Wall Street Journal, February 19, 2013
Wagner: Parsifal, Metropolitan Opera, 15. Februar 2013
New Approaches to Themes Sacred and Sexual
In an imaginative new production of Richard Wagner's "Parsifal" that is perfectly suited to the music, François Girard successfully transforms the opera, which opened at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday, from a faux-Christian rite into a timeless story about a beleaguered community that is held together—barely—by a sacred ritual that is itself under threat. Arresting, consistently absorbing stage pictures expertly follow the mournful flow of this slow-moving epic, while a powerhouse cast of singers and the Met Orchestra under the sure direction of Daniele Gatti ensure that the evening has both gravity and momentum.

In Wagner's libretto, the Holy Grail is protected by an order of knights. Their leader, Amfortas, suffers horribly from a wound that will not heal, and can be cured only by a holy fool who is "enlightened by compassion." Mr. Girard moves "Parsifal" into a postapocalyptic time. In Acts I and III, Michael Levine's striking set is a parched, treeless landscape bisected by a stream which flows with blood, a symbol of the wound that divides the community. The knights, in modern white shirts and black trousers (the costumes are by Thibault Vancraenenbroeck), huddle in a circle on one side of it. On the other is a silent, excluded group of women, an indication that Mr. Girard isn't going along with the libretto's premise that forbidden sexual desire is the root of all evil; rather, it is a symbol of a fractured society.

In Act II Parsifal, the "holy fool," descends into the wound itself—the Met stage is covered with a pool of "blood." Ghostly flower maidens with long black hair and white dresses tempt him in Carolyn Choa's creepy, seductive choreography. He resists them and the seductress Kundry, whose white dress and bed grow red with the blood as she splashes around in it. He recovers the lost Grail spear, kills the sorcerer Klingsor, and returns to the knights to heal Amfortas's wound and become their leader.

David Finn's sensitive lighting dramatizes the deterioration of the knights' home between Acts I and Act III, and Peter Flaherty's video designs are eloquent, stylized abstractions—clouds, planets, landscape and even women's bodies—that enhance the drama of the transformation scenes and the Grail ritual.

Ritual remains a central feature of this production. Yet Mr. Girard also builds a poignantly human story through the principal singers. As Gurnemanz, the éminence grise of the grail knights, bass René Pape was magisterial and warm, with a penetrating delivery that enlivened his long monologues. Baritone Peter Mattei seemed to be living the agony of Amfortas, both in the fierceness of his singing and his halting, excruciating attempts to walk. Jonas Kaufmann made Parsifal complicated and vivid, from the adolescent shrug with which he conveyed his initial lack of understanding to the pure, messianic authority of his final transformation. Evgeny Nikitin was a properly brutal, slashing Klingsor, and Katarina Dalayman brought controlled passion to Kundry, expertly crafting the seduction scene. Mr. Girard has her lift the Grail for the final ritual, as the women and the men mix together onstage for the first time. Wagner might not have approved, but the gesture of reconciliation, overriding the libretto's misogyny and obsession with male purity, fit the music and completed Mr. Girard's moving, modern vision.

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