The Star Ledger, February 18, 2013
By Ronni Reich
Wagner: Parsifal, Metropolitan Opera, 15. Februar 2013
A glorious Parsifal at the Met
In the world of Wagner’s “Parsifal,” mysterious power and symbolic gestures reign.

In the Metropolitan Opera’s new production, directed by François Girard and conducted by Daniele Gatti, music, scenery and movement come together to create this fantastical realm.

The cast, with Jonas Kaufmann, René Pape and Katarina Dalayman, is peerless. The orchestra is sublime and the visual aspects of the show are stunning.

Based on a 13th-century legend, the composer’s last stage work illustrates the journey of a fool who becomes holy when he discovers compassion and leads the brotherhood of the Grail to salvation.

The story begins as the knight Gurnemanz laments the downfall of his brethren. Amfortas, the guardian of the Grail, has been wounded, the holy spear has been lost, and all that can save them is Parsifal’s arrival. Girard, director of the film “The Red Violin” and of Cirque du Soleil, sets Act I on a sloping plane of dry earth with a dividing stream down the middle.

On one side, the knights, all in white, perform unified motions that line up with the ceremonious, meditative music for the men’s ritual. On the other, women outside the brotherhood — including the cursed Kundry — provide contrast, all in black and scattered. The separation increases the resonance in Parsifal’s first encounter with her.

Michael Levine’s sets with video design by Peter Flaherty feature picturesque clouds that shift from gleaming to ominously dark and smoky. David Finn’s lighting evocatively depicts a sphere shrouded in shadowy secrets but with sacred illumination within. The use of offstage voices that seem to come from various directions gives a sense of another dimension, reflecting the text’s description of a place where space becomes time.

Choreography by Carolyn Choa and Girard’s staging complement the score from the start. When a circle of knights all wearing white lean in and out together, it looks like a collective inhale and exhale and mirrors the undulating music. Stylized gestures fall into place like Wagnerian motifs throughout, and painterly tableaux for chorus scenes suit the music’s expansive beauty.

At the end of Act I, after observing but failing to understand the knights, Parsifal crawls into the center stage river, which has turned to blood.

We find him next in the lair of Klingsor, a bitter enemy of Amfortas. There, a chorus of flower maidens and Kundry attempt to seduce Parsifal; Parsifal asserts his purity and learns empathy — he feels Amfortas’ wound. The stage evokes blood and violence, with a red chasm running down a rocky backdrop that widens over time.

The jewel-voiced maidens appear in long robes with waist-length dark hair and a sharp spear in front of each. (Costumes are by Thibault Vancraenenbroeck.) At one point, the women bend their elbows in a crucifixion-like pose later echoed by Parsifal.

Wagner designated the work as a “Bühnenweihfestspiel” — a ceremonial piece to consecrate the stage at Bayreuth — and this production maintains reverence while still allowing for innovation. It deserves longevity, but the particular set of performers it has now serves it well.

Kaufmann masters the title character’s mystical blend of innocence, tenderness and virility. His chocolate diamond tenor soars when he cries out in Amfortas’ pain. Pape sings an authoritative Gurnemanz, particularly in his Act III music. As Kundry, the powerhouse Dalayman is riveting in her desperation.

Evgeny Nikitin makes a stentorian Klingsor, and the men’s chorus under Donald Palumbo gives a majestic performance.

Gatti emerges as an ideal choice for this repertoire, imbuing the score with dynamism even as sustained notes linger and flicker. He captures its outpourings of sympathy, the grail’s bittersweet life-giving power, the anguish, the glory, the divine force. The orchestra’s playing is full-bodied, intense and still clear.

At opening night on Friday, there were some boos for the production team — all making debuts — as there often are when a director’s choices are not entirely literal (certain traditional elements and stage directions were left out or changed). But in imagination, cohesiveness and brilliant execution, this “Parsifal” honors the composer’s concept of total artwork.

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