Parsifal: the Met’s knights to remember

The most enthralling section of Met’s new production of Parsifal is a portion that, in most productions, is the most dreaded: the first two-thirds of Act 3. Too often it’s a bore, but here it’s hypnotic, sinking the audience deeply into the ritualistic and the very slow, from the music to the movements onstage. It is drama like this–grave and mysterious–that this production does best.

In many ways this performance was a big win for the Met. This is a musically outstanding Parsifal with great performances that balance the human and the mythic. There are many disturbing and sad things in it. The production is beautiful and has some striking visual moments. But these moments aren’t quite enough to make an interpretation, and I was left moved but with some big questions.

Wagner, Parsifal. Metropolitan Opera, 2/15/2012. New production premiere directed by François Girard, conducted by Daniele Gatti with Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal), René Pape (Gurnemanz), Katarina Dalayman (Kundry), Peter Mattei (Amfortas), Evgeny Nikitin (Klingsor)

The setting of François Girard’s production is quite abstract. Before the performance, an undulating reflection of the opera house’s lights on the curtain informs us that this is a story about us. The staged prelude shows a lineup of anonymous men and women. Only Parsifal stands out, smack in the middle but not participating. The men take off their jackets and ties and separate from the women. This is not very much to occur during the 14 or so minutes of prelude (bless you, Gatti), and it goes by, like the music, with ceremonial gravity.

The lights come up on a brown-orange desert wasteland bisected by a dried-up river (Michael Levine is the set designer). On the cyc, projections show, for now, a serious of scary storm-is-a-comin’ clouds. These evolve later into a series of planets, vague plumes of smoke, and what looks like extreme closeups of naked skin (the Met should hire the designer, Peter Flaherty, to do a makeover on the Lepage Screensavers). The men form a single tight circle on the right, the women loiter on the other side of the river on the left. All the male knight characters emerge from this circle; Kundry never crosses the river.

(actually Act 3)

The stage pictures are fairly static but the acting gives the characters real humanity and vulnerability–Amfortas is dragged around by two knights, unable to stand alone, and Parsifal collapses when he hears of his mother’s death (whether Parsifal should have as much Mitleid for the swan and Act 1 Amfortas as he shows… well, I’m not as sure about that). But there’s also a ritual quality to the knights’ choreographed prayer movements and occasional simultaneous reactions, preserving (along with the abstraction of the setting) a sense of mystery. This combination is the best thing about the production. Other things are quite traditional: Kundry is given a conventional crazy lady interpretation, and the grail is a glowing golden goblet in a box. The swan is a swan, though also a symbol of femininity, brought on by a Flower Maiden and kept only on the women’s side of the stage.

At the end of the act, the dried-up river opens up into a chasm and Parsifal looks down into it. In Act 2, we’re down there, and it’s Klingsor’s lair, and it’s also Amfortas’s wound, which we get because of the enormous pool of blood covering most of the stage (the looming walls with a gap upstage center it also look like a giant vagina–somehow Act 2 of Parsifal is the locus classicus of vaginal set design). While the first act mixed the aesthetic with the symbolic, here the aesthetic takes over nearly completely. Klingsor is a bloody version of the knights, the flower maidens a mixture of dancers and singers with knee-length black hair and white dresses and their own spears (the very effective choreography is by Carolyn Choa). Everyone splashes around in the blood, Kundry attempts to seduce Parsifal (none too sexily here, it comes across as maternal if anything) on a conveniently appearing bed that also starts seeping blood, and finally Parsifal claims the spear with a gesture that I couldn’t quite identify and a straightforward grab from Klingsor.

Act 3 returns to the wasteland, this time pocked with waiting graves for the dying knights. Parsifal reappears, first as a decrepit, unidentifiable (meaning that he is wearing a cloak over his face, in lieu of armor) pilgrim, walking only with the assistance of the spear, then gradually turning into a (shirtless) ecstatic mystic. He also, after baptizing Kundry, crosses the magic river onto the women’s side, and gets the white shirt that marks him as a Grail knight. The return to the Grail Temple reveals knights who can no longer stand together in a circle (or apparently notice the male-female divide). Amfortas ends up in Titurel’s grave, when Kundry (!) finally appears with the Grail box. Then Parsifal shows up, indicates to the women to intersperse themselves with the men, restores the Grail’s power by sticking the spear into it. He lifts up the grail, Kundry collapses lifeless (Wagner says “entseelt”–her soul has finally departed), and all are blessed. (No dove.*)

So it is in many ways a very moving production, with Peter Mattei’s agonized Amfortas and Jonas Kaufmann’s messianic Parsifal taking acting honors. Some of it feels familiar from Syberberg and Lehnhoff (particularly the post-apocalyptic atmosphere), but that’s OK. It is, for the most part, enthralling to watch. But I have to say I have grave doubts as to the Meaning of it All. I think preserving a sense of mystery and wonder is crucial to Parsifal’s appeal. But this production does make several big gestures towards having a vision of the drama’s allegorical meaning, too. They aren’t plentiful, as a maximalist who has watched the Herheim Parsifal too many times I find it intellectually quite sparse. Since it doesn’t venture too much, I’m not inclined to cut the production a lot of slack for things that don’t make sense, and I think it has some big issues.

The production’s thesis seems to be that the world–as exemplified by Monsalvat– is out of joint, the men and women separated and the knights closed into themselves. By making them mix it up and giving Kundry a role in the Grail ceremony, Parsifal restores balance. But by choosing gender as the signifier of spiritual imbalance, Girard makes things very hard for himself. The production ignores the really crucial and pernicious portrayal of women in Act 2. Inside the wound or not, they’re still women. (It’s a too infrequently noted hypocrisy of Parsifal that the opera argues that women are the source for the evil from which the knights have to be purified, and yet indulges the work’s audience in a prolonged scene of women singing together and besieging the male hero. Lord, make me chaste, but let me spend a long weekend at the Venusburg first.)

Girard’s idea of the women’s exclusion from society as the source of the knights’ problems really appeals to me. But I’m afraid that if you stage Act 2 as a conventional male gaze sensual extravaganza, which he does, it doesn’t really convince. Parsifal is a confusing work, sure, but it has some central themes that are pretty clear: the knights have been tainted by sensual temptation. Redemption can only come from a pure fool (Parsifal), who first needs to learn compassion. He becomes a sexual ascetic after refusing Kundry’s seduction. So Girard’s idea of inverting this demands some serious intervention in the portrayal of seduction as the source of the knight’s problems as well as Parsifal’s awakening to asceticism, something that he does not do.

The production is largely, sorry, redeemed by the strength and humanity of its performances, and the music. Conductor Daniele Gatti gave a lyrical, mournful rendition of the score, with very slow tempos (a bit faster than his even slower Bayreuth ones). Gurnemanz’s Act 1 monologue, Amfortas’s Act 3 speech, and “Nur wine Waffe taugt” were particularly extreme: the first static, the second spent, the third majestic. “Hier war das Tosen”–the first Flower Maiden section–was, on the other hand, hard-driven. Gatti impresses more through his subtlety than his brilliance, but this was a rendition with a great deal of dramatic gravity. The orchestra sounded better than they have in some time, with the exception of some unfortunate clams in the brass, including a very prominent one in the prelude.

The cast is probably one of the best you could assemble today. Jonas Kaufmann is a fantastic Act 3 Parsifal and an excellent Act 1 and 2 one. He sings and acts this score with remarkable subtlety and musicality, evolving from a bright-sounding and curious boy to an exhausted and finally triumphant mystic, the latter with remarkable stage presence and a darkened sound in which the years between Acts 2 and 3 were audible. He was audibly pacing himself, but sounded great at the biggest moments, most memorably the final section of “Amfortas! Die Wunde!” (you can see a video of the first part of this below). Peter Mattei is a highly unusual Amfortas. This role is usually barked and spat out, but he sings it with warmth and somewhat Italianate style, and acts it with enough agony that never became aimless flailing. He also can cope with Gatti’s extreme tempos, and make them meaningful. René Pape is a Gurnemanz of depth and honeyed tone, who makes those monologues go by as quickly as they could, and with rare authority and nobility.

Katarina Dalayman as Kundry had a rough Act 1, with a rather unruly dramatic soprano that didn’t always sound quite when it needed to. But lack of control isn’t always a bad thing in a Kundry (nor is trouble with high notes, and she had that as well), and she actually managed the lyrical moments in Act 2 very well, building up to the dramatic high points with excellent timing. It’s a shame that the production didn’t do more with her character. Evgeny Nikitin (he of the Bayreuth tattoo scandal) was a suitably nasty Klingsor. As Titurel, debutant Rúni Brattaberg sounded cavernous, but it’s hard to judge as I believe he was amplified from above. The Flower Maidens were a good group, and the minor knights were fine. The Voice from Above experienced some intonational issues.

It is well worth seeing, first and foremost for the music. The production provides an engrossing sensory experience that should be accessible for those not familiar with the opera, but more experienced Wagnerians may be somewhat troubled by the logical gaps and selectivity of the production. It remains, however, a big win for the Met.

More photos below the video. Parsifal continues through February and early March; the inevitable HD broadcast is on March 2.

*Wagner literalists: I want to see someone stage Amfortas’s vision exactly as he describes it in the libretto, with the letters in the air.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met. 


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  1. I wondered if Giroud was going for more of a middle ground with the male/female redemption question. It seemed to me – and I might be totally, embarrassingly wrong about this – that he was extending the Ring, saying that it needs Kundry and Parsifal to be redeemed so that they could both redeem the Grail. Neither the separation of act one (veils) or the outright lust of act two (Klingsor's ladies and the early Kundry, which Amfortas knows all about) can work, so it needs the Mitleid of love (chaste, in the case of Kundry and Parsifal). That would explain why Kundry brings in the Grail, and why Parsifal is all tender after she dies/transfigures. It would also explain those tender finger-kisses that the knights use to spread the Grail's magic around in act one, a gesture I *think* Parsifal uses to dispel Klingsor, and also someway towards explaining what that idyllically benign skin constitutes the Grail world.

    But obviously if any of that is remotely true, there are still big holes in it, and I might be talking complete nonsense. Hey, at least this is a new Met Wagner production that makes you think!

    (Btw, what were those projections in the transformation musics all about?!)

  2. She has labored hard and very long to bring forth … a pretty damn nice review!

    That is certainly a very imaginative interpretation of some of the Act 2 imagery and I also found the spear "catch" (???) somewhat odd and anti-clamactic. Generally I wasn't entirely clear about the meaning of some of the symbolism and am glad I wasn't the only one that missed something.

    I came in somewhat weary of Gatti but was mostly just grateful that the orchestra was indeed superb (as good or better than I've heard it in years – I might have tweeted something about that) and was appreciative of this more than I was bothered by any interpretive idiosyncrasies.

    Pape's singing made the pace of Gurnemanz's part anything but a problem and his interpretation (given the nature of the material) was I think at the same level as those of Kaufmann and Mattei. He also was in particularly good voice.

    Anyway, going back so I'll see if I can extract anything else from this thing.

    (Am contemplating but a bit dubious about seeing a Rigoletto after your review).

  3. Hmmm, not bad, DJA, that makes some sense to me, though I didn't think of the Ring at all. I do have trouble with the slippage between love and Mitleid, though. Balance is, of course, not a Wagner specialty, and when your only portrayal of women is of them as evil… well, you need to do something else to convince me that they're what the knights are missing out on and that Mitleid actually has something to do with harmonious relations between the sexes. Because Wagner isn't doing that for you.

    More generally, I meant to say above that this is the kind of fragmentary interpretation that is often described as open-ended–it can mean many different things–but IMO this one went too far in the open-ended direction, not giving us enough to chew on or enough guidance.

  4. Thanks, Marcillac! Agree about the spear being a little anticlimactic, you want some, er, magic at that moment. It's another thing I wanted to write above but then I saw that what I had written was so damn long.

    P.S. to DJA, by "you" I meant Girard, and I absolutely agree about your penultimate point. If you mean the projections of the planets I was guessing it was going for an astrological kind of outer space as the final frontier of the psyche thing.

  5. Absolutely there's trouble with love and Mitleid (especially if, as the Met is wont to do, you translate that as 'pity') – that was part of the problem! I guess I was reading back from Kundry carrying the Grail in, which you could just as easily read as her serving Parsifal ("dienen", etc.) and the women taking off their veils to serve the knights, rather than anything more harmonious. But it didn't seem to me like that was what Girard – not Giroud as I typoed earlier, who is someone else entirely – was going for.

    I'm still not sure about the fleshy projections. I originally thought it was something to do with negating Amfortas's wound, but then they got rather more seductive over time…

    Anyway, as with Marcillac, a return visit is called for to try and figure all this out. And to hear Gatti again…

  6. I saw the key gesture as the women interspersing themselves with the men (and Kundry bringing the grail because she is impatient to finally die). Which begs the question, if they're allowed to hang out with the knights now, what else is going to be allowed? It's a slippery slope, you know.

    I sort of started ignoring the projections. They're loads classier than the Ring ones, but I could take them or leave them.

    Anyway, making a binary into a dialectic is hard.

  7. Thank you so much for this review…I really want to shoot myself (and someone else) for missing this Parsifal yesterday!

  8. I know this is mostly a PG-13 (?) rated blog and all but the this whole Spear in Grail thing….Slippery slope indeed! Without slipping down that particular slope we would probably have had to do without Lohengrin so there is that.

    Also, now that I look at I'm not sure the qualification "one of the best that could be assembled today" for the cast is really necessary. For me at least its impossible to think of anyone who could match the male leads vocally, and very difficult to identify anyone who could surpass them dramatically. Dalayman had her issues, as you note, but she was more than adequate and its hard to think of anyone today who would be significantly better either as a singer or actor (Herlitzius? Denoke? probably not by much) or could match the level of the man. Even Meier, an incomparable actress and and a very skilled and talented Wagner singer could probably not measure up to the vocal refulgence on offer here. So it seems that we could pretty much call this cast The best that could be put together today pretty much sans caveats.

    Further, this is also (to my knowledge) the first time that Kaufmann, Mattei and Pape have sung together (although combinations of 2 of the 3 have been around) and we don't know how often we'll get to see them together in their absolute prime and for this reason alone this Parsifal would seem an absolute must see/hear. (Surely someone, someday very soon will put together a Don Carlos with the 3 of them, Harteros and Garanca!!).

  9. I say an emphatic 'yes, please' to the marcillac suggested Don Carlos cast. With loads of exclamation marks 🙂

    Thank you very much, Zerbinetta, for a deep and thought-provoking review. Now I'm even more eagerly awaiting to see this, even if only on screen.

  10. Well, Marcillac, that is one other effect of having Kundry hold the Grail, and I DID think that too. All this about the holy spear, good lord (possibly a poor choice of words). I think that's my biggest problem with the production–the plot is clear that chastity is a principal credential for redemption, but the production suggests that after the curtain is down everything is headed a different way very soon, so what kind of Erlösung was this, then? This is where the production could have been far bolder about its interpretation.

    I would go to that Don Carlos, also (preferably with an "s"). I said "one of the best" casts because of a strong allegiance to Frau Meier–at least in 2011 her Kundry was still very much a force to be reckoned with. I am always tentative about making absolute statements, there's that too.

  11. Could someone who saw both the opening night production and the hd broadcast comment on the quality of "Kundry"'s singing? I thought she was quite marvelous throughout in the broadcast.

  12. My only remark is about the 'inevitable' HD live performance, which sounded ironic. It's a chance for foreigners like me, a brazilian, to have acsses to such wonderfull productions. Jonas Kauffman is superb in the role, beeing able to let us understand Parsifal transcendings. I would exepct something more luxurious in act II,but anyway…

  13. I was at the cinema HD performance and thought the singing and playing were excellent, but wish producers would comply with composers' stage instructions

  14. Thank you Zerbinetta for a fine review. I only saw the HD and I loved it and felt the production is decidedly a feminist one; however, explaining the second act IS difficult.

    I re-read OperaCake's take on the Lyon production and he strongly felt that the women represented nature, I think because all of the images looked abstract enough to represent women and their bodily functions as well as natural scapes. Also when the bed became soaked with blood during Parsifal's big moment of recognition, it was almost as if….I will go down the slippery slope…he was menstruating. Perhaps the HD shots should not have been so up close. Again thanks for writing the best review I have read.

  15. I think it's great that this production has stimulated so much discussion. As much as I love Opera Cake, he tends to think there's only one correct interpretation for any given image. There might only be one intention but as you can see here we all saw different things in this and who is to say who is correct? Granted, some ideas and some interpretations are just dumb, but in work like this there are lots of directions you can take.