Monday February 11, 2013 - The Met's new production of PARSIFAL works better in an updated version than many of the other operas Peter Gelb has presented. Being a fantasy or mythical opera - like The RING Cycle, ZAUBERFLOETE or FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN - this final opera of Wagner's stands up well to various treatments. Yes, the libretto for PARSIFAL indicates medieval Spain as the setting, yet Wagner himself wanted the Grail temple set to be based on the cathedral at Siena, Italy. So, from the start, 'reality' has been side-stepped when presenting this opera. In any event, there is no Grail temple in The Met's new production; it all seems to take place out-of-doors, either in a parched landscape or a blood-drenched 'magic garden'.
Act I works very well: during the prelude the (too) dimly-lit black-suited chorus seem to be at a revival meeting. One by one the men are 'called', stand up, and commit themselves to 'the cause' (women are present but marginalized...they don't mingle with the men until the end of the opera). Parsifal himself is among the men but he seems not to comprehend what's going on. The cult now gather in a circular prayer meeting: having doffed their jackets, they all wear dark trousers, white shirts and bare feet. Gestures and ritualistic elements from Christian, Jewish, Mormon and Muslim faiths weave into a sort of super-religion where a taste of blood from the sacred chalice, passed on the fingertips from man to man, seems to sustain them. Scudding clouds, beautifully projected in the opening scene, give way to sand dunes (or closeups of human skin?) once we are in 'the temple'.
Act II is less persuasive overall: the flowermaidens in white dresses and long hair move in aerobic choreography, getting blood on their dresses as then kneel and rise in murky red mixture that covers the floor. I at first thought they were in an abortion clinic, but no...they're in a rocky cleft with magic fire in the background (WALKURE, anyone?). Later the maidens carry in a queen-sized bed, lifted overhead and borne in stately procession, so Kundry can seduce Parsifal. It doesn't work, and neither does the trick of Parsifal catching Klingsor's spear in midair...the spear never gets thown.
The opening scene of Act III is horribly dreary; yes I know the Grail knights have fallen on hard times but this drab set, cratered with open graves under a pale grey sky, would indicate they're dying of boredom. I nearly nodded off here, then switched on the Met Titles for a diversion - a mistake, since I'd forgotten how silly and filled with religious mumbo-jumbo the libretto is. Anyway, the opera ended fairly movingly.
The music trumps all else in PARSIFAL: it compensates for the bizarre libretto and holds up grandly in any scenic treatment. Daniele Gatti gave a magnificent reading of the score, with a feeling of ancient mysticism somehow evoked sonically - this seems to be Maestro Gatti's special gift: transporting us right out of this world. He took marvelous care of his singers, never pressuring them with excessive volume yet also not stinting on the score's most expansive moments.
As this was a dress rehearsal, it's hard to say if the singers were pacing themselves or giving their all; I will know better when I see an actual performance next week. The flowermaidens, esquires and knights did well and Maria Zifchak intoned the somber alto solo at the end of Act I. As Titurel, Runi Brattenberg's amplified voice, with its steady beat to the tone, seeemed to come from the ceiling of the auditorium. Evgeny Nikitin was a sinister, dark-toned Klingsor and his tattoos were safely covered up.
Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal took his shirt off, causing the woman in front of us to whip out her phone and start taking pictures. After you've seen the torsos of male dancers and porn stars, Jonas's is nothing special (his back is pretty nice though). He's handsome, to be sure, and a sincere actor. Vocally he seemed rather bland in Act I and colorless in Act II but redeemed himself with superb singing in the final act. Again, we don't know if he was vocally taking it easy.
Katarina Dalayman, whose Marie (WOZZECK), Isolde and GOTTERDAMMERUNG Brunnhilde were all very exciting, seemed a bit stressed vocally by the demands of Kundry. She has reportedly been under the weather during the rehearsal period so we must allow her the benefit of the doubt. Her lower register did not resonate and the top could take on a desperate quality, though the high-B on "...und...Lachte!" was an extraordinary bullseye. Her rendering of the lieder-like monolog "Ich sah das kind..." was marvelous. She was a moving actress in Acts I and III but she's not really the seductive type, and there wasn't much chemistry between her and Mr. Kaufmann. (The tenor - oddly - put his shirt back on before getting in bed with Kundry...heterosexuals are so strange!)
The performance boasted two magnificent portrayals, as fine in singing, acting and personal commitment as anything I've experienced in 50+ years of opera-going. Rene Pape's Gurnemanz is a known quality in New York, and he was simply glorious throughout this long and demanding role. To say that he attained a vocal peak as he anointed Parsifal in Act III would belie the fact that he pretty much attained a vocal peak/plateau from note one. Pape's tremendous, generous vocalism with beautifully modulated dynamics and his natural nobility of presence combined for a sensational performance.
Peter Mattei was likewise thrilling as the anguished Amfortas; his acting of the tormented and eventally deranged lord provided a fascinating depiction of human suffering. Unstinting in his physicality, Mattei gave his portrayal a jolt of realism that surpassed any hint of theatricality. His large, warm baritone was glorious to hear: amply round of tone and verbally expressive. This was singing and acting at the highest level of operatic craft.
A special mention to the two men who supported Mr. Mattei physically in his performance of the pain-wracked Grail king: they took the singer's weight and bore up heroically as he twisted and crumpled his frame in torment. Excellent job, gentlemen!
Perhaps the most interesting moment in the production comes at the end, when Amfortas's wound had been healed. As Kundry expires, her black coat falls open and underneath the bodice of her white gown is stained in blood. This transference of the wound from one to the other must have some significance, and I am pondering the possible explanations. It was quite fascinating. really.