Composer: Richard Wagner
Conductor: Asher Fisch
Producer/Director: François Girard
Parsifal: Jonas Kaufmann
Kundry: Katarina Dalayman
Gurnemanz: René Pape
Amfortas: Peter Mattei
Kingsor: Evgeny Nikitin
Of all the operas I could have picked for my first live performance of this incredible art form when I lived in Washington, DC, I chose Parsifal. I can't exactly remember the reason, but it probably had to do with a random combination of timing, curiosity, word of mouth and the presence of Placido Domingo in the title role. I also figured that if I could survive over four hours of Wagner, the rest of the répertoire should be no problem. Long story short, the experience was memorable and conclusive - if a bit overwhelming - and live opera had gotten into my life to stay.
Last Friday night, over a decade and numerous operas later, I was totally ready for my second, much more informed, take on Wagner's sprawling tale of redemption through renunciation and compassion with the Met's brand new production of it. The snow that had steadily fallen throughout most of the day and made my heart sink at the thought of a cancellation had fortunately pretty much melted by the time I left work one hour early, and I was more than eager to start the weekend with a few hours of elevated music and high-brow drama.
Wagner had never been one to think small, whether in terms of life or art. Accordingly, it took him about a quarter of a century to wrap up this Bühnenweihfestspiel (Festival play for the consecration of the stage), which came with all sorts of specific rituals, such as no applause at the end of the first act and no performances of it outside Bayreuth, except for King Ludwig II in Munich. A couple of decades later, the right to stage Parsifal had been fiercely fought and decisively won so that opera lovers all over the world could finally embark on its long but immensely rewarding journey.
The Met had it pretty easy with its marketing campaign for this production since the lead role was going to be held by one of the most talented and charismatic tenors of his generation. But beside his classical good looks, Jonas Kaufmann also happens to be perfectly capable of carrying an aria, which he did brilliantly throughout the evening. You can add to that some rather noteworthy acting skills, which were on full display when he confidently exuded the endearing cluelessness of the pure fool or the unwavering resolve of the enlightened man with a life-changing mission. (Never mind that even after smartening up, he still did not ask for directions and wasted an awful lot of time wandering all over the place). On top of the purely artistic performance, the fact that he ended up shirtless no fewer than three times certainly did not hurt his popularity either, and it was frankly nice to have such down-to-earth little pick-me-ups in the middle of all the lofty themes. That being said, I will never listen to the Good Friday Spell the same way ever again.
Kundry may be the only woman of the whole story, but at least Katarina Dalayman got to project two very distinctive and richly nuanced personas. Whether the reliable messenger dedicated to the Knights or the sultry temptress determined to seduce and abandon, maybe even Parsifal's mother, she remained an endlessly mystifying yet very vivid presence. Katarina Dalayman's impressive range allowed her to flawlessly bring her multi-faceted character to vibrant life and death.
As the veteran Knight Gurnemanz, Met regular René Pape simply stole the show every time he appeared. Blessed with a superbly dark, highly flexible bass voice as well as perfect articulation, he gave his part an intrinsic, occasionally heart-breaking, grandeur that made him a truly memorable leader. The rock-star ovation he received at curtain call was yet another proof of his eminent status among the Met audience.
Peter Mattei was an achingly effective Amfortas. Permanently wounded and in constant pain for having given in to his lustful urges, his king was wasting away in a noble agony that was sometimes too much to bear. On the other hand, Evgeny Nikitin was gleefully real as Klingsor, the bad guy who looked like a particularly enraged version of Mephistopheles, deeply yearning for revenge.
As far as I'm concerned, this new production, whose daring avant-gardism was by all means praise-worthy, had one major nagging kink that prevented it from being a total success. I understand that the bare, apparently sun-baked ground and the oddly changing background (sky or outer space?) were meant to express the timelessness of the story, but I still think that the forest, which a major element of it, should have be depicted with trees of some sort. I mean, where would have a swan come from in this apocalyptic landscape?
There were, however, many arresting images to savor and remember. The red river running through the wasteland in Act I only but hinted at the stylishly surreal decadence of Klingsor's castle in Act II. In this closed world dripping with the blood gushing from the open wound Klingsor inflicted upon Amfortas, ghost-like creatures wearing diaphanous white dresses and long black hair while holding on to mightly spears strikingly stood out in total stillness before starting their eerily elegant, deviously seductive dance. Even the occasional undignified splashing sounds coming from the bubbling red pool could not break the magical spell. So yes, I must grudgingly admit that the two 40-minute intermissions presumably necessary to install and uninstall that bloody décor were justified.
Other tableaux, such as the Knights partially disrobing before sitting in two circles while the veiled women moved to the other side of the river, all behind a black see-through curtain during the magnificent prelude, were simple and powerful. The original heavy Christian symbolism had generally become hints at more universal spiritual and moral truths by, for example, leaving the medieval Spanish setting for some undetermined time and place where spirituality and morality are still very much present.
The expansive, complex and much celebrated score provides the ideal musical accompaniment to this epic journey, and I have to say that attending a performance uninterrupted by clapping every time a vocal tour de force is achieved was incredibly gratifying. From the very first notes, the glorious prelude set the tone and the pace for the whole evening, the audience became part of Wagner's world, and the master knew exactly where to take us with his hypnotic combination of music and drama. Conductor Asher Fisch led the reliably excellent orchestra into a sumptuous, deeply respectful interpretation of the daunting composition and passed the finish line with flying colors.
When I looked at the time in the 66th Street subway station, it was 11:53 pm and I had just missed my train. The saxophone player who routinely performs with more or less deftness some excerpts of what has just wrapped on the Met's stage sounded a bit out of his depth, but luckily my ears were still ringing with the actual performance and the huge ovation it received from the full house, and that was enough to carry me home.