Parsifal as modern nightmare

Keith Gallasch, Sydney Chamber Opera, Climbing Toward Midnight

Maya Gavish, Mitchell Riley, Climbing Toward Midnight

Maya Gavish, Mitchell Riley, Climbing Toward Midnight

Maya Gavish, Mitchell Riley, Climbing Toward Midnight

A response to Wagner’s Parsifal, using the Act II libretto, Jack Symonds’ Climbing Toward Midnight is a strange work, if blessed with excellent singing and a bracing, richly textured score for piano, viola, cello and bass clarinet with the composer conducting vigorously from the keyboard.

The transposition of Act II of Wagner’s Parsifal to our own time is not problematic in itself, but the ‘hero,’ shorn of his role in the Holy Grail quest, is cast here as a suited businessman—a rather insubstantial ‘fool.’ What remains is a secularised psychodrama in which Parsifal’s mother and Kundry, the woman intent on seducing him (which she achieves in this version), are represented by the same woman. Well, not quite. Because of a physical indisposition, the soprano (Lucinda-Mirikata Deacon) sings from a window above, while a dancer (Maya Gavish ) performs the two roles onstage.

This contextless ramping up of the Oedipal drama and the intensification of its associated imagery—Kundry as seducer, lover, corrupter and, a non-Wagnerian addition, mother-to-be (in a deliberately gross fat suit)—is further amplified by action in which the repressed is unleashed as violent action. The revelatory kiss in Wagner’s Parsifal is not for Symonds. Instead a swooning quasi-dance floor embrace to destabilising glissandi is prelude to Parsifal’s sexual sinning and his subsequent brutal rejection of Kundry, dragging her about the stage, dispersing a tonne of her lingerie, pouring sand over her (an inversion of the empty nourishment she offers him earlier), scrubbing her with bread and forcing a bottle of wine into her mouth from which obscenely froths white, not red, liquid. If Symonds’ aim is to underline the misogyny in Wagner’s opera he and his director (Netta Yashchin) well exceed the master. This Parsifal is finally a brute, far removed from his naïve antecedent and certainly unable to offer anyone redemption. Had Symonds wanted to be even tougher on Wagner he might have addressed the composer’s more problematic indicators that Kundry is a woman from the East.

The excesses of Climbing Toward Midnight are many. On a spare, white polyhedral set (designer Jessica O’Neill) that evokes an emotionally empty Arctic space (its geometric pleasures depleted by very ordinary table and chairs) the action commences sparely but is soon awash with constant, very ordinary dance movement (if by a very able and expressive dancer) that alternates with the singing from the soprano or in conjunction with it. Symonds’ challenging score needs space to breathe, for the audience to focus its attention, for the work to gain unlaboured momentum. Another layer of complication comes in the form of fragments of poetry by the German Expressionist poet Georg Trakl, difficult to absorb, let alone read through the haze that obscures surtitles placed behind the action.

Had Lucinda-Mirikata Deacon not been replaced onstage by dancer Maya Gavish, doubtless we would have seen, and especially heard, a very different Climbing Toward Midnight. Deacon’s singing is at once powerful and mellifluous, a highly nuanced indicator of the range of Kundry’s feelings, which, as danced, are choreographically one-dimensional. Mitchell Riley’s Parsifal is finely sung, acted and bravely moved, but restricted by the role’s limitations. This character’s curiosity, submissiveness, confusion and anger are without anchor, lacking something like the Christian Mysticism that underpins Wagner’s Parsifal. Regardless of the production’s relentless busy-ness, his feelings come across as abstract, and as icy as the set design (even when lighting designer Ross Graham swathes it in passionate reds and oranges).

If not one of Sydney Chamber Opera’s best, musically Climbing Toward Midnight is a work I’d at least like to hear again, for the seductiveness and melancholy of its quieter passages and an otherwise energising rawness, deceptively cloaking its complexity.

Sydney Chamber Opera, Climbing Toward Midnight, composer, conductor Jack Symonds, director Netta Yashchin; The Parade Playhouse, NIDA, Sydney, 15, 17, 19, 20 April

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. 48

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

6 June 2013