The Met unfolds a spare, darkly human and deeply moving “Parsifal”

February 16, 2013
By Marion Lignana Rosenberg

René Pape as Gurnemanz, Jonas Kaufmann as the title character, and Katarina Dalayman as Kundry in the Metropolitan Opera production of Wagner’s “Parsifal.” Photo: Ken Howard

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.


23 Responses to “The Met unfolds a spare, darkly human and deeply moving “Parsifal””

  1. Posted Feb 16, 2013 at 1:11 pm by T.I.M.

    Very good review.
    Girard’s interpretation is consistent and convincing, but one should mention that this is only possible at the cost of an extremely static Act I (even for Parsifal!). On the contrary, Act II is optically beautiful and, thus, a perfect contrast (the “blood” is even more effective when seen from one of the upper circles because of the stunning reflections it creates).
    Pape is impeccable and, without any doubt, the best Wagnerian bass-baritone of our days. Kaufmann’s voice is dark and extraordinarily butch for a tenor, which, in combination with his superb variations between piano and “full” voice, makes him a remarkable Parsifal.
    I also agree with your judgement of Dalayman’s singing: Excellent voice, intelligent interpretation, but her German is hardly understandable (the same is true for her Bruennhilde in both Goetterdaemmerung and Walkuere). One can very well live with that.

  2. Posted Feb 16, 2013 at 1:32 pm by Benjamin

    Wonderfully written synthesis of a remarkable evening in the theater. Outstanding musically, vocally, and orchestrally, I found it less satisfying theatrically.

    Certainly worth a trip to your local HD theater or the Met to hear for yourself. Warning, this production ran nearly six hours. A little long for a Parsifal.

  3. Posted Feb 16, 2013 at 1:57 pm by JWPhoto

    I listened to the live stream from the Met website and thought the performance was awesome. Truthfully, I didn’t hear any boos when Daniele Gatti took his curtain call. If there were a few, you couldn’t hear them through the rousing applause and shouts of approval. René Pape as Gurnemanz and Peter Mattei as Amfortas were transcendent (if that’s the right word), and Jonas Kaufmann made for a great Parsifal. I loved the whole performance, period. I can’t wait for the HD broadcast.

  4. Posted Feb 16, 2013 at 3:12 pm by nicosian

    The boos were for Girard not the conductor, that much was clear.

  5. Posted Feb 16, 2013 at 3:23 pm by Alan Rizzo

    Excuse me, how is it possible that a reviewer isn’t able to understand that boos were not for the conductor but for the director.
    For Gatti it was a triumph!

  6. Posted Feb 16, 2013 at 5:25 pm by Enrique

    I was there and musicale and vocal performance was great, but I’m really disappointed by the production, I really didn’t thinki that MET acepted that production I am in favor about new productions… But to present that I really prefer to see old production. I didn’t do the boos and however they were there, but I’m sorry, It isn’t an unfortunate production.

  7. Posted Feb 16, 2013 at 7:33 pm by Michael G

    I agree. There is no question the boos were for Girard, and this was completely unsurprising. Gatti was superb, and the audience showered him with fully-deserved bravos every time he entered the pit for Acts II and III and after the performance. He and the orchestra truly were magical . Bravo!!!

  8. Posted Feb 16, 2013 at 9:30 pm by angelina24

    completely agree!
    Jonas Kaufmann was great, René Pape is just the best Gurnemanz ever, and Peter Mattei is one of the most accomplished musicians of our time; he connects his admireable musical instinct with a great cleverness and knowledge (let alone his heveanly, divine voice, which makes anything he sings transcendental(..), and his very credible acting skills). In my opinoin the role of Amfortas is perfect for him, firstly,of course,because he portrays him perfectly, but also because he has a certain soft- and tenderness about himself, that gives his portrayal a deeper sense of anguish and also vulnerability.

  9. Posted Feb 17, 2013 at 2:33 am by Arturo A

    In defense of the reviewer (great summary by the way, thank you) the booing was confusing. I also believe it was for Girard but there were a lot of people coming in and out for the curtain call. The reception Gatti and the orchestra received before all three acts tells me the boos were directed to the production team, something of a “tradition” at the Met for all new productions.

    I love opera but I have no vocal or musical training. My measure of a special performance is based only on how I “feel” during and after the opera. Friday was special. Pape was simply amazing. Mattei’s singing and acting made a big impression on me, especially in Act III. I really liked Dalayman and look forward to seeing her again in the Ring. I am less enthusiastic about Kaufmann but I can’t tell you why. The two other things that are “stuck” in my mind are the bells used by the orchestra and the chorus signing from outside the stage. I’ve never heard anything like that.

    This is my first Parsifal so I have no point of comparison for the production. I am normally not a fan of new productions but to me this one was visually very appealing, especially Act II.

    I can’t wait for the HD performance, all seven hours of it (you need to be there an hour early at our local movie theater to get a decent seat).

  10. Posted Feb 17, 2013 at 11:16 am by J Shade

    How ironic that you use a quote from Nietszche to praise this work! Nietszche loathed the piece but loved the music. I am in agreement with Nietszche. The music was terrific as was the singing but the production was painfully static. Act 1 was grueling. Act 2 was the most visually appealing and intense. Act 3 was an abomination of staging. Girard’s prior statement’s about Patsifal being a “mission” ring true unfortunately. He has wrought a travesty and the boos were his and rightfully deserved!

  11. Posted Feb 17, 2013 at 4:55 pm by Ophey

    I don’t know if I can sit through this. They should consider redoing it in Vegas at maybe 2-3 hours in length. I loved the new Rigoletto.

  12. Posted Feb 17, 2013 at 5:46 pm by Jack Jikes

    Gatti came out to a mere smattering of boos. There was more for Girard, but in both instances audience approval vastly had the upper hand. The evening was miraculous equalling the impact of Lehnhoff’s production at ENO. I join with everyone in particular praise for Pape and Mattei – never equalled in any live performance I’ve seen. The lighting, particularly in the last act, simultaneously achieved solemnity and great beauty. I will attend every performance I can.

  13. Posted Feb 17, 2013 at 7:43 pm by Ailsa Craig

    I attended the Parsifal prima and salute Mattei and Pape’s wonderful performances. It was a fascinating evening of opera. Kaufmann was equally brilliant, but reading this review and some of the replies I’m beginning to think this superb and complete artist is now being taken for granted.

    He is “nasal”…..so was Corelli.

  14. Posted Feb 22, 2013 at 12:46 pm by Grayson

    Overall excellent review. I was there and you are right there were boos for Gatti (some felt his slow tempos grew slack and worked against the best interests of the singers at times) though most were directed towards Girard. Again, the overwhelming applause, also apparant as the maestro took the podium at the start of act 3 vastly outweighed the boos. ( Which after 51/2 hours of gorgeous music- what are you really complaining about?)

    I disagree with the comment about Act 1 being stagnant. The circle of knights move and react to every line of music for the entire act, sometimes in unison, sometimes as individuals lending a butoh-like greek chorus presence to the precedings, where most Parsifals do not have all the bodies on stage that this one brings. Carolyn Choa, also the choreographer for Madama Butterfly, excels at making startling images seemlessly integrated into the score. She has been a part of what seems to be the two biggest hits of the Gelb era.

    The Men’s chorus of Act 1 and the Women’s chorus, dancers and soloists of Act 2 deserve special mention for their flawless execution, particularly the bewitching Flower Maidens. But the ring of seated men in Act 1, breathing and pulsing, swaying and staring, weighing, measuring in deep council and meditation is an image I will never forget and supported every second of Act 1′s glorious singing.

  15. Posted Feb 22, 2013 at 1:13 pm by Grayson

    To me, too much is made, although I suppose it is natural, about this MODERN staging. There is still a great deal of fantasy to be had, after all. Magic abounds, but it is a magic that speaks to our world as does the best fantasy.

    But regardless of what you hear or read I would encourage everyone to see this maybe once-in-a-lifetime cast. Rene Pape is at the top of his form and his presence absolutely resonates, his subdued acting nevertheless reaches the balcony with ease.. and his singing is a force of nature tempered with poetry. Peter Mattei is the only Amfortas I have seen that really made me care about the character, i.e. we never get to see him in his glory, only the wailing and pleading-for-death, wounded king. Mr. Mattei brings a strength and nobleness often lacking. He is in the present, but carries his history well and sings with such torture coupled with such a velvety sweetness that your heart breaks..

    Mr. Kauffman provides multiple facets of his character, all too often one or two-dimensional. He brought to mind Jonathon Harker in the Castle Dracula in Act 2, but with a budding maturity won through hardship.. Mrs. Dalayman, she is endless mystery. A true-heart and fallen queen reduced to slave wrapped inside the twisted machinations of a world gone awry. Mr. Nikitin’s prowling Klingsor is a thing to behold and contrasts so well with his sexually-charged warrior maidens. It is Parsifal’s story, but there are many heroes.

  16. Posted Mar 02, 2013 at 9:10 pm by BE

    Saw the HD production today. Singing by all was monumentally good. Booing was for Director. First Act was awfully loooong, Second very gripping (but weird images) and Third a bit slow. It was my first and last Parsifal. Life is too short to waste on Wagner.

  17. Posted Mar 03, 2013 at 12:11 am by Allan Pearson

    I attended the Live in HD performance. There were boos for Girard only, and I agree with them for one reason only. Why does he have Kundry open the Shrine and raise the Grail instead of Parsifal, who has earned this right as the new King? Wagner’s directions in the score state clearly that Parsifal does this, NOT Kundry. This is Girard’s attempt to celebrate a 21st century women’s lib, a pandering travesty, and certainly NOT part of Wagner’s “Parsifal.”

    I loved the men in the cast: Rene Pape is the greatest bass-baritone on the world’s opera stages today. Peter Mattei was an amazing Amfortas, and Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal was beautiful, as a youthful fool, and especially later as a youthful, finally bare-chested “older man.” I have attended three different “Parsifal” productions live in Bayreuth, including the most recent Stefan Herheim, which was overwhelmingly complicated and theatrical, the Christoph Schlingensief (sp.?) which I dispised. Have also seen/heard it live in Berlin, Dessau, Munich, Leipzig and Erfurt, all on multiple evenings.

    Pape, Mattei and Kaufmann are the top casting possible. I have also, fortunately enough for me, heard all three men live in Germany on numerous occasions and not just in Wagner operas. Dalayman was my one slight disappointment, after Waltraut Meier in Bayreuth and Berlin at the pinacle of her interpretation. For me, Dalayman was almost too matronly.

    This new Met interpretation is for my taste far too dark and far too bloody, not only Klingsor’s castration blood, but also Kundry’s menstral blood, probably a correct interpretation, but visually overdone and hyperbolic.

    Musically, however, this performance/production was a tour-de-force.

  18. Posted Mar 03, 2013 at 1:42 pm by SY

    Attended the HD performance yesterday. This has always been one of my favorite operas, musically. Have not seen any live performance yet and on TV only the Met one with Jessy Norman. Must say I missed the lush green field in act 3 from the old production. However, I have no problem with this new production. Mr. Pape is so wonderful he really blew me away.

    However, I often find a “modern” staging distracting. I wonder about the hidden meanings of the staging too much. I am going to sound silly but: what’s the point of the men in act 1 taking off their jackets and shoes? Is this like the corporate world ditching their dress code for business casual? I also find all the hand gestures distracting. Act 2: “blood” dripping from the performers. I got to wonder if they get so uncomfortable to affect their singing (didn’t appear so).

    End of act 3: Parsifal raising the grail, but at the last moment looking to stage left as a female member advanced and seem to reach for the grail. I guess someone above already mentioned Kundry & the grail as a wave to feminism that didn’t work for them. (I was surprised but found it exciting.) So maybe I didn’t totally dream up the “rise of women” theme. Also, does Parsifal always dip the spear into the grail at the end? Doesn’t that have a sexual implication? (Sorry, I was remembering the grail as womb thing from the Davinci Code).

  19. Posted Mar 03, 2013 at 2:17 pm by Ian Murray-Watson

    Seen March 2nd on broadcast (in UK). I was more moved by this Parsifal than any other I’ve seen. Perhaps it was the closeups together with the wonderful singing and acting which made it so moving (usually I’m sitting so far back I can hardly see the singers, let alone their expressions). Pape made it all look and sound so easy – an epic performance. Mattei was quite superb, and deeply moving. Dalayman may have a raw top, by itself not entirely inappropriate to the part, but it was scarcely noticeable in broadcast, and her intelligent acting was a delight. As for Jonas Kaufmann, he was magnificent from start to finish. I cannot imagine that I will ever see or hear a better Parsifal (though he could usefully put in some time in the gym). I hope the Met is not going to place an exclusive retainer on his services from now on – it’s too expensive to get to New York.

    Much else was less than exciting. Gatti’s tempi were so slow that Act 2 in particular disintegrated dramatically and musically. Act 1 was merely more interminable than usual. He was lucky that he had singers with the breath and control to sustain such speeds, but I was left fretting about the well-being of my dogs, shut up at home.

    I loved the setting for Acts 1 and 3 – a bit bleak maybe, but who cares if there isn’t a forest? So how could an imagination that produced these evocative visions also produce the tawdry, tacky and cluttered Act2? The presence of extra dancers was unnecessary and distracting, and that dreadful cheap department store bed that was ceremonially carried in summed up the whole exercise – amateurish and second-rate. The ritualistic movement adopted for the chorus here and for the outer acts was the sort of thing that gets very tiresome, very quickly, but Parsifal itself is so ritualistic that it was just tolerable.

    Altogether, a flawed production, but a memorable one, so a big thankyou to the Met for letting us see it.

  20. Posted Mar 04, 2013 at 8:38 am by Louise Brohm

    Extraordinary performance of Parsifal. Kudos to everyone involved. It reminded me, among other things, of TS Eliot’s “Wasteland”. “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

    I look forward with pleasure to continue listening to Jonas Kaufman’s gifted voice even if I cannot see him. Having said that I look forward to the release of the DVD version of this production.

    Thank you to everyone who worked tirelessly to make this experience possible.

  21. Posted Mar 04, 2013 at 12:42 pm by Msirt

    No SY, the dipping of the spear into the Grail is NOT generally done. It’s Girard’s, and you are right about it’s symbolism, in my opinion.

    Folks, it’s NOT about women’s lib.

    Didn’t see it when I attended live at the Met, but after yesterday’s live HD broadcast, I finally “get” François Girard’s final interpretive thrust for this rendition:

    Parsifal’s words (paraphrase of the poem): “The Holy Blood on the spear longs to join the Holy Blood in the Grail cup.

    The action: Parsifal inserts the spear tip into the Grail cup, upheld by Kundry (very important, this), who, on a musical accent (also reflected in a spear movement by Parsifal), will suddenly begin her expiration ritual, leading to a gentle death, while meanwhile, the shadowy ensemble of women who have been ever-present but separate from the men, move as individuals to members of the opposite sex, and they all join hands as couples.

    My sudden grasp of Girard’s interpretation: My goodness! We’ve got some good ol’ Dan Brown going here (Da Vinci Code). The phallic spear and the vaginal cup. All that alternative Gospel of Thomas stuff (Christ married and parental, etc.) and a union of opposites into a perfectly balanced whole (Yin & Yang), represented through the sexual symbolism of the objects at hand. My my! Took me long enough to figure it out (well, I saw it at the Met 2/21 and from the distance of the Dress Circle, one could not see all the details, but seeing it live in HD yesterday filled in the blanks, so I suppose I can forgive myself this untimely lapse of cognition).

    Wagner did not intended a “woman’s lib” message, but he did write in the libretto: “…ihm (the Spear’s) seh’ ich heil’ges Blut … in Sehnsucht nach dem vervandten Quelle, der dort fliesst in des Grales Welle…”. Given Wagner’s interest in other, especially Asian religions (as reflected here in his mutation of a character from his planned Buddhist opera, “Die Seeger” into Kundry) and quite possibly other interpretations of Christian mythology and the fact that Parsifal ultimately sires Lohengrin, it’s not far fetched to say there is a “sexual union” element involved with this redemption.

    This justifies Girard’s final staging IMHO.

    SY, I think we’ve nailed the ending! And actually, I think it works!

  22. Posted Mar 09, 2013 at 6:31 pm by SY

    Bravo, Msirt! “Men and women coming together to restore harmony in wasteland.” Brilliant!

  23. Posted Mar 26, 2013 at 10:49 pm by ER

    Never have I seen a production of anything that moved me so deeply. You are almost right about the symbology at the end. It is the male/female duality of all creation, (NOT women’s lib) which can (in a chaste individual) produce the healing balm — a high epression of the creative force in mankind. This is the basis of the Christian mysteries — of the mystic marriage and of the raising of Lazarus and other miracles of salvation.