Fifty shades of Grail

While I recognize that it’s an unparalleled masterpiece, Parsifal has always been a difficult opera for me to love. Though it’s my least favorite of the canonical Wagner ten, I dutifully attend nearly every time it’s performed. But the Met’s magnificent revival which opened on Monday night with a superb cast under the mesmerizing leadership of Yannick Nézet-Séguin nearly converted me into a devoted Parsifal disciple. 

Much of the long evening’s success can be attributed to the return of François Girard’s stunning production which was a remarkable sell-out success when it premiered five years ago with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. It wiped away the ugly ham-fisted literalism of the Met’s previous production and conjured instead a bleak spare dystopia where the knights of the Holy Grail were just simple barefoot men in white shirts and dark trousers whose rituals are haunted by a silent group of veiled women dressed all in black.

That Parsifal’s characters (to me) function primarily as archetypes rather than real people has always been a determining component of my reservations about the work. I cherish Wagner’s other operas not only for their incomparable musical achievement but also for their penetrating portraits of psychologically complex individuals, from Senta and Elsa to Wotan and Tristan.

Wagner traditionalists need not be alarmed as Girard’s Personenregie does nothing radical. It pares down the complex relationships to their essence making these characters more human and timeless than nearly any vision I’ve witnessed in the opera house or on video.

In that mission Girard is blessed this time by an ensemble of immensely committed singing actors whose striking intensity holds the stage for nearly six hours. I saw René Pape’s Gurnemanz in two different runs of the Otto Schenk production at the Met when he impressed with his effortless richness and command.

But in this production, more so this season than when it was new, Pape brought a refreshing down-to-earth humility and conversational freshness to the old knight’s sometimes interminable monologues. That age has exposed a few signs of fallibility in his deluxe bass only made his Gurnemanz vulnerable and touching.

Peter Mattei too returned as Amfortas, his body even more wrenchingly wracked with pain, his voice even more plush and enveloping. Although I’ve seen some fine baritones in the role, I usually can’t wait for his agonizing scenes to end (“Die, sinning king, die!”) but with Mattei I want them to go on and on as acute physical and psychological suffering has rarely been so heart-stoppingly beautiful.

As the malignant Klingsor Evgeny Nikitin is back too and his lip-smacking, evil posturing brought an electric jolt to the performance at the beginning of the second act. I understand that true Parsifal-believers are all about the first and third acts but personally I can’t wait to get with that ole’ necromancer. Nikitin bit into the text with gleeful relish and his pungent bass-baritone has rarely sounded so ferocious.

His flair for the demonic—he was superb as Rubinstein’s The Demon fifteen years ago when the Mariinsky brought the opera to the Met—makes an indelible impression extending far beyond his relatively limited stage time. Alfred Walker, the new Titurel, boomed out impressively; this is the 20th (!) anniversary of his Met debut and one wonders why he doesn’t get more substantial things to do in the house.

When this revival was first announced I have to admit I was disappointed. My undying Karita-love prompted me to hope that the Met would have cast my favorite Finnish diva as Kundry, a role she added to her repertory just last summer. My chagrin doubled when I saw that German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius would instead be making her debut.

I had missed her previous NYC outing as Marie in Wozzeck at Carnegie Hall with the Vienna Staatsoper but I’d seen and heard her in videos from Europe as Isolde, the Färberin, Elektra and especially as Ortrud and was sure I wouldn’t like her in the flesh. However, I must do my penance and admit she was downright thrilling as the tortured, seductive and mysterious Everywoman.

The voice remains resolutely unalluring (aka pretty ugly sometimes) but she sang with a canny, cunning knowledge of what it can and can’t do. On other occasions her trademark in-your-face stage presence can be way too much but she under Girard’s careful guidance channeled a restrained yet still fierce Kundry. Her hypnotic “Ich sah das Kind” was a marvel of carefully nuanced storytelling, her subtle wearing down of Parsifal before The Kiss was marvelously convincing.

The voice is huge yet she rarely unleashed its full power and the usually unruly top seared your soul when she confessed to laughing at Christ. Unusually Girard awards Kundry the honor of bringing forth the Grail in the opera’s closing moments which Herlitzius performed with a stark, rapt simplicity and her subsequent quiet, restful death moved me deeply.

Like Herlitizius I had only heard Klaus Florian Vogt on broadcasts and in videos before experiencing his Florestan in Fidelio live at the Met last season. On that occasion I was stunned by the size and power of a voice that a waggish critic had once dubbed a “heldentenorino.” Again on Monday in passages like “Amfortas! Die Wunde!” and his stinging rejection of Kundry Vogt shook the rafters (does the Met have rafters?).

Throughout the evening I couldn’t help but think back to Kaufmann’s Parsifal, though in the end I think I preferred Vogt’s. Surely Kaufmann has the more burnished and appealing voice particularly as Vogt’s still-young-sounding tenor rarely blooms or caresses the ear, but the latter’s austere and direct manner served the “simple” title role more truly than Kaufmann’s more careful and intellectual approach.

As he demonstrated in last season’s Der Fliegende Holländer, the Met’s Music Director Designate is an accomplished, exciting Wagnerian and his first house Parsifal was an even more impressive achievement than the Holländer. While one expected him to definitely shove aside the Met’s long run of slow, ruminative Parsifals, Monday’s still had an enthralling expansiveness and flow that was extremely welcoming.

As an especial fan of Klingsor’s bower of bloody (in this case) bliss I was particularly looking forward to Nézet-Séguin’s second act and he did not disappoint. The churning restless energy of the heretic’s fiery denunciations gave way to the Flowermaiden scene which can sometimes grate but here was utterly intoxicating. His supportive and careful accompaniment of Herlitzius helped make her Kundry both vulnerable and so inexorable.

The orchestra, while not without some insecure moments here and there, again seemed clearly inspired by Nézet-Séguin’s leadership which bodes well for both next month’s Elektra and seasons to come. I’d be eager to hear a Nézet-Séguin Lohengrin or a revival of the Trelinski Tristan particularly as one hears Christine Goerke is planning an Isolde!

The huge and sonorous male chorus contributed mightily to the overwhelming effect of the third act’s hard-earned but radiant conclusion. While I still love Parsifal’s son more than his daddy, this Met revival is a must-see event that I’m tempted to catch again at one of its six remaining performances.

Photos: Ken Howard / Met Opera