaborately staged religious rites and anguished characters on their knees fill out an epic tapestry that brings to life Wagner’s majestic, sometimes ponderous score.

Credit for that also goes to conductor John Fiore, an experienced Wagner hand who led a powerful Ring cycle at the National Theater in 2005. He shows the same mastery with Parsifal, establishing a commanding tone in the opening bars, then building a carefully nuanced sound with vivid colors and shimmering textures. Lending a score this dramatic some agility and sensitivity is no small accomplishment, so it wasn’t surprising that Fiore and the orchestra received extended applause when the conductor came out to start the second and third acts.

Tomasz Konieczny swims in the stones.
The production features some strong singing as well, notably by hometown favorite Eva Urbanová, an inspired choice for the role of Kundry, the tormented sorceress. Heřman does Urbanová no favors with an initial entrance that calls for her to flop face-down in the gravel pile. She sounded strained throughout the remainder of the first act, much of which she had to spend on the floor. But on her feet for the second act, when Kundry transforms herself into a young seductress, Urbanová blossomed into full voice, tender, pleading and angry by turns, a performance as good as any she’s given in recent memory.

Other standouts among the mostly male cast included Svatopluk Sem as a very effective Klingsor, and Tomasz Konieczny, who nearly stole the show as the ailing Amfortas. German import Alfons Eberz may be, as the program says, an “internationally acclaimed heroic tenor,” but he had only a few good moments in the title role. Otherwise, as one audience member observed, he embodied many of the bad stereotypes of a tenor – chubby, running around aimlessly much of the time, and one of the weaker voices on the stage.

Whatever its flaws, Parsifal is a heartening reminder of what the National Theater can do when it focuses its full resources on a worthy subject. Almost no one can do that in Prague these days, given the cuts in arts funding – not to mention the controversial effort underway to combine the operations of the National Theater and the State Opera. Under those circumstances, producing a Parsifal of this caliber is a minor miracle, on Good Friday or any other day of the year. It’s a shame that only four more performances will be given. Say your prayers and make a reservation now.

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