François Girard Brings Fresh Ideas to the Met’s Parsifal

Parsifal; Metropolitan Opera, February–March 2013; Daniele Gatti, conductor; François Girard, director; Jonas Kaufmann, Parsifal; René Pape, Gurnemanz; Katarina Dalayman, Kundry; Peter Mattei, Amfortas; Evgeny Nikitin, Klingsor

The well-oiled Metropolitan Opera publicity machine raised extremely high expectations since its announcement of the current season almost a year ago. Parsifal had not enjoyed a new production at the Met since the Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen staging was revealed in 1991. The previous Nathaniel Merrill/Robert O’Hearn production came from 1974. As with most Met productions, longevity and usefulness are pretty much built in. (Sadly, the Met has not done terribly well with Il trovatore and Lucia di Lammermoor, among others, but I suspect that nobody reading this review cares terribly much.) The promised cast was, on paper, virtually impossible to improve on. The staging Konzept was not too specific (was there an ulterior motive?), and only those who had seen this production’s previous incarnation in Lyon really knew what it would be like. In comparison with the pre-Lepage Ring staging, there was far less gnashing of teeth when the Schenk production’s departure was announced. Yet another fairly literal and old-fashioned show has been consigned to history and has been quite successfully replaced by a wonderful and amazing new production, which, to this reviewer’s eyes, ears, and great delight, promises to be the standard of reference, and for many reasons. One can only hope that the seven performances this season were not a flash in the pan and that there will be a revival with this extraordinary cast. Having heard the first three performances on SiriusXM satellite radio and seen the fourth performance in-house, as well as the HD broadcast and the HD encore, I can definitively say that this was one of those rare events where one simply gives thanks for being alive.

For Wagnerians, as well as composers and conductors, this score represents the sum and summit of this composer’s art. One can never have too much of this magical music, which has beguiled receptive audiences for 130 years. Parsifal, more than any other Wagner opera, has spawned numerous artistic and compositional responses. The one that comes immediately to mind is not even a German opera: Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. If we stay in German territory, the first true successor to Parsifal is Richard Strauss’s Salome. In essence, Wagner’s final masterpiece is a work that only true cognoscenti appreciate, and usually wildly. For many others, however, this opera poses grave problems due to its length, subject matter, and compositional style. The first act alone, like the Prologue and Act 1 of Götterdämmerung and the final act of Meistersinger, encompasses shorter works such as La bohème, Tosca, Otello, Salome, and Elektra and almost dwarfs much of the standard repertoire (2.5 hours seems to be the average length of other operas). Parsifal’s religious theme also poses problems, more for those who do not “believe” or agree. The almost total lack of clearly definable, hummable, and whistleable big tunes and great moments alienates the average listener. (With very few exceptions, that statement can apply to most operatic compositions since the death of Puccini, but that is a fertile topic for discussion for another time and place.) Still, Parsifal endures and will continue to work its magic on listeners new and old.

The reason I mention these obstacles to the enjoyment of the work is that François Girard, the stage director, has so successfully solved virtually all of them. Of course, no stage director can solve the problem of the length of the work. It is what it is. By now, most audiences know what to expect and know that a proper appreciation of Wagner’s swan song is aided by careful preparation on the day of the performance. It does no good to arrive at the opera house (or HD broadcast) immediately after a meal of any size, five or ten minutes before the curtain. Neither should one fast the whole day. One should also not run around New York City (or elsewhere) becoming fatigued. One must do everything possible to stay awake and alert so as to absorb every note of the music and every second of this stage production. Every note and every image is so perfect and so stunningly well thought out, played, acted, and sung that nothing should be missed. One can only hope that the Met, in its great wisdom, will recognize the commercial prospects built into the HD telecast and release it as a DVD and/or make it available on demand.

The principal characteristic of Girard’s novel concept is that the opera is not about simply watching some strange ritual. Rather, it is about the audience and its hopes for renewal. Taking his cue from Stefan Herheim’s Bayreuth production, Girard opens each act with a large, reflective mirror-scrim in which one sees the orchestra pit, the conductor, and the house itself. During the Prelude, the chorus at first is all scrambled and in street clothes. Slowly they doff street clothes and reveal a new ritual outfit: gray slacks and white shirts for men, dark cloaks for women. Men and women separate into two groups, the women moving upstage right and the men forming two circles, a larger one surrounding a smaller one, with a fairly large acting space inside the circle. Dividing the sexes is a small L-shaped stream that runs the entire depth of the barren and decrepit stage. In the house one can see that it is filled with water, and this image is even more obvious in the HD version. The stream eventually turns red with the blood of the grievously wounded Amfortas. The basic theme is that of a society sadly splintered and fragmented, lost to itself and to all others, and in great need of repair.

Interestingly, and somewhat unexpectedly, Girard brings refreshing new ideas to this familiar Wagnerian take on the Arthurian legends, not the least of which is the very welcome diminution of the Christian aspects of the story. Taking his cue from Wagner’s own writings and comments, Girard views the piece not as a representation of the Last Supper, complete with incense, bells, and offstage choirs, all in the midst of a Catholic Mass and Christian theology. Negating as much as possible the purely Christian aspects, he emphasizes the strong Buddhist roots of the story and thereby opens the work to others. There is no circular Communion table, and hardly anything liturgical. Simple stylized gestures accompany the Communion ritual. Parsifal does not stand idly by for half an hour and observe (like the audience); instead he wanders among the assembled knights and, standing two feet away from Amfortas at one point, is clearly impressed by the horrific pain the Grail ruler suffers. Never before have I seen and heard an Amfortas in such pain and vocal agony.

At the end of this first Grail ceremony all exit slowly, the L-shaped stream widens significantly and turns red. Girard departs from Wagner’s stage directions and has Gurnemanz exit in disgust and leave Parsifal to hear the alto solo intone the prophecy, “Durch Mitleid wißend.

The domain of Klingsor is also a simple set. Two dark walls face the audience, and again there is a clear separation at the back—symbolic and practical in that it allows for entrances and exits. The Flower Maidens remain onstage during the entire act and are carefully and beautifully choreographed. The stage floor is now a pool of dark red stage blood (about 600 gallons of water, food-grade glycerin, and red food dye are pumped in and heated during the intermission, recycled at the end of the act for the next performance.) Just whose blood this is remains a mystery. I have read and heard various explanations from participants. Girard gives no clue. Parsifal’s grasping of the spear at the end of Act 2 could not be more obvious and beautifully handled—no stage tricks here, no trap doors, no duplicate spears, no flashes of light as in the Merrill/O’Hearn production. The focal point of the attempted seduction is a large white bed borne by the Flower Maidens. Could anything be more straightforward and unsubtle?

The final act finds us in the same Grail locale, now more parched than ever. A funeral is enacted during the Prelude. The Christian rituals of anointing the head, washing the feet, and Good Friday are present but again seem strangely universal. The highlight of this second Grail ceremony is the healing of Amfortas by the spear-carrying Parsifal. Only at the very last measure of the opera does the healed Amfortas stand upright, free of pain for the first time in the opera. Here the Grail is revealed not by Parsifal but by Kundry, and, in a novel gesture, Parsifal dips the spear into the cup (the Grail). (Why has this never been done before?) The sexual symbolism is obvious, and the renewal of those gathered is also apparent: women and knights mix. Kundry dies, relieved of her awful curse, cradled in the arms of Gurnemanz, who passes his hands over her face and closes her eyes. She has found the peace that she has craved for so long, and Amfortas stands, relieved of his pain. Parsifal has brought renewal to all and assumes his role as Grail king.

Girard’s miraculous staging is not without a few minor quibbles. None gets in the way of his story telling in any disastrous way. They can be summarized quickly: (1) the constant projections from beginning to end were a superfluous backdrop. They are simply distracting. (2) The presence of the Flower Maidens throughout the Act 2, no matter how beautifully choreographed, took the attention away from the attempted seduction, performed on and around a bed with white sheets, which were stained with the stage blood. (One wonders what the cleaning budget for costumes was.) (3) The funeral procession/burial at the beginning of Act 3 leads one to think that Titurel is being buried prematurely. This distracted from the superlative orchestral playing.

Space limitations prohibit a longer discussion of this miraculous production and a detailed discussion of the singers. Suffice it to say that Jonas Kaufmann covered himself in glory each and every time I heard and/or saw the opera. He is the Parsifal of our time. Each word and phrase was so carefully thought out and so naturally inflected that it seemed quite spontaneous. But that is the art of the true performer: a blueprint, a conception, an idea from which to construct an entire evening’s singing. It was clear from the beginning that he got into the character. His performance was not about some tenor singing the notes. How seldom does this happen! In a title role that is only 30 minutes long, Kaufmann brought truly astonishing perfection of singing and acting. Frankly, I would pay money just to hear him sing a plain C-major scale as a vocalise.

René Pape was the lower-voiced partner of Kaufmann. Pape is the outstanding Gurnemanz singing today; there is nobody finer. His singing in Act 1 alone is longer than almost every other opera. And yet, as phenomenal as he was, he brought even greater revelations in Act 3. Peter Mattei proved to be the surprise here, as nobody was expecting his unbelievable portrayal of the wounded Amfortas. It is impossible to praise and thank these performers sufficiently. Evgeny Nikitin, in the unfortunately small role of Klingsor, was properly evil and clearly was enjoying himself. The only (and very slight!) weak vocal link was Katarina Dalayman, who did not erase my warm memories of the vocal opulence of Christa Ludwig, Jessye Norman, and Régine Crespin. However, none of these erstwhile artists displayed the depth of acting that Dalayman brought to the production.

Daniele Gatti conducted without a score, and his reading was within traditional tempi. It is clear that he has a great affection for the score; he lingered in all the right places and drove forward at others, sometimes in surprising places. However, for this listener, it is the late Hans Knappertsbusch who unquestionably owns this opera. Nobody, including such luminaries as Levine, Barenboim, Thielemann, Leinsdorf, Leopold Ludwig, and William Steinberg, can touch “Kna.”

The chorus sang with a startling degree of precision and a beautifully warm and focused tone and matching German diction. The Levine-trained Met orchestra, one of the glories of the house, was all that one could ask for. The solo woodwinds were exquisite, as was the principal trumpet. Seldom has the sound of the tolling bells been so powerful and compelling. All in all, this is a Parsifal for the ages. We await the release of the DVD so that we can savor even more details of this truly incredible production.

–Jeffrey Brody

Jeffrey Brody, a composer, conductor, and pianist, is the Music Advisor of the Boston Wagner Society. His most recent opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was performed by Longwood Opera in 2011.