The Met unfolds a spare, darkly human and deeply moving “Parsifal”
At the beginning of François Girard’s spare and beautiful new Metropolitan Opera production of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, which opened on Friday, a mass of people comes gradually into view behind a dark, billowing scrim. Seated in tidy rows and clad for the most part in the opera-going livery of our day, business attire for the men and little black dresses for the women, they stare out at the audience as the long, tremulous phrases and spectral silences of the prelude sound.
The image brings to mind something that Wagner’s one-time acolyte Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: that when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. This Parsifal, musically and dramatically superb, is a haunting and challenging vision of Wagner’s final opera.
Girard’s staging, with sets by Michael Levine, costumes by Thibault Vancraenenbroeck, and lighting by David Flinn, unfolds on a scorched landscape. As the prelude fades back into silence, the women veil themselves and move stage right, while the men remove their ties, jackets, and shoes and arrange their chairs in a circle stage left. A scar cleaves the ground between them; behind them, Peter Flaherty’s stunning videos summon by turns turbulent skies, an oily sea, planets in eclipse, and what seem to be close-ups of human flesh. Shades of black, white, and grey predominate, stained by blood: on the swan slain by Parsifal; from Amfortas’s wound and the cleft in the ground that widens to become the chasm leading to Klingsor’s realm; and in pools in the sorcerer’s domain.
This disenchanted Parsifal has no dove; no one makes the sign of the cross (after her baptism, Kundry in fact removes chains with crosses from around her neck); and Good Friday’s “fair meadows and fields” are scattered patches of grass. In the closing scene, a broken and exhausted Parsifal has succeeded Amfortas as Grail king, and the landscape remains desolate. Kundry, though, has carried the Grail shrine in the final procession, and the women and men who were divided in the opening scene are now integrated. Though no staging can elucidate all of Parsifal’s mysteries, Girard’s production, bound up with issues of sexuality and suffering and civilization’s most primal discontents, is a keen and poetic consideration of Wagner’s great opera.
Two members of the Met cast turn in performances for the ages: René Pape as Gurnemanz and Peter Mattei as Amfortas. Humble and solemn in mien, Pape sings with unfailingly rich and resonant tone, unfurling phrase after phrase of majestic beauty as he hails nature’s restored innocence in Act III. He spins silken legato lines, articulates the text with a poet’s soulful clarity, and credibly embodies both the vigorous man in his prime in Act I and the wizened, forlorn knight who greets Parsifal in Act III.
Mattei gives a physical performance so anguished that it is painful to watch, his limbs stiff and his arms quivering as he raises the Grail in Act I, and his face wild with suffering as he jumps into Titurel’s grave in the final scene. Mattei, too, utters every word he sings with the power and emotion of a great actor and somehow manages to send forth howling cries of pain without ever torturing his mellow and patrician lyric baritone.
Jonas Kaufmann matches Mattei’s wrenching agony when he enters in Act III, bent, staggering, and shrouded in a tattered cloak. He sings his first words in a parched mezza voce that gives way to buttery-soft tones as he comforts Kundry and a rapturous ascent into head voice as he contemplates (or rather, in this staging, imagines) the flowers that bloom on Good Friday morn. He nimbly sidesteps the inadvertent ridiculousness of most Parsifals. In Act I he is darkly petulant—he simply shrugs like a sullen teen when Gurnemanz asks if he has understood the ritual he has witnessed—and his understated acting gives the scene with the Flower Maidens and Kundry unusual psychological power.
Kaufmann’s somewhat throaty vocal placement makes him harder to understand than Pape or Mattei, and cloudy enunciation is also a shortcoming for the Kundry of the otherwise excellent Katarina Dalayman and Evgeny Nikitin’s Klingsor. Dalayman’s tone turns raw in the highest reaches of the role, but she is a wonderfully human and sympathetic Kundry, as riveting and poignant in her Act III pantomime as she is despairing and needy (and not simply a sinister femme fatale) in her attempted seduction of Parsifal. Nikitin plays the villain with gusto, and his sinewy, slightly nasal tone sets his Kingsor apart from the rest of the cast, but the verbal pap he spews undermines the force of his portrayal.
Smaller roles are admirably sung: Rúni Brattaberg is an eerie Titurel; Ryan Speedo Green, Lauren McNeese, Jennifer Forni, Mark Showalter, Andrew Stenson, and Mario Chang all excel as knights and sentries of the Grail; Kiera Duffy, Lei Xu, Irene Roberts, Haeran Hong, Katherine Whyte, and Heather Johnson serve up vocal and visual enchantment as the Flower Maidens; and Maria Zifchak is a fine oracular voice. Carolyn Choa’s slow, hieratic choreography is splendid.
Conductor Daniele Gatti received a few wholly undeserved boos at his curtain call. To be sure, his reading of Wagner’s score differs from what Met audiences have grown accustomed to hearing from James Levine: whereas the Met’s music director makes of Parsifal a thing numinous and immaterial, Gatti emphasizes the velvety warmth of Wagner’s writing. Strains carnal and perfumed rise from the orchestra as Amfortas prepares for his bath; Kundry’s longing for sleep is accompanied by dark, narcotic shudders; and in the final scene, the voices of Donald Palumbo’s magnificent chorus and the vibrant downward arpeggios in the orchestra tell of a community human, not ethereal, healed by Parsifal’s compassion. Wagner turns 200 years young in May; what a splendid gift this Parsifal is for the old sorcerer and those lucky enough to see it.
Parsifal runs through March 8. It will be shown as part of the Met’s “Live in HD” series on March 2, with encore showings on March 20 (U.S.) and April 20 (Canada). Asher Fisch conducts the March 5 and 8 performances. Tickets and information: metoperafamily.org; 212-362-6000.