Even after more than 30 years as a die-hard opera fan there are still parts of the repertoire I haven’t embraced. Benjamin Britten and myself are really only acquaintances and I’ve met Alban Berg but fear we shall never be friends. I really became an opera fan chronologically backwards starting with Puccini and ending, essentially, with Mozart and Handel. Only then came Wagner.
After distilling all those different musical styles and traditions, Wagner wasn’t really that difficult to wrap my head around, with the exception of Parsifal. I would check the score out from the library and follow along dutifully to the broadcasts waiting for the penny to drop. It was years before I finally understood the lengths of its constructive elements and how broad the expanses of melody and leitmotif were within that structure.
Still, for all of the score’s extraordinary beauty, it made little sense to me dramatically. I was certain the last Met production, back in 1991, would be the one that finally opened the floodgates for me. Surely, this is exactly what Wagner wanted: n über-traditional staging with monumental sets that morphed before you. Still, no drama. I’ve seen almost every video performance of Wagner’s Bühnenweihfestspiel (“Festival play for the consecration of the stage”…oh, those Germans!) I could lay hands on since but it wasn’t until I sat in my local movie theater last year that every nuance of the story and text clicked in succession and fell over in my head like a row of dominoes. I am grateful to Sony for this new release of the Metropolitan Opera’s latest production of Parsifal and I hope I’m not the only one who discovers what a rich experience this opera can be because of it.
I lay full responsibility for the glories of this performance at the feet of its director François Girard and the team he’s assembled and I will gladly wash them. He of the films Thirty-two Short Films about Glenn Gould and especially The Red Violin has enjoyed a varied theatrical career that encompases Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins mounted for Lyon and the Edinburgh Festival and even two shows for Cirque du Soleil.
Mostly I frown upon a director who stages the overture but here Girard starts the opera behind a mirrored scrim with all the participants in black formal wear facing the audience. As the prelude unfolds the men slowly lose their jackets and ties and the group segreates by gender. The staging is imbued from the first with an opulent starkness and Act I opens on a scorched earth with office chairs. Girard gives this community its own language of gestures and practice that is derived all the way from fundamentalist Christianity to Buddhism and, it seems, everything in between.
This isn’t the first post-apocalyptic setting for Parsifal that I’ve seen but, come to think of it, what sense does it really make to be searching for spirituality in the middle of nature’s bounty? These pilgrims are worshiping, in desperate hope, an earth whose sustaining fruits have withered.
Since there’s so little action the leader of this group is a storyteller of the highest order and René Pape’s Gurnemanz deserves highest praise for finding that magical mix of commanding legato and conversational delivery that keeps the humanity foremost in his performance. He’s particularly commanding during the Act I “time becomes space” monologue which could otherwise have been upstaged by the background videos of Peter Flaherty depicting planet shifting in its orbit before us. But Pape’s power as an interpreter keeps us grounded in the moment so that the atmosphere remains just that.
Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry is made up initially to look older than she is and she’s got layers of religious talismans around her neck indicating her character’s desperate pursuit for redemption. In Act II, when she’s been tarted up for her grand seduction, her performance finds all the lurid links that call into question not only her character’s true identity but her motivations. The horror of Kundry’s conflict has never been more subtly drawn, but is at every moment palpably apparent.
She’s riveting in the long history of Herzeleide, Parisal’s mother, and manages her dark-hued soprano especially well in a role that’s truly zwichenfach. The writing of the last few pages of Act II have actually been called “cruel” by one famous exponent of this role and are certainly infamously difficult. I only caught Dalayman forcing the voice once which must be some kind of record. Her participation in Act III, where she has virtually nothing to sing, brings this entire enterprise to a new level that was deeply satisfying and heart breaking.
Peter Mattei is gently carried on as Amfortas and he sings extraordinarily well for someone who isn’t allowed to ever stand up straight and needs to appear like he’s bleeding to death. He displays an ease in Wagner’s long phrases in spite of his physical torments and he’s gratefully all baritone which makes him more lyrical than most of the bassos who try to creep in.
The Klingsor of Evgeny Nikitin reigns in a dank cavern with a death squadron of flowermaiden clones. He see’s Parsifal coming in the reflection of the ankle deep blood that covers the floor and mobilizes his troops to vanquish him. His voice is hard and dark and eminently suited to the perverse villainy of his part. Carolyn Choa’s choreography gives the maidens fast angular movements that are visually unsettling. Even after haltingly marching an actual bed onstage for Kundry’s wicked purpose they remain sentries throughout the act with their spears and continue to comment on the action with gestures. Mr. Girard shows commendable restraint in an Act II finale that relies more on theatrical presence than stage wizardry.
We should be happy that Jonas Kaufmann decided to change recording labels for it seems to have spurred Sony on to this release and Decca to bringing out his Met Faust from 2011. Although allegations of inaudibility have been leveled at him in these pages recently I find him one of the most satisfying operatic tenors I have ever heard. His outburst towards the end of Act II,”Amfortas! Die Wunde,” just having wrenched himself from the frenzied, soul-sucking kiss of Kundry, finds him at his leonine best with an extraordinary command of the voice and a masculine fervency that I find unmatched amongst todays tenors.
Later in Act III when he appears as blasted and parched as the earth he stands on he renders the most delicate and touching version of,”Wie dünkt mich doch die Aue heut so schön!” I have ever heard. This was only his second performance in the role and from an acting standpoint he’s ernest and involved and in Parsifal that’s most of the work done. The only negative revelation is that in a production that requires his shirt off as much as this one it’s apparent Mr. Kaufmann has rarely seen the inside of a gym.
Daniele Gatti, conducting without a score, draws some of the most diaphanous and transparent playing I have ever heard from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Even in the parts of the score that can come dangerously close to schmaltz (those Flowermaidens, the Good Friday spell) he finds a simplicity that takes us into the real heart of Wagner’s intention.
If I haven’t yet mentioned the work of set designer Michael Levine it’s because his construction for each act is so organic and true to the whole it will be hard for me to see Parsifal in another setting now. The costumes of Thibault Vancraenenbroeck are brilliant in their simplicity and work to effectuate the director’s vision. All are reinforced by the consummate lighting plot of David Finn. Once again I have to mention the stunning video design of Peter Flaherty, which range from photorealistic banks of rolling clouds to juxtaposed microphotography in one of greatest uses of this technology I’ve ever seen in a theatrical production.
This release is your best reason to buy a Blu-ray player because the picture is so sharp and the sound so glorious I doubt it can be rendered faithfully on a single DVD, in which alternate format Sony will release this performance on April 1.
I’ve tried not give away too much detail for those who may not have seen it yet, but lastly, there’s almost a comfort that the grail is a kitschy gold chalice in this production that otherwise re-thinks nearly every element of itself. I can safely say that this performance supersede all others on video and maybe even a few audio recordings.