CBC music, Mar 01, 2013
Robert Rowat
Jonas Kaufmann believes in François Girard's Parsifal
On Saturday, March 2, CBC Radio 2 broadcasts the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Wagner's Parsifal, which tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who leads the cast, is praising as contemporary but respectful.
The production, directed by Quebec-born François Girard, opened on Feb. 17 to critical acclaim. New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini described Girard's interpretation as "thoughtful and intrepid [...] full of striking imagery," and said the singers are "about the best Parsifal cast available today."

Parsifal is Wagner's final music drama and possibly his most enigmatic. Its cast of medieval knights are on a quest for the Holy Grail. The title character is an innocent who fulfills a prophecy by invading the inner precincts of the grail. Wagner appropriates Christian symbols to support his quasi-autobiographical hero's tale of redemption, a theme that pervades most of his operas.

CBC Classical reached Kaufmann by telephone to get his take on Girard's approach to the opera.

"I can understand why you wouldn't want to show knights and squires with horses and helmets and everything, because that's not what the story is about. The story is about belief and the ultimate redemption and knowledge through sympathy," Kaufmann says. "It's based on a Christian story, but I think it's more than that."

Kaufmann is quick to point out the universality of the opera's message. "The music of Wagner makes you believe in something. The music explains it in such a marvelous way that I think it would be wrong to just keep it in the Christian corner, so to speak."

Girard's avoidance of the usual medieval sets, props and costumes is one of the keys to the success of Girard's vision, according to Kaufmann. "Knowing that Wagner, at the time of writing Parsifal, was also studying Buddism, Girard included elements of Buddhism in this production, and obviously you couldn't do that if you set the opera in the Middle Ages."

"One mistake that, unfortunately, many directors make with Wagner is, because it's so long, they feel they have to add things – side stories. They feel they have to keep the audience entertained by making crazy things happen onstage and, actually, what you get is the opposite: The audience is distracted from the music and, therefore, the music can't reveal its power and its magic. And this is what Wagner is all about. It's a transcendent journey that is led by the music."

For those who are uneasy about the five-hour commitment demanded by a performance of Parsifal? "It starts with a prelude. It's like Wagner takes you by the hand, and leads you into a mysterious world, and you stay there for hours but you don't realize the time has gone by."

Resistance is futile, says Kaufmann. "You have to give in to Wagner's music. If you're sitting there, and you say to yourself, 'well this is only a play, and it's going to be endless, and I'm going to fall asleep pretty soon, and I'm never going to make it,' that's not how it works. Instead, you need to lean back and you just let it happen. Even though the story is not exactly credible in our modern times, it is a fantasy, underlaid with such enormously powerful music, that it becomes credible. The music makes you want to believe in it. It's written perfectly."

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