Wagner's "Parsifal" is easily one of the Met's most successful new productions of the season. After Michael Mayer's amusing, but not entirely cohesive "Rigoletto," Francois Girard, too, takes a nontraditional approach to "Parsifal." Girard's production, however, achieved new levels of profundity with his symbolic, rather than literal set and costume designs.
Before a word has been sung Daniele Gatti has transported the audience to this figurative dimension where the story's action takes place. Gatti's familiarity with the score is apparent throughout the opera in his ability to balance the musical components and cultivate the opera's ever-evolving leitmotifs.
The striking first act was teeming with impressive singing, engaging plot material. and abstract visual settings and concepts. The first thing we notice while orienting ourselves is, as bass Rene Pape succinctly put it, "[Parsifal] is not a fairytale anymore." The knights all wore black slacks with white button down shirts and wisps of dark clouds billowing ominously at an unnatural speed served as the backdrop. Everything was familiar, but nothing seemed natural.
Gurnemanz, sung by Rene Pape, sings a sizable segment of the two hour first act. Pape sang with poise and clarity which made the extensive back story easy to follow. As the storyteller, of sorts, Pape acted the down-to-earth, practical man in an opera brimming with unhinged emotions.
Star tenor Jonas Kaufmann is making a real niche for himself in Wagner roles. The baritone-esque quality of his voice suited the maturing wanderer as well as Wagner's luscious, but heavy score. That being said. Kaufmann never had difficulty rising above even the thickest instrumentation. His well-projected voice soared freely, but Kaufmann took a more discrete approach to the physicality of the role. Dealing mainly in facial expressions and subtle bodily shifts, Kaufmann shrouded the wandering fool in an enigmatic cloud.
Visually the second act was undoubtedly the most memorable and innovative, but less dazzling on the vocal front. Girard's representation of Klingsor's castle was a perfect shot from a Hollywood horror film. A formation of glimmering spears filled the stage and behind each stood a woman in white with her knee-length black hair draped over her face. All of these women, and Klingsor at the head, stood ankle-deep in blood. Bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin began Act II on a promising note with his chilling, animated portrayal of Klingsor; however Katarina Dalayman's Kundry was not so engrossing.
At times Dalayman's interpretation was spot on, but the majority of the evening Dalayman wore an expression of disgust and paranoia that was not befitting of the supposed "seductress." Vocally, Dalayman tired quickly and sounded labored through most of Act II. There were no horizontal aspects to her singing; she lumbered through note by note, rather than in cohesive phrases.
On the other side of the spectrum was baritone Peter Mattei making his debut in the role of the tormented Amfortas. Both in Act I and Act III Mattei succeeded in interlocking the physical and musical aspects of the role into one cohesive and excruciatingly moving character. Mattei displayed mastery over Amfortas' agonized demeanor as he clambered across the stage, racked with pain, supported by his fellow knights. His smooth, melting voice found surprising new colors in Amfortas' agony and rage. As Amfortas begs for death, Mattei is completely unrecognizable from his other Met roles (the Barber of Seville, Don Giovanni, the Count from "Le Nozze di Figaro") and truly found a way under this anguished character's skin.
Girard's production does evoke fantasy, but it expands the relevance of Wagner's Christian epic by shifting the focus from religion to the metaphysical.
Parsifal runs through March 8th at the Metropolitan Opera House.