Strong Spiritual Element in Met’s Post-Apocalyptic Parsifal

United StatesUnited States Wagner, Parsifal: Soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / Daniele Gatti (conductor). Directed for live cinema by Barbara Willis Sweete and broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, to the Barbican Cinema, London, 2.3.2013. (JPr)

Parsifal Act II Jonas Kaufmann and the Flower Maidens c Metropolitan Opera
Parsifal Act II Jonas Kaufmann and the Flower Maidens (c) Metropolitan Opera

Parsifal – Jonas Kaufmann
Kundry – Katarina Dalayman
Amfortas – Peter Mattei
Gurnemanz – René Pape
Klingsor – Evgeny Nikitin
Titurel – Rúni Brattaberg
Voice – Maria Zifchak

Director – François Girard
Set designer – Michael Levine
Costume designer – Thibault Vancraenenbroeck
Lighting designer – David Finn
Video designer – Peter Flaherty
Choreographer – Carolyn Choa
Dramaturg – Serge Lamothe

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that ‘when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you’ and this could have been François Giraud’s starting point for this compelling new Parsifal production. It looked (and sounded) wonderful in HD because his direction concentrated on individual faces and probably played equally well to the stalls at the Met, but what those higher in the theatre would have made of it I cannot be sure. It was almost an entirely static production that turned Parsifal into a staged oratorio where the music and singing are pre-eminent and any interaction between characters rather secondary.

At the start during the halting and ethereal prelude we see a mass of humanity gradually appear with Jonas Kaufmann’s Parsifal clearly seen among them. They stare out into the audience and are attired in Thibault Vancraenenbroeck’s modern clothes, dark business suits for the men and classic ‘little black numbers’ for the women. As the prelude comes to an end on what is clearly a barren, desolate landscape (sets by Michael Levine) the women veil themselves and remain stage right for most of the long opening act. Meanwhile, the men remove their ties, jackets, and shoes to sit in a circle stage left. There is a rivulet between them and when the wounded Amfortas is carried in to bathe in the river, the water turns to blood, which reminds us all that it needs more that this to cleanse him of his sin. He once allowed ‘the terribly beautiful’ Kundry to seduce him and was stabbed by the sorcerer Klingsor with the holy spear he was carrying, and he then lost it to him. As Act I ends, the small river widens into a chasm (Nietzsche’s abyss?) and Parsifal, the ‘pure fool’ who will redeem Amfortas, descends into Klingsor’s realm.

The second-act set would not be something those who find the sight of blood uncomfortable. There are towering cliffs and a large pool of blood on stage where long-haired, balletic, Flower Maidens (choreography by Caroline Choa) stand ready as warriors with their own spears. They are in white – but soon to be blood-soaked – chemise dresses. Parsifal must first fend them off and then Kundry attempts to seduce him, with Klingsor looking on voyeuristically, on a bed that has been brought in and appears to be hovering over the blood flooding the stage. After an unusually lingering kiss, Parsifal overcome by remorse for Amfortas’ suffering, pushes Kundry away, destroys Klingsor and reclaims the holy spear.

Two important features of Giraud’s staging have been evident so far, firstly Parsifal appears a born pacifist and never carries any weapons, neither bow nor sword. I think the Buddha propounded non-violence and the director appears to be responding here in a small way to his teachings that are central to Wagner’s final opera. Secondly, this production would be even less eventful were it not for Peter Flaherty’s eye-catching videography that is an ever-changing backdrop to what action there is. It concentrates mainly on close-ups of naked human (female?) flesh in Act I, the flow of blood (from Amfortas’s wound?) in Act II and turbulent skies and a planetary eclipse in Act III.

Act III has even more of a post-apocalyptic scenario than before; men and women appear as mourners beside recent burials. When Parsifal reappears he is exhausted and his wanderings have prematurely aged him because of his suffering. There is absolutely no sign of Good Friday’s ‘fair fields and meadows’. In the final scene, Parsifal succeeds Amfortas as Grail king, and whilst the landscape remains dry and desolate, the scar down its centre now carries water once more. The newly-baptised Kundry has brought on the Grail during the final procession and the women and men who have been divided since the opening scene now come together. Amfortas’s wound is closed but Kundry expires, and it is only through compassion, rather than religion, that any rift in the society we see is healed. After all that had gone before I never expected a dove … so wasn’t surprised when none appeared!

François Giraud and his designer draw a lot on the work of Keith Warner and his fondly-remembered Lohengrin at Bayreuth; and especially in the bleak setting and chairs, from the Nicholas Lehnhoff’s Parsifal for English National Opera that has been subsequently been staged throughout the world. Giraud gives us a grippingly simple, poetic, Parsifal that concentrates on the spirituality and devotion aspects of the story and the conflict between the sexes, as well as, the eternal one between good and evil. It dwells on Parsifal’s path to enlightenment and therefore the director gives Wagner – on the 200th anniversary of his birth – the Buddhist opera he never lived to write – though he had planned one called Die Sieger (The Victors). Not a bad achievement for a work seen by some as the composer’s most anti-Semitic and ideologically suspect.

Conductor Daniele Gatti was the true hero of this performance. Seeming to be in a rapt, trance-like state of his own, he conducted without a score and humbly repelled Live in HD host Eric Owens’s question about this during the second interval. He said his own journey with this opera had begun in 2008 (in Bayreuth) where he conducted it each year until 2011 and it was now ending. Gatti’s interpretation is on the slow side and luxuriated in the webs of sound Wagner’s writing can create in the right hands such as his. With its scrupulous attention to musical details it was similar to what I imagine Reginald Goodall might have achieved – in his prime – with such a splendid orchestra. Donald Palumbo’s chorus was typically magnificent throughout, too.

Even though I praise Gatti and his orchestra, I do find critiquing the music – and especially the singing – for broadcasts continuously difficult because they have been subjected to the vagaries of digital capture and probable enhancement. Regardless, the sound on this occasion was the some of the best I have heard for these transmissions.

Two members of the Met cast give performances unlikely to be bettered by anyone: René Pape as Gurnemanz and Peter Mattei as Amfortas. Pape sings with such a great beauty of tone and eloquent legato that he seemed a natural, very humble, story-teller. That he looked rather disengaged from the drama at times is not surprising in this production as there is very little. Mattei gives a powerfully anguished performance with all the pain his character suffers clearly etched on his bearded face. He was able to act Amfortas’s pain without all the emotion compromising the warmth of his lyric baritone voice. To a degree, he sang the role too well – if this were possible.

Katarina Dalayman was an adequate Kundry without the wildness or sexual allure some achieve in this role. In Act II, I wondered if Giraud was implying incest because never has Kundry seemed more like Parsifal’s mother. There was a lack of abandon at the top of her voice, though through her commitment to the role she made Kundry appear a very human, if rather desperate, character. Evgeny Nikitin was the subject of much controversy at Bayreuth last summer, here he snarled away with a strong Slavic accent at odds with his more Northern European counterparts on stage. Rúni Brattaberg was suitably sepulchral Titurel and the appealing Haeran Hong demanded attention as one of the lead Flower Maidens.

Finally, I need to address ‘the (slim) elephant in the room’ – Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal. I have reviewed his recent Wagner CD that was given a shameless plug during his interval interview and found it a rather hit-and-miss selection where he too often employs an unnatural burnish baritonal timbre to his voice. Here it was in evidence again and often totally wrong for Parsifal but it would be fine for Tristan’s anguish which is where he must be heading now it seems. He either has a most wonderful, radiant head voice such as he employs when he muses on those flowers that (supposedly) have magically bloomed on Good Friday or those darker tones – and there is little in between. I was getting quite carried away with his closing, numinous, ‘Nur eine Waffe taugt’ until his vocal misjudgement on the final ‘Schrein’ of (in translation) ‘open the shrine’. Quite what he went for there goodness knows, but he never achieved it whatever it was. However, Kaufmann looks good, he is an incomparable actor and as he spent large stretches of this performance bare-chested it probably meant a certain section of the watching audience weren’t really concentrating on his voice anyway!

Jim Pritchard