'Parsifal' Premieres At Metropolitan Opera: Striking Production Takes Big Risks
NEW YORK -- In Wagner's "Parsifal," the leader of the Knights of the Holy Grail suffers from an agonizing wound that will not heal. In Francois Girard's vision of the opera, this wound afflicts the earth itself, etching a widening crevice that tears society apart and threatens the survival of mankind.
The French-Canadian director's starkly modern and thought-provoking staging, first seen last year in Lyon, France, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday night. Though traditionalists may object, this is a "Parsifal" to treasure, elevated to the highest musical level by the solemnity and sweep of Daniele Gatti's conducting and the dedication of a dream cast of singing actors, headed by tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the title role.
From the opening notes of the prelude, Girard attempts to make the audience see themselves in the events on stage. A mirrored curtain reflects back at us a blurred image of the auditorium where we are sitting. Behind the curtain we soon see the chorus, the men stripping off jackets and shoes and remaining dressed in everyday attire of white shirts and dark pants. Once the curtain rises on Michael Levine's set, the stage is a desolate, perhaps post-apocalyptic landscape with a narrow river running down the center; the men are seated in a circle of chairs on the right, while the women have been banished to the left.
When the wounded Amfortas is carried in to seek relief by bathing in the river, it turns to blood – a grim reminder that no water can cleanse him of his sin: He once allowed the temptress Kundry to seduce him and, while locked in her embrace, was stabbed with his own spear by the sorcerer Klingsor.
At the end of Act 1, the river widens into a chasm, and Parsifal, the "innocent fool" who will redeem Amfortas, descends into Klingsor's lair. First he must fend off the Flower Maidens, here imagined as spear-carrying warriors in sleeveless white dresses. Then Kundry attempts to seduce him on a bed whose sheets turn red as Girard floods the stage with 16,000 gallons of fake blood. Parsifal, overcome by compassion for Amfortas' suffering, resists Kundry, destroys Klingsor and reclaims the holy spear.
Girard's staging in Act 3 is breathtaking in its simplicity, beginning with Parsifal's return to the knights. First just the very tip of his spear appears in the background, growing taller as the exhausted hero staggers up a hill. Finally he appears, shrouded in a kind of monk's habit. Not until later does his reveal his face and the close-cropped, graying hair that has replaced his curly locks. Parsifal heals Amfortas with the spear, and by baptizing the penitent Kundry, he also heals the rift in society. At last the women are able to cross the divide, and Girard underscores the reconciliation by having Parsifal choose Kundry to uncover the Grail.
Integral to the production are the video projections by Peter Flaherty, a constantly shifting array of multicolored shapes that sometimes resemble storm clouds, a moonscape or even contours of the female body.
Kaufmann, more than most Parsifals, looks and acts the part of a callow youth to perfection in the opening scene. Vocally, he rises to the stirring climaxes in Act 2 with his customary thrilling tone, then seems to deliberately hold back in Act 3, giving many of his phrases a hushed, worshipful quality.
To bass Rene Pape falls the longest role in this or just about any opera, the knight Gurnemanz who doubles as narrator and father figure. Pape pours out unstinting rich, velvety sound, but just as important, his is a deeply felt interpretation: His joy at the miracle that has brought Parsifal back and saved the knights brings tears to his eyes – and ours.
As fine as Kaufmann and Pape are, the revelation of the night is baritone Peter Mattei, tackling the role of Amfortas for the first time. When has any singer so powerfully expressed the suffering of this tormented character while producing burnished sounds of such breathtaking beauty? His monologues in the first and final acts are the musical and dramatic highlights of the evening.
As Kundry, soprano Katarina Dalayman rises to the challenge of the seduction scene with a fearless performance, her singing blemished only by a couple of troublesome high notes. Baritone Evgeny Nikitin blusters his way with suitable menace through the role of Klingsor, and debuting bass Runi Brattaberg makes the most of the brief offstage utterances of Amfortas' father, Titurel.
Gatti, conducting without a score, is clearly enraptured by the Met orchestra's ability to spin a glorious web of sound. On opening night, the players returned the compliment, remaining in the pit while he took his bows on stage with the cast and production team. As always at a Met premiere of an adventurous production, there were a few boos for the director, but they were drowned out by cheers.
There are six more performances through March 8, including a live high-definition broadcast to movie theaters around the world on March 2. Asher Fisch takes over as conductor for the last two performances.
Jonas Kaufmann, a German tenor, will perform in the Metropolitan Opera's performance of Wagners' Parsifal this February. In this photo provided by the Metropolitan Opera Jonas Kaufmann performs during his solo recital at the Metropolitan Opera in New York Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Ken Howard)
This January the Latvian soprano Kristing Opolais made her Met debut in Puccini’s ‘La Rondine.’ This January 8, 2013 photo provided by the Metropolitan Opera shows Kristine Opolais as Magda and Giuseppe Filianoti as Ruggero in a dress rehearsal of Puccini's "La Rondine" at he Metropolitan Opera in New York. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Ken Howard)
Anna Netrebko, a Russian soprano, takes on the role of Adina in Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore at the Metropolitan Opera through February.
American tenor Charles Castronovo has six operatic performance lined up for 2013 including 'La Rondine' at the Royal Opera Covent Garden in London and 'La Traviata' at Staatsoper Berlin. FILE - In this Oct. 5, 2011 file photo US tenor Charles Castronovo in the role of Alfredo Germont performs during a dress rehearsal for Giuseppe Verdi's opera "La Traviata" at the state opera in Vienna, Austria. Premiere of the opera was on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011, directed by Jean-Francois Sivadier and conducted by French Maestro Bertrand de Billy. (AP Photo/dapd, Lilli Strauss, File)
The polish tenor Piotr Beczala will play the womanizing Duke in the Metropolitan Opera's performance of 'Rigoletto' this year. In this version of Verdi's opera Director Michael Mayer has set 'Rigoletto' in 1960s Las Vegas. In this Friday, March 23, 2012 photo, Anna Netrebko performs the title role alongside Piotr Beczala as Chevalier des Grieux during the final dress rehearsal of Jules Massenet's "Manon," at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch will play Figaro in the Arizona Opera's performance of 'Le nozze di Figaro' in April. Singer Daniel Okulitch performs during a press rehearsal of the opera based on Canadian director David Cronenberg 1986 movie 'The Fly' on June 30, 2008 in Paris' Chatelet Theatre. ''The Fly' is directed by Cronenberg and conducted by Placido Domingo. The production was composed by Canadian Howard Shore after 'The Fly and will play five times in Paris from July 2 to 13 before opening in Los Angeles on September 7. AFP PHOTO / PATRICK KOVARIK (Photo credit should read PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images)
Pretty Yende, the South African soprano, made her Met debut this January as Countess Adele in 'Le Comte Ory.' In this Jan. 11, 2013 photo provided by the Metropolitan Opera, Karine Deshayes, left, performs as Isolier with Pretty Yende as Countess Adele during a dress rehearsal of Rossini's "Le Comte Ory," at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Marty Sohl)
Vittorio Gringolo, a tenor from Italy, performed his first recital at La Scala in January. BERLIN, GERMANY - OCTOBER 02: Singer Vittorio Grigolo attends the Echo Klassik 2011 award ceremony at Konzerthaus am Gendarmenmarkt on October 2, 2011 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Daniel Modjesch/Getty Images)
Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins will begin her European tour with the classical crossover quartet Il Divo in March. LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 10: Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins performs live on stage at the Royal Albert Hall, during her 'This Is Christmas' tour on December 10, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images)
The South African baritone Jacques Imbrailo will play the title role in the Glyndebourne Festival's first performance of Billy Budd this year.