This was the Met event for which the opera world had waited with bated breath; a new production of Wagner’s final music drama with a cast to (potentially) die for. In this bicentenary year, let me begin by declaring that I am far from a committed Wagnerphile, although certainly not a Wagnerphobe – my shelves groan with plenty of recordings, of which Das Rheingold and Die Walküre are the most played, but Götterdämmerung, Parsifal, Lohengrin and Tannhäuser are works with which I never feel I’ve really connected. My operatic vote usually goes to one Giuseppe Verdi, with whom Wagner shares his 1813 birth year, but a Parsifal cast boasting Jonas Kaufmann in the title role was too good an opportunity to miss. So, with apologies to those of my readers (and colleagues) who bat for the other (Wagnerian) side, I humbly offer the following cinema relay report.
François Girard’s staging is a co-production with Opéra National de Lyon and the Canadian Opera Company. The French-Canadian director opts for clear symbolism to tell the story, without over-cluttering the opera with overtly Christian metaphor, until Act III where Kundry washes Parsifal’s feet, a moment which I found overwhelming – the director clearly signals that it’s compassion, rather than religion, which is the key to hope in their society. During the Act I Prelude, we see rows of people dressed smartly – as if a reflection of the Met audience itself – looking out from behind a scrim. Gradually, the women move off to one side, while the men ritually remove their ties, jackets and shoes and rearrange their chairs into a circle on the right, creating a closed community in every sense, but one clearly in crisis.
Nature has absolutely no place here in Michael Levine's sets; this is a landscape totally devoid of it; there is no forest in Act I, no lake, no sign of spring returning in Act III. There is no sense of the medieval Spanish castle at Montsalvat, just a desolate, arid landscape, almost post-apocalyptic, like Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s famed production, last seen at ENO in 2011. A fissure divides this parched landscape, through which runs a stream, in which Gurnemanz washes in the opening scene, but which runs with blood as soon as Amfortas is borne in – a universal symbol of his suffering. This reflects the fissure in their society – the women separated from the men by this stream, which opens to a chasm at the end of Act I; Parsifal stares mystically into this abyss and dips his hand in as the curtain falls. In Act III, when Parsifal baptizes Kundry, he crosses this fissure, symbolizing that women and men are now united as one community, in which women can play a stronger role; Girard has Kundry bearing the Grail into which Parsifal pours the blood from the spear, before she expires.
The feminine symbolism is strong in Act II. Klingsor’s kingdom appears to be at the bottom of the crevice glimpsed from above at the end of Act I, appearing like a ravine or giant womb where the walls run with blood collecting in a pool in which the spear-carrying Flowermaidens (wiry and balletic and eerily sensual courtesy of Carolyn Choa's choreography) splash and frolic, the blood staining their white nightgowns and the sheets on the bed they carry on-stage, on which Kundry attempts to seduce Parsifal. The symbolism of tainted purity is strong – the blood visible on the swan Parsifal has killed (yes, a Parsifal with an actual swan, although quite what drew it to such an arid landscape is anyone’s guess), Amfortas’ blood-stained, crisp-white shirt, and the Flowermaidens’ white silk nightgowns gradually absorbing the blood in which they frolic.
Despite Parsifal’s return of the spear in Act III and the healing of Amfortas’ wound, the outlook remains strangely bleak, until the final curtain, where Parsifal’s attention seems to be grabbed by one of the women. The prevailing atmosphere may be one of gloom, but beauty is certainly present, provided by David Finn's lighting designs and the breathtaking video projections of Peter Flaherty which are frequently stunning: blood, the solar system, skyscapes, close-ups of human flesh adding to the production’s tone.
What makes this intelligent, compassionate production so memorable are the striking performances. Rarely can the roles of Parsifal, Gurnemanz and Amfortas ever have been as beautifully sung in the same performance as here. Pride of place should go to René Pape’s superbly eloquent Gurnemanz. He can split audiences regarding his acting – he can sometimes seem a little aloof or disengaged with the drama and there were times where Gurnemanz’s narrations were more concerned with beauty of tone than conveying the narrative – but overall I found his portrayal powerful, ranging from humility and calm dignity in Act I, rising to rapt wonder in the final act. His bass-baritone may strike some as perhaps a little light for the role, but he has such a smooth legato and care for phrasing that it would be churlish to quibble.
In the title role, Kaufmann offers gorgeous soft singing – he achieves a rapturous head voice without any sense of crooning (as in his recent recording of Die Walküre) – allied to his baritonal timbre, which makes him a very special asset to any production. Alertness to drama doesn’t, however, always seem his strong point. He does brooding introspection well and Girard plays on this with his portrayal of Parsifal in Act I as a shy, gauche outsider, without ever appearing surly. His Parsifal also appears uncomfortable in Klingsor’s kingdom; the Flowermaidens rip his jacket off – Kaufmann appears bare-chested (waxed and buffed) for much of the performance – but he bashfully slips it back on when Kundry appears, Girard playing up to the idea of an almost incestuous feel to their relationship. When Kaufmann’s tenor does open out – most noticeably in Parsifal’s cry of ‘Amfortas! Die Wunde’ after receiving Kundry’s kiss – is it utterly thrilling and he delivers a moving account of Parsifal’s final monologue, ‘Nur eine Waffe taugt’.
Singing his first Wagner role at the Met, Peter Mattei made for an agonised Amfortas, dramatically intense and terrifically acted, allied to a really wonderful baritone. His physical contortions embodied Amfortas’ suffering. His uncovering of the Grail in Act I was a battle of will over body, the resulting ceremony (sensitively staged by Girard) uplifting, while his crawling into Titurel’s grave in Act III was an act of understandable desperation.
Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry was occasionally raw at the top, though thoroughly committed. I detected a lack of chemistry between her and Kaufmann, although I did wonder if this was intentional on Girard’s part. Her matronly appearance when appearing before Parsifal in Klingsor’s kingdom seemed more disturbing to him than tempting. Thibault Vancraenenbroeck’s costumes are modern-dress simplicity in themselves, although I’d have welcomed a little more variation between Kundry of Act I (‘in wild garb’ and ‘dishevelled’ are what Wagner calls for) and the seductress of Act II so that Parsifal barely recognises her.
Evgeny Nikitin, who I’ve seen before as a very fine Amfortas, is even more suited to the role of Klingsor, his snarling bass-baritone spitting out the German consonants with relish. Girard has him in a blood-soaked shirt and suit, while his Flowermaidens stand inert, their dark locks shielding their faces, until Klingsor calls them to attention. There’s also a neat solution to the problem of ‘the spear throw’. Runi Brattaberg, shamefully missed off the Met cast-list on the cinema’s programme sheet, made for a sonorous Titurel.
I’ve often felt that Rossini’s barbed jibe at Wagner – ‘Monsieur Wagner a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quart d'heures’ – has never been more apposite than in Gurnemanz’s near-endless narrations in Act I of Parsifal. Here, where Daniele Gatti’s leisurely conducting focused more on velvety beauty of tone more than anything else, my attention momentarily wavered… I found myself wondering what a Laurent Pelly production of Parsifal would look like, but the nightmare vision of Spamalot knights prancing towards Montsalvat brought me up shortly. Otherwise, there was much to admire in Gatti’s rapt approach; he ensured that the Met Orchestra didn’t overpower the singers and it was a reading rich in warmth and humanity. The Met Chorus was on splendid form at the end as well.
The filming for cinema was largely successful, with a sensitive mix of close-ups and longer views, although shots from cameras at the side of the auditorium did draw the eye to the backstage lighting rigs which remain unshielded in this production. Bass-baritone Eric Owens made for a sensitive, subdued host.
I envy anyone the opportunity of seeing this production – and cast – in the flesh. For its occasional flaws, I found Girard’s vision of a very human drama darkly poetic and more intensely moving than any Wagner production I’ve witnessed. Coming hot on the heels of Gergiev’s splendid new Walküre recording, let’s see if this purple patch of Wagner fever takes hold… my next review assignment is Die Feen. Hmm. We shall see.
Photographs © Ken Howard