Review: Metropolitan Opera's Entrancing and Enigmatic Parsifal

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Most Wagner operas show multiple faces to the world – their mythological roots, the culture of Wagner’s own time and what future generations impose upon his works – particularly in the contemplative, ritualistic redemption parable that is Parsifal. Never was Wagner more direct than in his ultra-distilled final opera, but his meaning is so open ended as to be something close to a tabula rasa.

That’s why Parsifal took so well to the symbolist approach in Francois Girard’s new Metropolitan Opera production that had opera-goers buzzing about the entrancing but enigmatic stage pictures as much as the high musical standard of the performance conducted by Daniele Gatti, with a cast headed by Jonas Kaufmann and René Pape. Surface story telling wasn’t a priority in this modern-dress, plain-clothes retelling of the guileless young man who appears out of the forest and invades a band of knights dedicated to The Holy Grail, whose injured, sin-ridden leader Amfortas bleeds anew when enacting Grail-related rituals.
 
The production borders on the surreal — laden with symbols that the opera doesn’t explicitly ask for, but throw off poetic sparks in multiple directions. And that can work with Parsifal. In Act I, silent, funeral-veiled widows stood in the corner, positioned more for their sculptural shape than their relevance to the narrative. When Parsifal enters the seductive realm of the evil magician Klingsor in Act II, he seems to be in the bottom of a canyon with a river of blood. Or is he inside Amfortas’ wound? Some have described the production as post-apocalyptic. But when Act III begins with a stage full of gravediggers, you wonder if the Grail knights have been dead all along but move between other worldly realms of mostly barren landscapes. Interestingly, the mostly-offstage chorus suggests funereal voices from temporal realms.
 
The production isn’t for everybody, but so handsomely filled this five-hour-plus opera that I was quite taken in at the Feb. 18 performance. Amid the meticulously-composed, highly-stylized stage pictures (suggesting Wieland Wagner’s famously spare, 1950s productions) was a partly-cloudy sky, its weather changes commenting on the action in this slow-moving opera. Klingsor’s flower maidens are more like warriors, simultaneously flipping their black, waist-length hair back and forth, alternately suggesting their triumph or demise. But what about Wagner’s stage directions? That battle was lost years ago, and I’d much rather see gently provocative symbols than a bunch knight costumes.
 
The production’s main drawback: It’s not singer friendly. The towering sets lack reflecting ceilings so that much vocal sound is lost in the flies. Nonetheless, Kaufmann in the title role, Pape as the knight Gurnamanz and Peter Mattei as Amfortas projected feats of word coloring suggesting they’ve deeply internalized their roles.
 
I’ve near heard Pape sing so meaningfully. Kaufmann is still finding his way into his character’s meaning — though you might not know that if you haven’t heard his incredibly authoritative singing the new Die Walkure recording on the Mariinsky label. As Kundry (the witchy mascot of the knights), Katarina Dalayman was a bit shrieky and inaccurate vocally. Evgeny Nikitin has good nasty moments as Klingsor. But the opera really belongs to conductor Gatti, who projects a burning interior core even in the orchestration’s spare moments.