The New York Times, February 7, 2013
Defying Wagner With Buckets of Blood
Foto: Ruby Washington/The New York Times
On Monday afternoon Jonas Kaufmann stood in his dressing room at the Metropolitan Opera holding up his hands, which were stained red. He had just rehearsed Act II of a new production of Parsifal, in which he sings the title role, and although he had stripped off the makeup and slipped into jeans and a crumpled shirt, there were parts of his skin where the stage blood just wouldnt come off.

There is lots of blood in this production, which is directed by François Girard and will receive its Met premiere on Friday evening. (It is a co-production with Opéra de Lyon and was first performed there in March.) In the first act blood fills a dried river bed that bisects the stage; in Act II the entire floor is covered in 1,600 gallons of the fake blood made of a combination of water, glycerin and food coloring.

There is blood everywhere in this opera, said Mr. Kaufmann, a German tenor. Its about this wound that never heals, so why not play the second act inside this wound?

Parsifal, first performed in 1882, is Wagners final work for the stage: in equal parts, fairy tale, ritual and philosophical testament. He wrote the manuscript in purple ink and termed the work a Bühnenweihspiel, a festival for the consecration of the stage. He left instructions for it never to be performed outside Bayreuth, where he had built a theater that created a new kind of immersive and worshipful listening experience, with a covered orchestra pit and house lighting that plunged the audience into darkness. To this day there is no applause at the end of a Parsifal performance in Bayreuth.

In 1903 the Met gave Parsifal its first performance outside Bayreuth, after a copy of the score had been smuggled out. Since then this drama about an innocent fool who gains knowledge in the act of resisting temptation and restores the power of the knights of the Holy Grail has demanded interpretation.

Its reputed to be undirectable, said Mr. Girard, a Canadian director whose movies include The Red Violin. And now, after five years of working on Parsifal, I can lecture students in theater schools on why its the impossible piece.

In his vision Parsifal is set in a postapocalyptic world made barren by global warming. The sets by Michael Levine, Mr. Kaufmann said, look exactly like those images you see from Africa where it hasnt rained in many years and there are cracks in the surface of the earth.

During the prelude operagoers look at themselves, mirrored in a reflective curtain. It starts with, Ladies and gentlemen, this piece is about you, Mr. Girard said. Its about our own search for spirituality and the fundamental principles of compassion and temptation.

For the most part, Mr. Girard added, he stayed very close to Wagners text. You see a swan, you see a spear, you see a grail, he said. The second act will always be abstract. We are talking about Klingsor, the prince of darkness. Here its revealed as the underside of consciousness. We are going into the depth of the wound of Amfortas. Its set in a thick layer of human blood, which is ultimately the center of gravity of the piece.

Amfortas, the knight whose wound is closed only in Act III, when Parsifal reunites the spear with the chalice of the grail, will be sung by Peter Mattei. The cast also includes René Pape as Gurnemanz and Katarina Dalayman as the temptress Kundry, who seeks deliverance from generations of painful reincarnation, punishment for having laughed at Jesus on the cross. The role of Klingsor is sung by Evgeny Nikitin.

The operas themes of reincarnation, renunciation and enlightenment through compassion are evidence, Mr. Girard said, of Wagners fascination with Buddhism. Wagner was introduced to Eastern forms of spirituality through the writings of Schopenhauer, and the Buddhist ideal of renunciation in particular comes through in letters to Wagners muse, Mathilde Wesendonck, and in the diaries of his wife, Cosima.

In Mr. Girards vision the Buddhist wheel of suffering is represented by the knights of the grail, who sit on one side of the stage in a perfect circle. Mr. Pape, who sang the role of Gurnemanz in the Mets previous production by Otto Schenk, described it as a closed circle, and the knights all want to break out but cant.

He continued: It expresses this mens world, this sense of being lost, this hope, this it cant go on like this. And on the other side is the excluded society of women, who come and go and constantly form new constellations. The mens configuration is stable, but there is that barrenness. When all come together four and a half hours later, it ends on a very human note.

Mr. Girard said that the operas prodigious length and the cast of nearly 180 singers, dancers and extras forced him to relinquish control over certain details. Rather than cue every step, he is giving groups of chorus members autonomy to initiate certain movements. Mr. Kaufmann said there were heated conversations among the cast on details of the text, which in its mock-archaic German holds many ambiguities. And there are the stage directions inside the music, which demand to be heeded and sometimes put the conductor, Daniele Gatti, in the position of stage director.

The piece is greater than everyone, Mr. Girard said. It levels the egos, because you have no choice but to bond within that huge piece to survive.

Mr. Kaufmann added: Every time Im overwhelmed by the beauty of this music. The music that describes all these miracles and all this passion is just incredibly gorgeous and tempting. It really pulls you into this world. Even people who are not religious become religious while hearing this music.


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