A scene from Act II of Wagner's "Parsifal" with Jonas Kaufmann as the title character.
(Photo : Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera )
Genius. Transcendent. Mesmerizing. Those are only a few words that can describe the Met's latest 'Parsifal.' From its new production by Francois Girard to its splendid cast and insightful conductor, this "Parsifal" is an event that rarely comes around.
With minimal exceptions, the new productions at the Met this season have done a solid job of elucidating their respective works with new insight and boldness. However, none has accomplished the feat better than Girard's production of Richard Wagner's timeless masterpiece about redemption and spiritual awakening. As the soulful prelude commences, the stage shows a sea of people, all clad in black facing into the audience; in the center is Parsifal. The crowd sways slightly back and forth before the two groups, one of men and one of woman, split up with the males coming down stage and the females going in the other direction. Parsifal remains in the center, looking around confused as to which group he should follow. The men remove their black clothing and ties, revealing white undergarments, a sort of purification from materialism. These men then move to stage left and form a circular configuration of chairs; the woman slide to the opposite side of the stage, which is separated by a fissure in the ground. This division dominates the work and portrays a divisive civilization, one in which men and women are at odds with one another. Girard mentioned that he had no intention of portraying a Christian or religious "Parsifal;" while he certainly succeeds in this goal (no one does the sign of the cross), there are still sufficient hints that could satisfy a crowd seeking out some sort of biblical link.
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The first act plays out straightforward with the ritual of the grail supplying the usual spiritual transcendence. Video projections at the back of the stage showcase images of a planet, clouds, deep space, and even hints of a human body that on closer inspection can look like the bread that Christ associates with his flesh. The voice of Titurel booms throughout the theater almost suggesting God. This portrayal takes on more prevalent meaning when Gurnemanz states in Act three that Titurel died "like any other man;" the subversion of God in a modern society.
Act two is an eye opener in a number of respects. Women clad in white dresses face away from the audience with spears seemingly holding them still. In the center is the evil wizard Klingsor and the entire stage is littered with mist. Slowly, the mist dies away and a big lake of blood is revealed. Parsifal's sexual awakening and his battle against the temptations of the flower maidens and Kundry dominate the second act of the opera. I do not wish to delve into what the plethora of symbols in this production could mean (they could signify a countless number of different ideas), but Girard attaches a paradoxical meaning to the blood throughout the evening: it is life, but it is also death. In this case, it is the death of creation; the women are driven away by the men and because of their lack of interaction, they cannot reproduce. This is manifested in the sea of blood that the woman themselves are releasing and its domination of the landscape bodes poorly for the future of this world.
In Act three, the future of the world has been realized. Every character is clad in black, the landscape is barren, and a burial is taking place. Most characters except for Kundry seemingly ignore the fissure in the center; she seems hesitant to move over the crack. Parsifal's entrance might be one of the most riveting in the performance: a silhouette appears upstage and as Parsifal slowly struggles downstage, he comes into the light and becomes clearer. What follows is some of the most moving depictions of humanity I have ever seen on a stage. Gurnemanz and Kundry proceed to wash the feet and brow of the weary Parsifal and in the process, Gurnemanz hails him to be the new King and leader of the Knights. In most productions, Parsifal baptizes Kundry as a means of renewing her. In this production, Parsifal guides her across the division in the stage, a simple but profoundly beautiful moment. After uniting her with him and Gurnemanz, there is a moment where the two characters stare at one another intimately; the expectation of something romantic certainly crosses the mind. Instead Parsifal kisses her on the forehead like a father would his daughter.
In the final scene, Amfortas grieves the death of Titurel and even jumps into the tomb with him. Parsifal arrives and heals him, but it is Kundry who opens the grail and removes the chalice. She caused the pain of Amfortas, but she, the main depiction of redeemed womanhood, is allowed the opportunity to also bask in task usually reserved for men. She expires a few moments later, but the transformation has already taken place. As the opera draws to a close with Parsifal lifting the chalice, the two sides of the stage are littered with men and woman; there is no sign of differing wardrobe and the fissure is hardly visible. The two sexes have been reconciled and a new society is allowed to begin.
The superstar cast that Met general manager Peter Gelb has compiled only elevates the momentousness of the production. In the title role is tenor Jonas Kaufmann. The German has been hailed as the greatest tenor in the world for the last few years due to his magical technique, and his ability to imbue every role he takes on with an infinite palette of colors. His portrayal of Parsifal is no exception but unlike most Wagnerian singing, Kaufmann is not all heft. As he came onstage, his Parsifal was a petulant boy. He almost shouted out his opening lines and waved his hands about as he told Gurnemanz that he kills what he can. He even put his hands in his pockets like a teen. In Act two, Parsifal was no longer a child and was about to experience his first taste of manhood. In this act, Kaufmann's voice boomed vigorously, particularly in the famous passage "Amfortas! Die Wunde!" During this moment, Parsifal realizes that he is about to go down the same path of pain and misery as the King Amfortas and rejects Kundry's advances vigorously. Parsifal's physical strength was at its highest point in this act, and Kaufmann's voice matched the portrayal exactly. In the third act, Kaufmann's Parsifal was now an elderly broken down man who has lost his way. The booming sound was been replaced by a lighter, almost ethereal quality. At differing moments, Kaufmann even let out a glorious sotto voce phrase in his head voice. At another, he laid on the floor, head into the ground, and sang. As he delivered the final phrases of the opera, the renewed vigor returned and Kaufmann's powerful voice returned in all its glory. It is rare to see such detailed and nuanced character development in both the physical and vocal dimension, but Kaufmann's performance on Friday reminded everyone of why he is at the top of the ladder these days.
Rene Pape had an equally brilliant performance on Friday. I heard Pape perform the Beethoven 9th Symphony a few weeks ago at Carnegie Hall on Daniel Barenboim and there were moments where his massive Bass rang through and over the dense orchestra. His gigantic sound was on display briefly on Friday, but his portrayal was dominated by more "quiet" singing. He soothed and caressed with every phrase, whether it be his opening monologue to the Grail committee or his final recount and blessing of Parsifal. Listening to Pape was in many ways what one would hope would be the voice of God: authoritative, but comforting, pleasant, and deeply cleansing.
Peter Mattei was the complete opposite of Pape, but in an equally extraordinary way. It was impossible to listen to him and not be wrenched and distraught with every phrase. Amfortas represents the eternal human struggle and grief and every movement, look, and sound that emanated from Mattei was that of conflict and misery. When he lifted the chalice at the end of the first act, his arms trembled as if he were holding a massive weight. In the final act, he jumped into the tomb with Titurel - the portrait of a crazed man being pushed to the limits by his wound and mortification. The voice poured out with a visceral quality that pierced one's entire being.
Katarina Dalayman's Kundry was the most complex portrayal of any onstage. In Act 1, she was a broken down woman weighed down by jewelry and other materialistic objects; her hair and clothing were disheveled. The character rarely sings, but Kundry's few phrases matched this description of the character; her voice barely hinted at what was to come. In Act 2, she brought more heft into her confrontation with Klingsor, but the character still had a reserved quality to it. Finally, Dalayman's luscious voice blossomed as she interrupted the flower maidens' sexual assault on Parsifal. Dalayman came out in a white dress and her hair looked fresh and youthful. The hobbled gait was replaced by one of confidence, a glide of sorts. Her seduction of Parsifal showcased a vibrant, silky legato in every phrase. When Parsifal rejects her, Kundry's vocal line ascends into the stratosphere; Dalayman's visceral high notes were earth shattering as they powered through Wagner's thick orchestration. In the final Act, Kundry barely sings, but Dalayman's presence was always felt. At one point, Parsifal falls down hurt. Dalayman rushed around her side of the division trying to find a way to cross the fissure to help the poor man. She healed his wounds with delicacy and gave the moment warmth and intimacy; the reciprocation of that action moments later by Parsifal only added to the beauty and profundity. In many ways, Girard's vision tells the story not only of Parsifal's growth and evolution through life, but also explores Kundry and womanhood's redemption.
Evgeny Nikitin was a strong proponent of the hateful Klingsor. His voice had an earthy quality that was only accented by his vigorous attacks on some of the text. His snakelike movements only emphasized his grotesqueness and created a strong affinity for Kundry and Parsifal.
Conductor Daniele Gatti got some boos, but they were completely unmerited. His tempi were slow, but their expansiveness added to the spiritual experience. During the prelude, he extended the customary pauses; a reverent quality emanated throughout the hall during these moments of silence. It was hard not to feel that something special was taking place. During the funeral of Titurel, the opera rang through the hall almost like a titanic storm.
Every season, I feel that there is one production where the stars align in a transcendent evening that will never be forgotten; Friday's premiere of "Parsifal" was one of those events. A tremendous superstar cast coupled with a phenomenal production elevated Wagner, the greatest star of all, to unprecedented heights. This is the most wonderful birthday present that the Met could give to the God of opera on his 200th birthday.