Classics Today, February 24, 2013
by Robert Levine
Wagner: Parsifal, Metropolitan Opera, 18. Februar 2013
Puzzling, Bleak Parsifal, Gorgeously Sung
Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, NY; February 18, 2013—What is Wagner’s Parsifal about? Ritual? Prayer? Salvation/redemption? Nature depicting inner life? The Metropolitan’s new production, by François Girard, certainly avoids the latter. This landscape (sets by Michael Levy) consists of arid land and small mounds of earth, with a fissure of running water that runs from the back of the stage to the footlights; once Amfortas arrives, it turns red—it is his wound made universal. Women are on stage but separated from the men by the crevice. Act 2 features the wound lengthwise, as a backdrop, looking for all the world like a giant vagina. The Flowermaidens, in white nightgowns, carry spears; the stage is awash in blood throughout the act; a bed appears and the sheets become saturated with it—the sign of women’s “curse” or Amfortas’ wound?

Stunning projections throughout the opera (by Peter Flaherty) that act as backdrops run the gamut from blood, to parts of the solar system approaching dangerously close to the action, to what look like close-ups of flesh, to threatening weather systems, to a rather odd lava lamp. There is no forest or lake in Act 1 or springtime in Act 3 (despite Gurnemanz’s statement to the contrary), and neither the first nor third act transformation scene offers any physical transformation.

Amfortas climbs into Titurel’s grave in Act 3. When Parsifal baptizes Kundry, the stage fissure closes up and the women cross over; indeed, Kundry opens the box containing the Grail. Was the fissure the crack in society? No one ever makes the sign of the Cross—this Parsifal is also not specifically Christian. Dress is modern and simple: white shirts and dark pants for the men (they are seen taking off their ties and jackets during the Prelude); black or white dresses for the silent women.

The production leans in the direction of the post-apocalyptic viewpoint of the opera as staged by Nicholas Lehnhoff (from Baden-Baden under Kent Nagano) that can be seen on an Opus Arte DVD. Wagner’s stage directions are not being taken literally at the Met either, and Girard does not help. Clearly, the Knights (or Gentlemen) of the Grail are in a helpless, miserable situation, but they still insist on a certain amount of ceremony, which normally offers hope—that is why it is so popular in all religions. But one does not feel uplifted at the end of Girard’s production; you remain intrigued, but, to use the vernacular, also “bummed out”. The Knights may have found their leader, but the world outside is still barren.

The singing at the Met is about as fine as one might find today. René Pape’s Gurnemanz is tireless and imposing; his weariness in Act 3 (he, like Parsifal when he shows up, has aged considerably) is in his gait and in his sound until he realizes that Parsifal might solve the Knights’ problems, at which point some excitement re-enters his tone. Jonas Kaufmann is a mostly quiet—introspective and unsure of himself—Parsifal, and his soft singing is luscious and purposeful. But when he lets the voice out—as in “Amfortas! Die Wunde!”—he commands attention in an entirely different way. A beautiful performance. Almost stealing the show is Peter Mattei as Amfortas, whose agony and self-hatred are terrifyingly real.

Save for a couple of screamed high notes, soprano Katarina Dalayman as Kundry brings handsome tone and a seductive air to the second act, but there is little chemistry between her and Kaufmann in this production: he puts his shirt back on when she appears, sensing danger, or something more maternal—very odd, indeed. Evgeny Nikitin’s snarling bass-baritone colors Klingsor’s music effectively and Runi Brattaberg’s Titurel has innate nobility.

It is hard to pinpoint precisely why Daniele Gatti’s leadership seems somewhat aimless: it may be that in keeping with the production’s refusal to answer any questions, he has decided to play the opera down. The long, soft spells are almost languid, and the outbursts—even the last-act mania for the Knights—are never gigantic. (In the Lehnhoff/Nagano version, they behave like desperate animals.) The Met Orchestra and Chorus play and sing magnificently. One leaves mentally wandering, like an imperfect fool, but fascinated.

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