The experience of watching Wagner’s final opera Parsifal is frequently elevated to a spiritual occurrence, and productions have historically emphasized the religious dimension of the opera’s core themes of redemption and the dangers of temptation.  Two recent productions, both mounted in recognition of Wagner’s bicentenary, offer a departure from such heady pseudo-sacred conventions, and allow the piece to stand on its own as a challenging, yet rewarding musical journey about the power of one young man—who does not even know his own name—to save a kingdom.  

I was deeply moved by François Girard’s production at the Metropolitan Opera earlier this year, which starred a thrilling Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal and the mellifluous baritone Peter Mattei as Amfortas, the wounded King, in his first Wagner role. Eschewing religious symbols, Girard’s set is post-apocalyptic. A creek of flowing water interrupts mounds of dirt (later filled with blood), and in the background are ominous projections of clouds.

At the Royal Opera House on December 18, tenor Simon O’Neill sang the title role, a “pure fool” who emerges as the Holy Grail’s last hope for salvation. René Pape, the appealing and distinguished German bass, starred in both productions as Gurnemanz, while Canadian baritone Gerald Finley (whom I have long admired in everything from John Adams’ Doctor Atomic to lieder) undertook Amfortas for the first time.

Pape and Finley are two of my favourite singers and it was the opportunity to hear them live that compelled me to spend a small fortune on a ticket to a performance at the Royal Opera House which, adding to the intensity of the occasion, was broadcast live in movie theatres worldwide.

Music Director Antonio Pappano assembled an extraordinary cast of singers for this production of Parsifal. Pape has by the far the largest amount to sing, and he is unparalleled in his ability to deliver challenging monologues with seemingly effortless legato, masterful breath control, and an almost a conversational tone. By contrast, Finley only has a few opportunities to deploy his remarkable vocal gifts, however the role is a challenge since the singer must convey Amfortas’ emotional and physical pain. Finley succeeds admirably.

Two veteran bass-baritones—Sir Willard White, famous for his “Porgy,” and Robert Lloyd—take on the roles of Klingsor and Titurel, respectively, while Angela Denoke is a dramatically intense yet vocally underpowered Kundry.

Stephen Langridge’s modern, sterile production is set in a hospital ward—the prime location for updated stagings of everything from Macbeth to Contes d’Hoffmann, it seems—where Amfortas rests and awaits his fate. The set, designed by Alison Chitty, is dominated by an omnipresent glass cube, which is tedious to look at for the nearly six hour show.

In stark contrast to the atmospheric and ominous staging, Langridge presents the Flower Maidens as a clique of glamorous young ladies in revealing gowns who fondle and tempt the young and bewildered Parsifal. It is in this scene that O’Neill—who has no problem with his vocal solos but is dramatically insert and unable to move smoothly on stage—most successfully conjures the title character’s raw naivety.

As is not uncommon with Wagner, the true stars turn out to be Pappano and his Royal Opera House Orchestra, who play with palpable commitment to the mammoth score.

Perhaps the world’s most controversial composer, Wagner’s works are far too often shrouded in mystique and pseudo-spirituality. Through their landmark productions of Parsifal, Girard and Langridge have demonstrated that Wagner’s musical genius is best appreciated when such baggage and tradition is lifted to reveal accessible themes centered on humanity’s struggle for meaning. Between Pape, Mattei, and Finley, these two productions have also made clear we are living in a golden age of bass-baritones.