The Gazette, February 17, 2013
By Arthur Kaptainis
Wagner: Parsifal, Metropolitan Opera, 15. Februar 2013
'Canadian' Parsifal a full-blooded effort
François Girard and Michael Levine collaborating on a new Parsifal? Considering what these Canadians have done for Wagner in the past, I was expecting people to boo before the curtain went up.

And while there were a few Metropolitan Opera regulars who — five hours and 35 minutes later — insisted on voicing their thoughtless disapproval, the bravo-shouters greatly outnumbered them on Friday night and clearly were in the right. This was a powerful, personal Parsifal that managed to update and universalize the drama in a single stroke.

The updating, happily, was mild. As darkness lifted in the opening minutes, the assembled squires and knights of the Holy Grail were revealed to be wearing business suits. Then off came the jackets and ties and shoes, and we understood that this tale from Arthurian times should be received as an allegory valid for our own.

To the right of the white-shirted men on a barren stage were silent women dressed in black, representing the half of the human population that is not much heard from in Wagner’s valedictory opera. This might sound like exactly the kind of directorial point-making we need less of these days, but Girard’s stagecraft proved oddly in harmony with the story and music. One sensed that this Quebecer making his Met debut had accepted, and even sympathized with, the profoundly religious ethos of the piece.

Which is to say that the Lord’s Supper as celebrated by the knights in Act 1 was devout; that Kundry washed the feet of Parsifal in earnest; that the Holy Grail was a holy grail; that the spear was blocked as the sorcerer Klingsor actually tried to thrust it; that the kiss with which Kundry tempted Parsifal was a kiss. Goodness, the swan slain by this Pure Fool (to translate from the untranslatable German) was a swan.

Granted, Parsifal did not cross himself. Presumably, Girard judged this gesture to be too literal for modern use. But the Flower Maidens struck subtle cruciform poses with the spears they held evocatively upright in Act 2. While the Christian message was abstract, it was vivid.

Levine’s sets were starkly impressive. Much of the imagery resided in an HD screen showing Peter Flaherty’s videos of grey, scudding clouds, planets in formation or rolling hills evocative of human flesh. Klingsor’s domain was at the bottom of a great crevice where the redemptive blood of the Saviour, like the spear Klingsor has seized, was put to no good use.

Forget about flowers in Act 3, which remained relentlessly bleak. This was a debatable choice. But those who (possibly prompted by an inflammatory New York Times headline) expected to witness one outrage after another got responsible and meaningful symbolism instead.

They also got a superb cast. Tenor Jonas Kaufmann seemed a sullen teen on his first appearance, lacking only a skateboard; but this dramatic posture permitted him (and his voice) to grow in brilliance and heroism. Baritone Peter Mattei was deeply sympathetic as the wounded Amfortas and bass-baritone Evgeny Nitkin made a palpably malicious Klingsor. Soprano Katarina Dalayan as Kundry had her flinty moments, but hers also was a committed and believable portrayal.

Bass René Pape was predictably magnificent as Gurnemanz. One would never have supposed in Act 1 that the long narrative of this well-meaning knight was once thought to be a musical liability. Part of its huge success was the vividness of the Met orchestra as led with deep commitment and real if solemn momentum by Daniele Gatti. This was superb conducting.

Anyone who still supposes Parsifal to be a patience-testing experience — to say nothing of those who know the truth of the matter — should make an effort to see this production. It reaches Live in HD cinema screens on March 2.

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