The current Times Literary Supplement UK), not available online, includes my review of the Met’s exceptional new Parsifal, as follows:
In the program book for the new Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera, the French Canadian director Francois Girard comments that his goal “is to engage a modern audience and to let this piece say things that matter, without kidnapping it and throwing it into a new context, which I think is being done to Wagner too often.” This prescription, which could be anodyne, proves triumphant. But the triumph begins not on stage, but in the pit with the conductor: Daniele Gatti. For more than three decades, James Levine has owned Parsifal at the Met. Levine’s Parsifal is satisfyingly weighty, but also ponderous and stiff. Gatti, who previously had only led Aida and Madama Butterfly in New York, offers a Parsifal vision of exceptional altitude and breadth. Though the range of tempo is great, for the most part the Gatti Parsifal is uncommonly slow. He also obtains a remarkable range of timbre and dynamics from the Met’s superb orchestra, including myriad soft gradations and a wondrous depth of tone for the big moments. The many cadential retards (not to be found in Levine’s reading) include climaxes – in particular, the act one transformation scene and the Good Friday music — that shake the stage.
Gatti’s deliberation registers a detailed investment in text and incident that constitutes both an invitation and challenge to his singers. They are up to it. The revelation is the tragic stature of Peter Mattei’s Amfortas. This character, so obviously the opera’s “Tristan” with his deliriums of pain and longing for death, typically lacks anything like Tristan’s nobility: we only encounter him at the destitute tail end of his life’s journey. Mattei enters not in the usual litter, but leaning heavily on a pair of knights, dragging his feet, contorting his face and body, a picture of unendurable physical pain. His act one monologue, reshaped by Gatti, becomes intimately narrative rather than exclamatory. When he elevates the Grail cup it quakes with the palsy and shudder of his infirmity. Then, unassisted, he raises himself and staggers off, momentarily uplifted by the residual idealism of his youth, when in seeking to defeat the renegade Klingsor he instead relinquished the Grail knights’ Holy Spear. On his heaving, spastic shoulders, Mattei’s exiting Amfortas bears his entire story and fate.
Jonas Kaufmann’s Parsifal is a model of histrionic art; he registers Parsifal’s evolution by exquisite degrees. His initial persona — confronted by the swan he has thoughtlessly shot – is amazingly plausible, all insolence and confusion, hands in pockets, shoulders twitching and shrugging. In act two, comprehending his mother’s death and Amfortas’s pain, he achingly embodies the profundity of empathy that is here Wagner’s message. In act three, entering in possession of the recaptured Spear, this Parsifal is yet not fully mature — so that his transformation into an agent of redemption is something we get to witness. Kaufmann’s beautiful tenor admittedly lacks something in heft for a house of great size, but he gloriously sustains the long lines that Gatti extracts. Rene Pape remains an incomparable Gurnemanz. If Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry is an interpretation less textured with verbal and gestural nuance than the others, she is a strong vocal and dramatic presence.
Girard, whose production was previously seen in Lyon a year ago, directed the films The Red Violin, Silk, and Thirty-two Short Films about Glenn Gould. He has staged Siegfried for the Canadian Opera, and written and directed for Cirque du Soleil. The Girard Parsifal is notably unencumbered by a Hall of the Grail Knights, by flowers or flowered maidens, or by Parsifal’s suit of armor. In fact, there are few sets to speak of. The contributions of the video designer Peter Flaherty are vital and poetic. The towering backdrop for act two is a bloody cleft. The blood courses downward in a variegated stream (1,600 gallons per performance, according to a production note). Sulfurous hues intensity Kundry’s seduction scene; when Parsifal seizes the purloined Spear, at the act’s close, the red stream turns milky white. In acts one and three, the transformation sequences are video only, an animated abstraction of globes and light-shafts – and it is enough. The most anomalous feature of this Parsifal is the constant presence of groups of women. What they are doing in act one I do not know. But the direction taken by this motif is knowable: at the close, it is the redeemed Kundry, not Parsifal, who raises the Grail Cup – and then expires, cradled by Gurnemanz, released at last from her life of Schopenhauerean restlessness and pain. This ending does not register as strange. Rather, it indelibly excites compassion – and compassion is what Parsifal is about.
Any Parsifal production sleights aspects of so multifarious a stage work. At the Met, with a Parsifal history going back to 1903, Parsifal has never been about decadence, racism, or anti-Semitism. In recent decades, the innocence of the Met Parsifal has sometimes seemed a loss or incongruity. Not this time. Peter Gelb, as General Manager, has steadily campaigned for a more populist, less elite image for opera at the Met. Entrusting the Ring of the Nibelung to the stage magician Robert Lepage, Gelb created a monster, false and moribund. This Parsifal is a true and living incarnation. Close up, the Mattei and Kaufmann performances, in particular, should transfer superbly to movie theatres on March 2, when the Saturday matinee is transmitted live throughout the US and most of Western Europe, including the UK. I cannot imagine a better introduction to Wagner’s genius.