Cher Public

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

  • leoniceno

    I’m attending on the 23rd, for my first live Parsifal. Exceedingly pleased to read such a positive review! I’ll also see “Semiramide” the following evening.

  • Jm35

    I wish they were doing this in HD instead of L’elisir d’amore on Saturday or La Boheme in two weeks. They don’t seem to be featuring YN-S in the HD broadcasts at all. Another problem is because of Parsifal that night L’elisir starts at noon eastern time which I can guarantee is going to cause a lot of late arrivals and confusion at theaters. I genuinely don’t get the thinking behind having the short opera as a matinee and a long opera (or whatever the hell Wagner wanted us to call it) at night.

    • Camille

      You make a very good point there and who needs another Bohème or Elisir, they’ve been done. They should be promoting YN-S in the HDs in order to get the greater public at large familiar with him! Wonder what gives there?

      • Armerjacquino

        Length, probably. I know that longer plays get fewer NT Live bookings from cinemas, so I imagine that a revival of a work that with preshow and interval hits six hours plus, without (pace Pape and Mattei) a banner-headline star, would be a tricky sell.

        • Armerjacquino

          Niece, 11, who I am currently babysitting: ‘Are you talking to the opera people in America?’

          She’s got my number.

          • Camille

            Tell her that Americans are not all Orange. I wouldn’t want her to grow up thinking that we are. Nor do we all backcomb our hair(s).

        • Camille

          Well yes that is true however I do recall going into the cinema on one day and emerging on the following for the Siegfried, a very long slog.

          You are correct though--it would take at least a Kaufmann and a band of angels to get this one over at the business end of things.

  • Our Own JJ

    In the Observer:

    “Call in sick at work. Hire a sitter for your kids, dogs or significant other. Take a long nap, then slam back a triple espresso. That may sound like a daunting prep for an evening at the opera, but the Met’s stunning revival of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal is more than just highbrow entertainment. It’s an artistic experience that could change your life.”

    http://observer.com/2018/02/opera-review-met-opens-yannick-nezet-seguins-transcendent-parsifal/

  • PCally

    Terrific review. CC exactly summed up my usual reservations about Herlitzius perfectly. I thought she was mostly riveting (certainly more exciting than Dalayman) and on the spectrum of Herlitzius performances this was one of the better sung performances I’ve heard from her. She seems to register better in productions that demand more focus and detail in terms of character work. Outside of her Elektra I’ve usually found her charismatic but way to generalized. Here she worked.

    Pape and Mattei were incredible, even better than the premiere, and I liked Voigt better than Kaufmann as well, though I’m not sure why. I like Kaufmann a lot but I’ve been underwhelmed by his Wagner at the met. I can’t speak to vocal size but Vogt’s sound just seemed more present and he just seemed to fit into the role better.

    Love YNS and I was not in love with Gatti the way some were. After levine I certainly am looking forward to the YNS approach but I do think that despite the orchestra being in amazing form, I thought there was something a little square and listless in acts one and three. But certainly this is my favorite thing this season thus far.

    • Camille

      I didn’t like Gatti at ALL and sat with the score several times trying to figure out WTF he was doing and never succeeded at all. Weird ritardandos and G.P.’s out of thin air.

      • PCally

        Yeah I couldn’t understand the motivations behind a lot of his choices, especially the extraordinarily (to me) abrupt tempo shifts from nowhere in particular.

  • Camille

    I’m glad you guys had a good time but this time I’ll
    pass the parsnips on to others. Es ist genug. And thank Gott Gatti is GONE!!!!

    • Christian Ocier

      One person I’d like to hear in this piece: Philippe Jordan.

      • Camille

        For sure. Although I’ve heard conflicting reports of him, we did hear something very impressive, a Rheingold or a reduction of it, I think, that we felt to be excellent. He must have lesrned a lot from his father. I would imagine.

        • Christian Ocier

          His father’s imprint is definitely audible in his music (particularly, the textures he applies to his Wagner readings). I do think Philippe is a better and more exciting conductor, not to disparage the elder Jordan. He’s not nearly as flexible and capable of deconstructing a score the way Thielemann could in this rep, but there is more drive, more interesting ideas than your average joe.

  • Christian Ocier

    My favorite excerpt from the observer review: “Her muscular voice admittedly has quite a few miles on it, but her sterling commitment made even a few yelps standing in for high notes sound organic.”

    • Camille

      Organic parsnips!

      • ines

        Having heard Mattila’s Kundry ( completely by chance in a city close to Helsinki) , I missed her last night…
        she’s got intensity and high notes ( at least on that occasion ). In a recent interview in Florida she confirms an upcoming Ortrud, no Kundry ?
        Vogt and Kaufmann seem quite equal in vocal size, the timbre makes the difference ( even if the mikes give a different impression)

        • Camille

          You heard Mattila’s Kundry??? Please DO TELL, as there have been few or no reports on it!

          • ines

            It was with Vogt. Her first act was quite subdued (?) relying on the score.
            Second act , calling Parsifal, was surprisingly unsensual, IMHO. But the last duet in that act, had her going for it… kind of throwing the score away… even standing on the other side of the podium, she connected w Vogt , and went wild.. . The role doesn’t go that high, but it was stunning. After seeing late Jenufa’s and Emilia Marty’s , I felt thrown back in time with the best Mattila- moments , like her reckless Salome.

            • Camille

              Oh Thank You so Much for reporting,as there has been little word of it and I know people are interested. It is interesting to hear what she did and how she did it as well. Hmmmm……sets me to thinking.

              I would think her better suited to Kundry than to Ortrud in any case, even if she has had a great deal of experience observing Ortrud on stage.

            • ER

              Wow, where was this?

        • PCally

          I have been wondering why Mattila hasn’t mentioned Kundry anywhere, I’m so curious to know whether she has plans to continue on with the part. It seemed like that concert might have been a special event kind of thing. She keeps talking about Ortrud but every time a Mattila announcement occurs it’s for everything other than what she specifically talks about wanting to do.

  • Thank you so much for this review, Christopher. It made me wish I could take in a performance. I like the opera more than you and Amfortas’s passages are among my favourite. But I agree that the characters are archetypal. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I feel more connected to the characters in Wagner’s other operas.

  • Alex Baker

    Oooh Parsifal seems like such a great fit for KFloVo in a way Lohengrin is maybe not (despite sounding very pretty of course)…

    • ER

      He said in an interview that Parsifal sat lower and the role was very “calm”.

      I haven’t heard him live yet so look forward to doing so in this run.

      • Alex Baker

        that sounds about right…wish I could see this!

  • Niel Rishoi

    I did not get to hear it last night. I wish it were being done for the HD. For a work like this (new to me in the last 2 years save for an attempt to watch the Levine dirge years ago), I need the visuals and the subtitles.

  • Camille

    A note, or better, an observation: the Marie in Wozzeck was not similar to this performance in that every note in the middle did not sound like it was coming out of someone with a severe cough or bronchitis. It was not pretty, especially, but it was not offensive, either, and the high notes, as they were the night before last, were all there. It’s possible that she is not well, like half of New York City right now. I don’t know if that is so but it could account for a lot.

    Today I notice in the Met Wiki Futures that a Lady Macbet of Mtsensk is planned for a few years down the pike with her. I can’t even begin to imagine it.

  • Ivy Lin
    • Bill

      Ivy -- I pretty much agree with you and much of your review. As committed as Herlitzius is to the role of Kundry there is not much one can do with this unattractive voice. I do not specifically agree about Vogt -- the voice is substantial
      actually and his utterances are with great clarity. I liked his interpretation, the boyish innocence of his young Parsifal
      was very candid -- as all Parsfals, he stares in wonderment in the first act at activities unknown to him -- his faith and supposed innocence indicate a certain detached sense of wonderment and lack of understanding. Vogt’s voice may be peculiar among Wagnerian tenors -- he is on pitch and
      neither wobbles or nor barks (and sings with word clear precision). Parsifal, in the first act, does not lie high and I would consider his Lohengrin or Paul in Tote Stadt greater achievements -- but Vogt’s singing in the last act of
      Parsifal had a rare beauty -- and yes he still sings
      Tamino (upcoming this summer). Of the three Parsifals
      I had enjoyed of late (Botha, Vogt, Kaufmann) I probably had revered Botha the most but alas he is gone and I think the choice, if one insists on making a choice between Vogt and Kaufmann, is simply a very personal one.

      • Ivy Lin

        Bill
        I thought Vogt’s voice worked very well in Act One and most of Act Two. However at the very moment Parsifal “wakes up” during “Amfortas! Die wunde!” I prefer the more stentorian delivery of Kaufmann. I would love to hear Vogt as Lohengrin as he rarely comes to the U.S.

        • Bill

          Ivy -- as you know Vogt sings almost exclusively German operatic repertory and the Met (for example) does not currently perform much Wagner (often only one Wagner Opera per season -- and about the same number of Strauss operas many of which have no suitable tenor role for Vogt.
          Vogt also has a family and much of his work and many of his engagements are in German speaking countries or those nearby. He has added Tannhaeuser to his repertory in Munich and it would be great to see it in
          New York but the likelihood seems slim that will occur. I missed his earlier Lohengrin in New York but saw him in Vienna in a new
          production and those performances in which I did view him, his singing was absolutely gorgeous, tender, and extraordinarily moving in front of a rapt attentive audience. When I first started attending operas at the Met, Lohengrin along with Faust, Puccini, Aida had been historically among the most performed operas at the Met -- but its performance level
          precipitously dropped off and the last couple of decades (not aided by the static Japanese kabuki style Lohengrin last presented) Lohengrin has not frequently been presented hereabouts -- alas, Mme. Netrebko may eventually be honored with a new production but she may drop Elsa and not keep in her repertory after a season or two. The opera, Lohengrin, is not as currently difficult to cast as some of Wagner’s other works but the derse of Lohengrin and Meistersinger performances at the Met in the last decade is inexcusable.

        • PCally

          Ivy, I saw Vogt’s Lohengrin at the met, probably the best I’ve seen live in the part. He was in great voice and it helped that his rather strange presence fit more neatly into the Wilson production than Heppner did. He really seemed like a man who would appear on a swan boat out of nowhere and perfect vessel for Mattila to project onto (she was astonishing in the part) since her Elsa was more demonstratively neurotic and active than most.

          • Ivy Lin

            I would also love to see Vogt in Rusalka. I haven’t seen him live but I have seen several videos and he sounds wonderful in that role.

    • PCally

      Great review Ivy, I’m glad you had a different experience than the last time you attended that opera. I was also in attendance and I kind of found myself enjoying this revival more than the premiere though I can’t say why. I think this revival has more of a theatrical edge and while I’m not as over the moon about YNS as some, I was frustrated by what felt like Gatti’s arbitrary stop/start approach in the premiere season. Not sure I could choose between the new members of the cast versus their counterparts largely because there approaches to the roles and the music in general as worlds apart. I’ve definitely lost some of the enthusiasm for the staging that I loved when I first saw it. Parsifal must be very difficult to stage and this production is certainly beautiful and engaging, but the bluntness of the symbolism really got to me this time around and the contradictory idea of making a point about the problematic nature of the knights rejection of women paradoxically followed by a traditional staging of act two seemed odd.

      • Ivy Lin

        This was compounded in Act Three when we saw the vaginal lips were closed forever. So I guess women and men can only co-mingle (at the final moments of Act Three) when there’s no more sex involved?

    • Dame Kenneth

      Hi Ivy,

      I was there last night as well. What drama in the 2nd Act with the fainting flower maiden, who tried to recover, but was obviously disoriented and got stuck in the poses while the others moved on. It was a long train wreck that was the most compelling thing that happened that act.
      Unlike you, I whole heartedly love the production (though I agree about the failure of the end of Act 2 to make the point about the spear breaking -- I love your “talk to the hand” gesture comment). However, I found myself having a difficult time getting into it last night and I couldn’t quite locate the problem. What I think, after some reflection, is that it has to do with what you pointed out about the conducting. While the orchestra was appropriately sonorous, there was little sense of texture or variety of color, particularly, as you point out, in the more contemplative sections. This was so different than with Gatti, when the conducting was, for me, so very moving.

      Pape was, I think, under the weather. He started out strongly but began to sort of mark about half way through Act 1 and began to touch his forehead and nose constantly, which made me think he was struggling with something. Because he’s all about voice, he failed to register as strongly for me this time. Mattei was marvelous, the embodiment of a singer/actor and with such a gorgeous spin to his warm voice. I loved Vogt, who sounds so much better in person, as you point out. I felt his acting worked, though I agree with you about the lack of frissons he brought compared with Kaufmann. I very much prefer Vogt as Lohengrin, which is a much better role for him. (Saw him in Bayreuth -- one of the best performances I’ve ever seen by a tenor in any fach).

      Hertlizius basically spoiled the evening for me. I love a good kunst diva, but there’s just not enough voice there to begin with for me to love this one. Yes it’s loud on top. Basta. It sounds so ugly, unhealthy, and what she did with words and acting did not make up for ruining so much gorgeous music. Dalayman had surprised me in the initial run. I had loved her big, sumptuous voice and felt her quite expressive actually, considering everyone always called her dull. Her lifting of the grail at the end really had me in ugly tears. Hertlizius just made me feel ugly.

      • Ivy Lin

        Kenneth last night I noticed that all the major characters have a big “hand” moment. When Klingsor beckons his flower maidens he crosses his hands and wiggles the fingers of his hands. The knights in Act One also have a hand gesture where they seem to mime the shape of the Grail cup.
        I really hope the Flower Maiden is okay, poor thing.

      • La Cieca

        What spear breaking?

        • Dame Kenneth

          You’re right. I get this mixed up with other plots. That moment when, traditionally, Klingsor throws the spear and Parsifal makes the sign of the cross. The direction in this production does, imo, do a lot with that moment. It’s a minor point in view of all the ways I’m moved by this production.

          • Dame Kenneth

            Should be “does not do a lot.”

    • I’m impressed by your ability to write things up so quickly! Chapeau, as they say in France.

    • grimoaldo2

      “Four years ago I survived my first ever live Parsifal. I had a lot of problems with the storyline back then. Since that time I’ve seen the error of my ways, boned up on my Schopenhauer, and eagerly awaited a return trip to Richard Wagner’s final work. ”
      I noticed in the chat that you had dramatically changed your views on the text of Parsifal since the production was new.

      • Ivy Lin

        Hey it’s all about reading Schopenhauer :)

    • Ivy Lin

      Another thing: since this isn’t a new role for Vogt I’m surprised how often he just planted himself right in front of the prompter and sometimes he even had to do the “smell the fart” acting just to turn his head towards the prompter:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8c4YhwpiaKU

  • La Cieca

    More Parsifal: the production by Calixto Bieito, to this day the greatest opera staging I have ever seen, returns to Stuttgart starting February 25.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUifwQDQCqI