Singers Soar at the Met’s Parsifal

Parsifal, May 12, 2006; Metropolitan Opera, cond. Peter Schneider; Gurnemanz: René Pape; Parsifal: Ben Heppner; Kundry: Waltraud Meier; Amfortas: Thomas Hampson; Klingsor: Nikolai Putilin; Ti-turel: Robert Lloyd; production: Otto Schenk

Despite the pedestrian conducting by Peter Schneider, who replaced James Levine after the Maestro’s accident, this Friday evening performance of Wagner’s last opera was magnificent. Otto Schenk’s naturalistic sets shimmered with mystery and glamour, and almost the en-tire cast of Wagnerians performed at their peak, a rare feat. For me the biggest surprise in this memorable presentation was Thomas Hampson’s Amfortas. Although Hampson has sung and recorded Wagner, his lyric baritone and his penchant for Americana made him an implausible choice a few years ago for this musically dense bass-baritonal role; much to my delight, however, Hampson performed admirably, reaching the lower notes with astounding ease. The most striking aspect of Hampson’s portrayal was his nuanced and dramatic acting skills. In this highly realistic interpretation, Amfortas’s suffering and depression were in full evidence, supported by elaborate armchair writhing and convincingly guilty facial expressions. In a few passages, particularly in Act 3, Hampson sacrificed tonal accuracy in favor of passion and drama, pouring his entire repertoire of stage skills into the role of the wounded king; this, however, was a forgivable and effective calculation.

      René Pape was a much-anticipated Gurnemanz, and this enormously talented bass sur-passed all expectations. His perfect intonation and suave acting skills infused the role with great nobility and presence. Most striking of all was the transformation in his mien and gestures as Gurnemanz aged. In the last act, Pape’s halting gait and slowed movements perfectly captured the knight’s senescence. Later generations will most likely speak of Pape with the same reverence that we now speak of Alexander Kipnis or Hans Hotter.

      Ben Heppner’s absence at the dress rehearsal had given rise to rumors that Mark Baker, his understudy, would take over from him at this performance, but fortunately Heppner stepped up to the plate. Unlike in the Saturday afternoon radio broadcast of Lohengrin, Heppner was in good form and his voice did not crack.  The only drawback in this performance was his stiffness, as though he was afraid his voice would crack again. Heppner’s sweet and tender articulations, however, were never in question, even if they did not quite reach the heroic splendor of a heldentenor.

     Waltraud Meier, a veteran Kundry, is perfectly suited to the role. Her acting skills were superb, transforming her from a guilt-ridden hag to a seductive femme fatale and finally to a repentant sinner. Vocally, she was in splendid shape. Although some aficionados do not enjoy her strident notes and occasionally harsh articulation, she can also be exquisitely subtle and delicate.

     Nikolai Putilin was a powerful and intimidating Klingsor. This was a magician to be reckoned with, both physically and vocally. He sang with good intonation and stage presence.

      The biggest disappointment was the ho-hum dreariness of Peter Schneider. His conducting was unimaginative and perfunctory, perhaps more suited to a Mozartean opera. A violin squeaked during the prelude, and the famed Wagner bells were nowhere to be seen, possibly played on a synthesizer strategically placed in the orchestra pit.

–Dalia Geffen