Saturday, February 16, 2013
New Parsifal at the MET
In Girard's vision of Richard Wagner's last work the gathering MET audience itself becomes part of the drama as a reflecting black curtain welcomes us, and puts us right on the stage even before the initial downbeat. This idea of a mirror is hardly new, having been used, coincidentally, at Bayreuth this summer during the concluding moments of the current production. Here at the MET, the Grail Knights are a group of men in white shirt sleeves and black pants looking more like an American Quaker or Shaker congregation. In Michael Levine's minimalist set the chorus of men sit in a circle on one side, right from the start of the opera, while their wives, veiled women in black, are segregated on the other side of the stage, separated by a crack through which water flows, and sometimes blood. At the end of the first act the chasm opens to reveal what appears to be burning lava beneath: perhaps a foreshadowing of nastier things to come. In the second act the playing area of Klingsor's realm is a forest of spears in a pool of blood where everyone gets their feet wet. In the final act, the Grail Knights are in a complete disarray. The stage is now a makeshift graveyard, and a sense of doom hangs in the air. Luckily, Parsifal comes to the rescue, bringing back the stolen spear. He inserts the lance into the mouth of the Grail cup -- an obvious sexual metaphor that makes Kundry swoon. And now that male (spear) and female (grail) are back together again the men and women dare to walk across the crack, and gather together, crossing the barrier that originally had kept them apart.
Girard's production steers away from controversy and presents us with a middle of the road "regietheatre lite" that's very European, but ultimately benign, and ultimately quite traditional. No Apocalyptic, cannibalistic Parsifal here as in Calixto Bieito's Staatsoper Stuttgart production, and certainly no Stefan Herheim's Bayreuth production where Wagner's opera intertwines with the history of Germany and Bayreuth itself. Girard follows the path set down by the composer, but the production also steers away from the traditional trappings of previous MET stagings, and this is enough cause for conservative New York opera lovers to raise a clamor, and long for the days when Cecil B. De Mille-sized sets rolled on during the Grail transformation scene. The grandeur is still there: listen to it! It's all in the music!
Daniele Gatti led the orchestra in a slow, majestic reading filled with magnificent details and soft nuances. Italianate to the core, this was a Parsifal that sang, and he conducted without a score -- an impressive Herculean feat. Onstage the chorus was simply marvelous once again. This ensemble should not envy the famed Bayreuth chorus. Both groups are first rate musicians, and last night proved that the MET chorus is one of the most important assets of this company. In the leading roles René Pape presented a younger than usual Gurnemanz, vocally strong, with perfect diction and great stage presence. Katarina Dalayman started vocally weak in the role of Kundry but warmed up by the time her big moments came in Act II. Jonas Kaufmann was his usual excellent self throughout the evening. His dark tenor filling the house, and at times resorting to his famous pianissimo in order to portray the youthfulness of the character. The most impressive singer of the evening was Peter Mattei who was heartbreaking as the king who cannot bear to raise the grail once more. His Amfortas was a wounded soul, bleeding profusely out of his right side, unable to walk without assistance, and totally damaged psychologically by his very human past failings. His baritone rang true, with strength and pathos throughout his performance. Finally, it was great to see Evgeny Nikitin sing. He was banned from the Bayreuth Festival last summer when it was discovered that at one point in his youth he had a swastika tattooed on his chest. His reading of Klingsor was vocally solid, although at times he resorted to an unnecessary Bayreuth bark in order to portray the evil intentions of the character.
This is an interesting production of Parsifal with a valid and familiar take on the story. Certainly I do not think that it is a production that audiences will want to see for twenty years (as in the Joseph Volpe years), and I hope that in due time we get to experience another reincarnation of this timeless work.