The New York Times, February 17, 2013
Wagner: Parsifal, Metropolitan Opera, 15. Februar 2013
Dark Nights of the Soul in the Kingdom of the Holy Grail
‘Parsifal’ at the Metropolitan Opera

In the stage directions for Act I of “Parsifal,” set near the sanctuary of the knights of the grail in a mythical region of medieval Spain, Wagner writes that the scene depicts a forest with a deep-set lake in the background. This glade should be shady and solemn, he indicates, but not gloomy (“doch nicht düster”).

The Metropolitan Opera’s much-anticipated new production of “Parsifal,” which opened on Friday night, is pervasively and intentionally gloomy. In his company debut the French Canadian director François Girard, who has done acclaimed work in film, theater and opera, presents “Parsifal” in a postapocalyptic setting. There is not one tree or tuft of grass, not even a patch of moss. Instead two barren, sun-baked, dirt-gray mounds are divided by a river bed with just a trickle of flowing water, sometimes thick with blood. In the background videos depict dark clouds, swirling mists, and, sometimes, cosmic images of strange solar systems and ominous planets.

Wagner’s knights are enduring a spiritual crisis. Their leader, Amfortas, is racked with guilt and crippled by a painful wound that will not heal. In this production, with sets by Michael Levine and costumes by Thibault Vancraenenbroeck, “Parsifal” becomes a harrowing, metaphorical reflection of the knights’ inner doubts and hopelessness.

Wagner’s stage directions are hardly sacred texts. And if any work invites a strong interpretation it is “Parsifal,” among the most metaphysical, ambiguous and profound, if inexplicable, operas ever written. But the gloominess of this production can become oppressive.

There is much to admire in Mr. Girard’s thoughtful and intrepid staging, full of striking imagery. The blocking of the chorus, extras and dancers is theatrical and elegant. (Carolyn Choa is the choreographer.) The Met has assembled about the best “Parsifal” cast available today: the charismatic tenor Jonas Kaufmann sings the title role; the great bass René Pape is the veteran knight Gurnemanz, a role he owns; and the baritone Peter Mattei as Amfortas, in terrific voice, dares to bring out the rashness and inner desires of this stricken leader.

The conductor Daniele Gatti draws diaphanous playing from the great Met orchestra and captures the shifting currents of this richly chromatic and complex score.

Incredibly Mr. Gatti conducts the work, some four and a half hours of music, from memory. I did miss the depth, eerie tension and transcendence that James Levine has brought to this opera, one of his great achievements. At times Mr. Gatti’s slow tempos let the long arc of the music grow slack. But at his best he was inspired, and his immersion in the piece is palpable.

For all its imaginative directorial strokes and seriousness, however, this “Parsifal” is a downer. Wagner’s suffering grail knights may fear they are losing touch with God. But in most stagings at least they are connected to nature, and its renewing cycles give them some hope.

When we meet the wandering, clueless Parsifal, he has just killed a swan from the nearby lake with his bow and arrow. Upbraiding Parsifal, Mr. Pape’s Gurnemanz sings with a mix of chilling reproach and baffled grief. Authority is built into Mr. Pape’s powerful, deep voice and crisp, natural diction. Still, it is impossible to imagine a swan going anywhere near the wasteland shown here.

There are images and elements of this new “Parsifal,” a co-production with Opéra National de Lyon and the Canadian Opera Company, that will stay with me. During the orchestra prelude to Act I the audience in the house can see itself briefly on a black reflective screen. Soon, behind that screen, we see people sitting in rows of chairs, looking back at us. The men among them rise, take off their shoes and socks, ties and jackets, then form a tight circle, becoming the grail knights, stand-ins for us in the audience. It is a poignantly human image.

The women who had been seated move to the rear of the stage, where they hover under veils and look on as things unfold. There has long been a feminist critique of “Parsifal,” since the only female characters are the ageless temptress Kundry, who tries to expiate her sins by conveying messages for the knights, and those who serve as agents of the sorcerer Klingsor, trying to lure stray knights into sin. But in this production there are almost always women nearby, silent but ready and able to aid in the resurgence of the community, if only the knights will let them.

Mr. Kaufmann conveys Parsifal’s awkwardness at his first appearance, looking like a slumped-shouldered and gawky young man. Could he be the innocent fool who, it has been prophesied, will come to restore faith to the knights? Or is he, as Gurnemanz suspects, just a fool?

Mr. Girard’s staging of Act II, set in Klingsor’s castle, is brilliant. Even people who loved the lush forest greenery of Otto Schenk’s traditional 1991 production for the Met, which this one replaces, tended to concede that the Schenk Act II was silly: a cartoonish and cluttered depiction of an evil sorcerer’s abode.

Mr. Girard gives us a surreal castle with cliff walls over which blood continually rushes (the work of the video designer Peter Flaherty). The characters also slosh through a shallow pool of blood covering the floor. In piercing Amfortas’s side with the sacred spear, which Amfortas always carried, Klingsor caused the wound that will not heal. So blood metaphorically permeates his realm.

The strong bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin makes a sniveling, nasal-tone Klingsor. A roster of female dancers, long hair draping over their faces, all holding spears, stand eerily still, awaiting Klingsor’s orders. He calls them into action as seductive flower maidens. But forget Wagner’s images of flowers and finery. These temptresses are wily and balletic. The Met choristers sing this sensual music with alluring lyricism.

The suggestion in the opera that in one of her previous incarnations Kundry might have been Parsifal’s mother is enhanced here. The soprano Katarina Dalayman brings a gleaming voice and sultry phrasing to her performance and plays Kundry in this scene like an earth mother.

When Mr. Kaufmann shows up, he is pounced on by the flower maidens, who tear at his clothing, leaving him bare chested. But when Kundry arrives, now a mysterious beauty, Mr. Kaufmann’s Parsifal instinctively covers his body with his shirt, sensing something dangerous about this woman’s leering interest.

At 43 Mr. Kaufmann is in his glory, equally adept in German, Italian and French repertory. Handsome and limber, he is a natural onstage. The baritonal colorings of his sound, his clarion top notes, the blend of virility and tenderness in his singing, his refined musicianship — all these strengths come together in his distinctive Parsifal.

Mr. Girard draws affecting performances from the principals in the transfixing final act, when, after years have past, Gurnemanz, now wiser, and the silent Kundry tend to the returning, beaten-down Parsifal, anointing his head and ritualistically bathing his feet. Still, for another long spell, while hearing some of the most sublime music ever written, we must look again at those grim, barren mounds from Act I.

The final image, though, does offer a bit of hope. The knights, finally joined by the women who had been only observers, kneel to pray as the chalice is lifted by the wizened Parsifal, now the leader of the community. Still, what future is possible given the environmental desolation?

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