Few if any operas have aroused such fierce philosophical and religious debate as Parsifal, Wagner's last great work for the stage, and a new Metropolitan Opera staging with a stellar cast attempts to bring all its mysticism into some sort of coherent meaning for a modern audience.
Wagnerians around the world can decide for themselves to what extent the Canadian director Francois Girard succeeds in his new production on March 2 when the Met offers Parsifal as part of its Live in HD series via a simulcast to some 1,900 theaters in 64 countries.
Vocally, the Met could not have assembled a better cast. The German tenor Jonas Kaufmann delivers a brilliant performance as Parsifal, subtly transforming the "pure fool" who wanders into the forest of Knights of the Holy Grail into their unlikely savior. Rene Pape, who is emerging as the reigning bass at the Met, sings the role of Gurnemanz with all the authority of an Old Testament prophet, and the Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman displays remarkable vocal range as Kundry, the tortured double-agent of a temptress.
Peter Mattei as Amfortas and Evgeny Nikitin as Klingsor round out the excellent line-up of principals, and Daniele Gatti conducts the always splendid Met orchestra with a sense of both the passion and solemnity of Wagner's sublime score.
From its first performance, to reopen the Bayreuth Festival Theater in 1882, Parsifal has been surrounded by controversy. Wagner himself called it a "stage consecrating festival play" rather than an "opera," and for more than two decades the festival was the only place it was performed. (It was the Metropolitan Opera who first staged in outside Bayreuth, on Christmas Eve, 1903.)
At heart, Parsifal is a celebration of the perennial renewal of hope that spring brings, a passage observed both in pagan rites and by most of the world's religions, and it is no accident that the opera is most often performed around the Easter season.
The story, based on a long Medieval romantic poem, is basically a fable about redemption through compassion and renunciation. A young naïf goes on a quest, and by rejecting the sexual advances of a temptress experiences an epiphany that leads to salvation. But as with so many fables, especially those steeped in religion, the devil is in the details.
The plot centers around an order of knights charged with protecting the Holy Grail and the spear thrust into Jesus' side during the Crucifixion. Years earlier, however, the order's leader, Amfortas, was seduced by Kundry and lost the spear to Klingsor, a Mephistophelean character bent on destroying the knights. In the fray, Amfortas was run through by the spear and now suffers from an incurable wound. Enter Parsifal.
Observing the knights' ritual with the Grail, Parsifal is unmoved, yet he sets out to retrieve the spear. Arriving in Klingsor's evil kingdom, he is tempted first by a bevy of maidens, then Kundry herself. But when she kisses him, Parsifal feels a sudden empathy with Amfortas's suffering and rejects her advances. He grabs the lost spear and escapes.
Girard's concept for the new Met production begins to take shape even before a word is sung. During Wagner's magnificent Prelude, beautifully played by the Met orchestra under Gatti's baton, the knights gradually appear behind a scrim, stoically staring straight ahead, like occupants of the Grovers Corner graveyard in Our Town. Each takes off his shoes, socks, and coat, revealing identical white shirts. First they kneel, than rise, take chairs and form a circle. Raising their hands in some symbolic salute, they begin to pray. It is an eerie evocation of a sort of modern-day cult.
In a program interview, Girard says he sought to "rebalance" the depiction of Parsifal as a purely Christian story. "It also has a very distinct Buddhist and ... nihilist foundation," the last a reading of the libretto that Nietzsche, once an admirer of Wagner but later an implacable foe, might find laughable.
The staging by Girard and his tech team is nonetheless effective. The knights' forest has been rendered as a bleak, parched landscape that has languished from the loss of the spear. Klingsor's pleasure palace is a cavern that runs red with blood. And throughout, the sky is filled with turbulent storm clouds, alternating with patches of sunlight, despair alternating with hope, much like life itself.