Monday, Feb. 18, the Metropolitan Opera presented its 290th performance of Richard Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal (Percival)—a work first seen there Christmas Eve, 1903—based on 13th-century Knights-of-the-Holy-Grail legends. A stellar cast led by German tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the title role under the baton of Italian conductor Daniele Gatti wowed the sold-out dyed-in-the-wool Wagnerian audience during all 5 hours, 35 minutes.
This season’s new coproduction comes to the Met for seven performances (of which five remain) after visiting France’s Ópera National de Lyon and Canadian Opera Company.
The current production has garnered praise from The Washington Post, whose title says it all: “Met premieres Francois Girard’s striking new ‘Parsifal’ with glorious cast, superb conducting.” Though Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times called the overall production “a downer,” yet his column admitted that the opera itself contains “some of the most sublime music ever written” and places the whole work “among the most metaphysical, ambiguous and profound, if inexplicable, operas ever written.” And Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim’s preview article for the same newspaper ended with a glowing quote from the star, Jonas Kaufmann: “Every time I’m overwhelmed by the beauty of this music. The music that describes all these miracles and all this passion is just incredibly gorgeous and tempting. It really pulls you into this world. Even people who are not religious become religious while hearing this music.”
This column will focus on Parsifal’s inscrutability from the perspective of a career operagoer who comes to this impressive work with an open mind and four other Wagner operas under his belt, namely: Tristan und Isolde, Die fliegende Holländer (The Fleeing Dutchman), Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin.
Many moments in Parsifal are indeed breathtaking. Oddly, none of these happen to be when any of the soloists are singing. Rather, the stirring orchestral prelude and interludes and the ethereal choral numbers comprise the musical standouts, and the redoubtable forces of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and matchless skills of the spectacular Chorus rivalled the formidable soloists as the evening’s true stars.
The vocal and acting skills of Jonas Kaufmann were worth the ticket price and the risk of getting saddle sore. He looked the part of the innocent simpleton in Act I, grew in worldly-wise maturity by Act II, and became the personification of compassion in Act III. His splendid tone and peerless baritonal tenor were beautiful, even when the vocal lines he declaimed were not.
Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman portrayed Kundry, the centuries-old mysterious woman who’s not allowed to die—or even sleep much, based on the amount of groaning and moaning she did throughout the opera in a crumbled position on the ground. Her impressive vocalism was never more pronounced than in Act II, when she shrieked a two-octave downward leap, explaining that she was punished for having laughed at the impaled Christ in the first century. Kundry and Parsifal are the only ones who come close to performing a duet in the entire work, but it really takes the form of lengthy alternating monologues, never of intoning simultaneously, as is done in Tristan und Isolde.
German bass René Pape performed by far the lengthiest role of the opera, the hermit and spiritual mentor Gurnemanz. He projected mellifluously in soft and loud passages, conveying crystal-clear diction to the last row of the highest balcony.
Russian baritone Evgeny Nikitin played a succinctly snide Klingsor during Act II. Faroese bass Rúni Brattaberg echoed with rich reverberant tones from offstage as former King Titurel, Amfortas’ aged father, in an all-too-brief role.
The story’s focal point, King Amfortas, suffers an unhealing wound inflicted by Klingsor with a spear believed to have been the one used to pierce Christ’s side after his impalement. It seems the king had let down his guard years earlier and fell to the wiles of the seductive Kundry—which is usually when people get wounded with spears. Swedish baritone Peter Mattei acquitted the tortured role with burnished tone; he truly sounded painfully afflicted. A bit of creepy stage business at Titurel’s burial saw Amfortas dragging himself along the ground and getting into the grave, ripping the swaddling bands from the mummy-looking cadaver.
Canadian Director François Girard’s staging adhered closely to the German libretto.
Two outstanding features were the ever-changing video projections by video designer Peter Flaherty, creating cosmic landscapes and roiling storm clouds in Acts I and III and in Act II, flowing figures of a corpuscular sort, sometimes resembling flames and smoke, other times an immense lava lamp, all in vibrant red and orange. The Act II staging of Klingsor’s enchanted sanctuary confined all movement to a triangular pool of ankle-deep crimson liquid that looked remarkably like strawberry Jello. Twenty-four Flower maidens, seemingly transplanted from Stravinsky’s ballet Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), stood motionless fully twenty minutes until Parsifal’s arrival, whereupon they sprang to life in seductive dance as a warm-up act for Kundry’s all-out attempt to ensnare him with her, um, charms. The 1,600 gallons (16,000 according to The Washington Post) of crimson liquid reflected eerily on abruptly rising fjord-like abutments, which formed the side walls of the triangle, gaping open at the back in a narrow fissure through which the red video projections could be seen. The visual and sonic aspects made this the highlight of the evening; other than the chorus’ contributions elsewhere, the Flower maidens’ sequence provided the only other melodious ensemble work that truly sounded like singing.
American author Mark Twain—a self-professed “untutored,” “ignorant person”—attended an 1891 Bayreuth performance of Parsifal, in the theatre Wagner built specifically for his operas. The December 6, 1891, Chicago Daily Tribune carried his piece “Mark Twain at Bayreuth” (often titled “At the Shrine of St. Wagner”) in which he says as only he could:
I was not able to detect in the vocal parts of ‘Parsifal’ anything that might with confidence be called rhythm or tune or melody … Singing! It does seem the wrong name to apply to it … In ‘Parsifal’ there is a hermit named Gurnemanz who stands on the stage in one spot and practices by the hour, while first one and then another of the cast endures what he can of it and then retires to die.
From the outset, he wrote:
The entire overture, long as it was, was played to a dark house with the curtain down. It was exquisite; it was delicious. But straightway thereafter, or course, came the singing, and it does seem to me that nothing can make a Wagner opera absolutely perfect and satisfactory to the untutored but to leave out the vocal parts. I wish I could see a Wagner opera done in pantomime once. Then one would have the lovely orchestration unvexed to listen to and bathe his spirit in, and the bewildering beautiful scenery to intoxicate his eyes with, and the [silent] acting couldn’t mar these pleasures, because there isn’t often anything in the Wagner opera that one would call by such a violent name as acting; as a rule all you would see would be a couple of silent people, one of them standing still, the other catching flies. Of course I do not really mean that he would be catching flies; I only mean that the usual operatic gestures which consist in reaching first one hand out into the air and then the other might suggest the sport I speak of if the operator attended strictly to business and uttered no sound.
The original quote in context comes next and follows here complete:
I trust that I know as well as anybody that singing is one of the most entrancing and bewitching and moving and eloquent of all the vehicles invented by man for the conveying of feeling; but it seems to me that the chief virtue in song is melody, air, tune, rhythm, or what you please to call it, and that when this feature is absent what remains is a picture with the color left out. I was not able to detect in the vocal parts of ‘Parsifal’ anything that might with confidence be called rhythm or tune or melody; one person performed at a time—and a long time, too—often in a noble, and always in a high-toned, voice; but he only pulled out long notes, then some short ones, then another long one, then a sharp, quick, peremptory bark or two—and so on and so on; and when he was done you saw that the information which he had conveyed had not compensated for the disturbance. Not always, but pretty often. If two of them would but put in a duet occasionally and blend the voices; but no, they don’t do that. The great master, who knew so well how to make a hundred instruments rejoice in unison and pour out their souls in mingled and melodious tides of delicious sound, deals only in barren solos when he puts in the vocal parts. It may be that he was deep, and only added the singing to his operas for the sake of the contrast it would make with the music. Singing! It does seem the wrong name to apply to it. Strictly described, it is a practicing of difficult and unpleasant intervals, mainly. An ignorant person gets tired of listening to gymnastic intervals in the long run, no matter how pleasant they may be. In ‘Parsifal’ there is a hermit named Gurnemanz who stands on the stage in one spot and practices by the hour, while first one and then another character of the cast endures what he can of it and then retires to die.
Within minutes of the Met’s new production premiere last Friday, Opera-L’s message boards, populated by some of the most devoted opera fans, began glowing with words like “epiphany” and such descriptives as “transporting,” “transfixing,” and “transcendent.” At Monday’s performance I was hoping for at least one of these life-changing experiences. Instead of feeling transported, I was always all too aware of remaining right where I was; I am apparently more ‘trans-breakable’ than trans-fixable; and instead of transcending, an old Carpenters’ tune kept replaying in my head: “We’ve only trans-begun.” Though I enjoyed the performance in some ways, I failed to be ‘epiphed.’
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Newark Performing Arts column
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