Saturday, May 13, 2006

Friday's Parsifal at the MET

After much gossip, a great deal of drama, and impending portents of cancellation throughout the week, tenor Ben Heppner went ahead and sang the tile role of Parsifal on opening night of the revival of this production at The Metropolitan Opera. He did pretty well too -- and so did the rest of the cast!

During the week I reported that Heppner had skipped the dress rehearsal and that the MET had hired two additional tenors for the three scheduled performances of this work. When I got to the MET Friday evening and got my hands on a playbill there was a paper insert inside, but Ben Heppner's name was nowhere on it. His name was most definitely printed on the actual playbill next to the name of the compassionate redeemer, the paper insert only alerted us to a minor cast change involving the Fourth Squire.

Heppner had taken the high road, and he wasn't taking any prisoners. Can you say "He did it!"

Two weeks after a Lohengrin broadcast where his voice cracked in the middle act, Heppner had once again stiffled his critics. Although he was not in choice form for his first ever Parsifal, he looked and sounded strong in the part, showing promise of greatness for the two upcoming performances.

Everyone delivered Friday night: Peter Schneider might not be the most exciting conductor, but he led a competent reading of the score which improved as the evening progressed. René Pape once again proved that he is the Wagner bass of our times with his noble reading of Gurnemanz. He is the only bass I can remember who shows how the character ages throughout the opera. We see him as a young man in the first act, but by the time Act III begins, he has become a gray patriarchal hermit who has trouble kneeling and standing up. Lucky for us. Gurnemanz's voice remains intact during the many years that elapse. Waltraud Meier stole the show on Friday. She first sang this role at the MET fourteen years ago and she made us all believe that she will be able to sing it for fourteen more. She earned a standing ovation after the second act. Thomas Hampson is one of our greatest baritones, but he tried too hard to show the pain of Amfortas' wound and, as a result, his voice lost its focus, especially during Act I. As long as he doesn't shout, Hampson can sing a hell of an Amfortas. His performance of this role in the Nikolaus Lehnhoff production from the Festspielhaus at Baden-Baden (available on DVD) shows what an intelligent approach he can lend to the role. Nikolai Putilin was creepy as Klingsor, but unfortunately he had to cope with extremely silly necromancy stage business. They should get rid of the "fireball" he hurls into the abyss in order to summon the spirit of Kundry back to life. I miss the old MET production with its Wieland Wagner touches of light painting upon a dark canvas. The Klingsor scene in that production had the right scary mood.

A few words about Ben Heppner: it's too bad that he skipped the dress rehearsal. He looked a little unsure of the blocking, and his performance was too broad, almost as if he still had not shaken off the Wilsonian affectations of Lohengrin. In Act I he looked too old and not at all believable as the impetuous youth with little regards for the fauna of Montsalvat. In Act II, surrounded by the Flower Maidens, he looked like a horny Peter Grimes. He has to work on making these two acts truthful for himself so that they will work for the audience. Act III was a lot better: he made a terrific entrance wearing black armor and carrying a great shield and spear. Vocally, it was obvious that he was holding back a bit, scared, perhaps, of having another catastrophic vocal incident. Hopefully, this performance has given him the confidence that he needs to let loose on Monday night.

Those of you who are attending the Monday and Thursday performances might want to add your comments to this blog. I would be interested to hear how the rest of these performances turn out.

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