Sat 9 Mar 2013
Richard Wagner - Parsifal
The Metropolitan Opera, 2013 | Daniele Gatti, François Girard, Jonas Kaufmann, Katarina Dalayman, René Pape, Peter Mattei, Evgeny Nikitin, Rúni Brattaberg, Kiera Duffy, Lei Xu, Irene Roberts, Haeran Hong, Katherine Whyte, Heather Johnson, Ryan Speedo Green, Lauren McNeese, Jennifer Forni, Mark Schowalter, Andrew Stenson, Mario Chang, Maria Zifchak | The Met: Live in HD, 2 March 2013
If it did nothing else The Met’s new production of Wagner’s Parsifal at least emphatically confirmed a few points. Firstly, Parsifal is one of the most unique, beautiful and truly spiritual works ever written for the stage. No great revelation there, but it’s good to come out of a performance of this remarkable work feeling that it has been proven. Secondly, Jonas Kaufmann, singing the title role, is one of the best tenors in the world today - if not actually the very best. Again, although he has only sung this particular role once before, this won’t come as a surprise to anyone. A third point that many people also already know, is that Parsifal is an incredibly difficult work to stage. Unfortunately, François Girard’s production for the Met’s production confirmed that point, and just as emphatically as the other two points were made.
Part of the reason why Parsifal is such a difficult work to stage of course is because it is not an opera in the strictest sense, and not even a Wagnerian music-drama. Wagner coined a new category for the work for its presentation at Bayreuth, calling it a Bühnenweihfestspiel (”A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage”), which seems like a minor distinction (or a rather pompously Wagnerian one, take your pick), but in reality, with its religious subject matter, Parsifal is indeed closer to an oratorio than an opera. In terms of dramatic action, there’s not much that happens over the course of the three acts that take up over four and a half hours running time. While there may be little in the way of incident, much of the dramatic action conveyed through narration in long recitatives expressing noble sentiments and grand choruses of heavenly praise, Parsifal is nonetheless a remarkably dense work, filled with Christian imagery, Buddhist philosophy and ancient mythology. The meaning, the mystery and the ambiguity of the work, as well as its sheer beauty, is given its fullest expression however in Wagner’s music, the majestic summit of his career, some forty years in the making, completed in 1882 just six months before his death.
In the Met’s production however, Daniele Gatti’s conducting of the score tended towards a languorous levelling of pace and dynamic towards an enveloping somnolence. The only dimension that the viewer was likely to enter in this transcendentally spiritual work was that of unconsciousness. It wasn’t dull, it wasn’t boring, it was performed and sung magnificently and often with great sensitivity by a wonderful cast - but Parsifal is a work with countless levels of meaning and interpretation and there was no particular vision in either Gatti’s solemn even-handed conducting of the work or in Girard’s stage production. Set in a dark vaguely futuristic/timeless post-apocalyptic landscape, the knights dressed in modern black trousers and white shirts instead of armour, there was certainly a concerted effort to remove or at least downplay the traditional imagery and specific Christian elements in the work (in complete contrast to the recent Philipp Stölzl production that I saw at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin) in favour of a more universal spirituality.
This certainly worked for the First Act, reflecting the onerous task of the knights in their defence of the Grail, creating a sense of dark despair that weighs on Gurnemanz over the loss of the Spear, and emphasising the near overwhelming sense of pain that is felt by Amfortas in his eternal suffering from a grave wound that never heals. The black, cracked and scorched earth is further divided by a stream that has women on one side and knights on the other. Even Kundry cannot cross this river, which runs red with blood and widens at the end of the act, creating a powerful impression that feels in tune with the tone of the work and the wound of Amfortas, but the symbolism doesn’t particular add anything to what is expressed in Wagner’s score and libretto, nor does it encourage the viewer to consider the themes of the work anew. Returning to the same set in Act III - as dark, barren and desolate as it was in Act I - doesn’t give any sense of the redemptive force of Parsifal’s purity of purpose and sense of healing compassion.
Act II however is at least highly striking and original in its dark imagery of Klingsor and his vampy, ghostly Flower Maidens with spears wading in blood. Avoiding traditional interpretations of this scene, it at least contrasts with the seductiveness of Wagner’s score or could be said to draw out its sinister undercurrents, but it’s hard to imagine Parsifal being seduced by either the maidens or Kundry here. As the most ambiguous figure within the work, there is certainly a case for emphasising Kundry’s different roles as a woman in the work - and the symbolism certainly suggested as much - but it’s difficult to establish a sense of the character being anything more than all things to all men. She’s a mother with deep reserves of love and compassion, a lover, a whore and a temptress a distraction from the man with purity of purpose. She doesn’t need to be quite so open, but like all the other concepts in this production, it seemed unable to settle for any one interpretation or even unifying concept, leaving all possibilities there to be read as desired.
If there was a lack of vision in the production’s visual and conceptual interpretation of the work, it often looked marvellous and at least provided a suitable platform for the singers to bring a much needed sense of humanity and meaning to the words. The Met’s casting was the principal attraction here. Jonas Kaufmann was a memorable Parsifal, his performance here likely to be the standard that any modern production of Parsifal in the world today is likely to be judged against. His voice, his delivery and his interpretation made this an almost soulful performance. We had to really wait until the third act to get the full impact - his Act II duets alongside Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry were less effective than those in Act III with René Pape’s Gurnemanz - but this was glorious, dreamy singing and deeply persuasive of the real character and meaning of the work that was lacking elsewhere in the production itself.
It helped that Pape was able to reach deeply into his character also with a beautiful soft Wagnerian line free of bluster. He was strong in his long first Act narration, but unassisted by anything to work with in the production design and concept, it wasn’t until the transcendental third Act that he was able to lift this to another level, presumably buoyed by Kaufmann’s sensitive performance. Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry was wonderfully sung, but I failed to gain any sense of who or what her character was supposed to be from this production or from her interaction with Kaufmann’s Parsifal. Philipp Stölzl’s recent Deutsche Oper production of Parsifal had its flaws certainly, but it at least put Kundry at the centre of the work and Evelyn Herlitzius explored the vocal and emotional range of the character more effectively. Dalayman’s performance was by no means weak however, and there were no weaknesses to be found elsewhere in Peter Mattei’s painfully agonised and deeply moving Amfortas, while Evgeny Nikitin brought a sense of real danger and purpose to his Klingsor that avoided all the evil-villain clichés - notwithstanding his being bathed in and wading in blood throughout the second Act.
You could go down as far as Rúni Brattaberg’s Titurel the individual Flower Maidens here and you’d still not find a single weak link in the singing performances. Gatti’s conducting, which I found more persuasive divorced from the images when I listened back to the performance on the radio broadcast, the beautiful playing of the work by the Met orchestra and the strong consistent singing of a fine cast, all did at least work hand-in-hand with Girard’s direction and Michael Levine’s set designs. Even if it lacked a visionary edge to match Wagner’s majestic final testament, this was a mesmeric Parsifal that did justice to one of the greatest works in all of opera.