Above: Rene Pape as Gurnemanz in The Met's new PARSIFAL
Monday March 18, 2013 - Having been invited (unexpectedly) to the dress rehearsal of The Met's new production of PARSIFAL, tonight's actual performance was my second viewing of it. It's a lucky thing that I saw the dress (thank you, M.M.) because from our regular perch in the balcony boxes about a third of what happens onstage cannot be seen, at least not without standing up and leaning way out. We'd sat in the orchestra for the dress (moving to the Dress Circle for the final act) and had been unable to see the shallow pool of blood in which the entire second act takes place. So, basically, this is a production best experienced from the Parterre level on up, ideally from a fairly central seating location.
But even with a full view, I would say that visually the production does nothing to enhance the music. It is an interesting and valid take on the piece, but once you've seen it there's no urgent need to see it again. It's the nature of the work that keeps the staging rather static much of the time, and so once you've seen how the various elements of the production are set forth, there's really no reason to go back repeatedly. Except: for the music. Because few experiences compare with hearing this score in the House.
It's understandable that Daniele Gatti's conducting won't please everyone but to me it is one of the most thrilling accounts of this music I've ever heard. Of course most of my in-theatre PARSIFALs to date have been conducted by James Levine, who became famous for his extremely slow tempi (as the years passed by, he tended to speed things up somewhat). A performance conducted by Valery Gergiev featured an incredible first act but a surprisingly unexciting second (the operatic act), and then felt sort of aimless for much of Act III.
Maestro Gatti's first act is on the slow side - deliciously so, to my hearing - but I can feel the inner tension beneath the rather hushed spirituality. When the orchestra plays full out, the House seems to become a marvelous musical cauldron, so warm and embracing is the sound. I could not imagine anyone complaining about Gatti's second or third acts which to me seem beautifully shaped and which move with a sense of dramatic and spiritual inevitability.
During the two (long: 40-minutes each) intermissions, my friend Dmitry told me of his research into the pacing of the Wagner operas and how things have slowed down greatly over the decades since The Master penned the scores. Notes from Wagner's musical assistants at the time the works were created have come to light and they seem full of indications that the composer wanted things to keep moving ever-forward. In the ensuing years conductors - probably enthralled by the sheer engulfing gorgeousness of works like PARSIFAL, the RING and TRISTAN UND ISOLDE - have increasingly favoured a weighted deceleration, the better to savour the sonic experience, and so that's what we've become accustomed to. Dmitry mentioned the Pierre Boulez recording of PARSIFAL which fits of three discs: this I have to hear.
At any rate, when you're in the House such issues become secondary: you have to take what you're being given and in this case I found the whole of Maestro Gatti's rendering of the score truly satisfying. And the orchestra played sumptuously.
Peter Mattei as Amfortas (above, Ken Howard photo). Mr. Mattei and basso Rene Pape (Gurnemanz) are the vocal standouts in this cast though tonight neither of them sang with quite the same imposing sense of vocal grandeur they showed at the dress rehearsal. These are long and arduous roles (especially Mr. Pape's) and if the singers pace themselves in a long run of performances that is entirely understandable. They sounded marvelous in any event.
Katarina Dalayman ((Ken Howard photo, above) threw vocal caution to the wind tonight as Kundry, making a vivid effect despite some higher notes that bordered on desperation. When she can hit a high note dead-on she is thrilling, but when the vocal line rises to the heights in an ongoing phrase she tends to tighten up. Her lower range lacks resonance now, but the middle is quite lovely and very expressive. And so, except for a momentary tension in the high range, her "Ich sah das kind..." was simply gorgeous. She certainly gives the music her all, at the risk of vocal longevity. For some reason tonight she did not open her black coat at the end of the opera to show her bloodied white dress. This was a very touching element of the production at the dress rehearsal: in death Kundry has taken on Amfortas's wound. Whether it was just a lapse in the soprano's acting tonight or whether it's been omitted from the production is unclear; if the latter, it should be reinstated. It's very moving and brings the opera full circle.
Jonas Kaufmann (above) sings beautifully in a somewhat monochromatic way as Parsifal; he certainly feels the music and he is able to stay vocally afloat all evening thanks to Maestro Gatti's attentive support from the pit. Kaufmann was particularly expressive in the third act.
Yvgeny Nikitin sang strongly as the eunuch/wizard Klingsor and I greatly admired the many Flowermaidens (singers and dancers alike) who stood barefooted in the bloody pool for much of Act II. The remarkable effect of the voice of Titurel emanating from the top of the House was somewhat undone by the tremulous sound of basso Runi Brattaberg's voice. Maria Zifchak's single line as the solo alto voice at the end of Act I registered beautifully at the dress but tonight she sounded far away indeed.
The chorus were superb; the men and the women in this production are segregated until the very end when the ladies finally step into the males' territory. No wonder the Grail cult became such a downer: no sex, no love - except for the love of that infernal chalice.
Overall, a very fine night at the opera and certainly one of the best of Peter Gelb's tenure; I'll always want to hear PARSIFAL in the House but for future performances of this production I'll be content with a score desk. When you've seen it a couple of times, as well as it works in general, there's no need to see it again and in the end the theatre of the imagination is a much more satisfying place to be while this music is being played.
Metropolitan Opera House
February 18, 2013
First Esquire...........Jennifer Forni
Second Esquire..........Lauren McNeese
Third Esquire...........Andrew Stenson
Fourth Esquire..........Mario Chang
First Knight............Mark Schowalter
Second Knight...........Ryan Speedo Green
Flower Maidens: Kiera Duffy, Lei Xu, Irene Roberts, Haeran Hong, Katherine Whyte, Heather Johnson