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Parsing Parsifal

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on March 5, 2013 at 6:04 pm

Review – Parsifal (HD Broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, Saturday 2 March 2013)

Gurnemanz – René Pape
Kundry – Katarina Dalayman
Amfortas – Peter Mattei
Parsifal – Jonas Kaufmann
Klingsor – Evgeny Nikitin

Production – François Girard
Set Designer – Michael Levine
Costume Designer – Thibault Vancraenenbroeck
Lighting Designer – David Finn
Video Designer – Peter Flaherty
Choreographer – Carolyn Choa
Dramaturg – Serge Lamothe

Orchestra & Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera

Conductor – Daniele Gatti

There is no denying the success of the Met’s HD Live broadcasts. While it might be bringing new people to the opera, I think that simply being able to make their productions available to the existing global opera audience is significant.

While it can’t replace being in the auditorium itself in terms of atmosphere – or for the simple fact that you only see what the director wants you to see through the lens of the camera and very rarely the stage in its entirety – it’s a decision that has played out successfully.

This weekend the Met’s new production of Parsifal was relayed across the world and Gelb and his team had assembled a starry-cast of eminent Wagnerians and chosen François Girard to direct.

Without a doubt – and despite some dodgy sound quality – the singers to a person, led by maestro Daniele Gatti, sang their roles with great authority and intelligent musicianship.

From the opening notes it was clear that Gatti had a real sense of the opera’s architecture, sweep and scale. He drove the music forward inexorably without letting any release from the tension fused to every note. And the Metropolitan Opera orchestra sounded magnificent throughout, the strings have rarely sounded so warm and sonorous (even through the speakers of the Picturehouse where I was sitting) with the brass and wind majestically riding above their colleagues cleanly and clearly.

Of course this was Kaufmann’s Parsifal and like his Siegmund in LePage’s Ring cycle, it was his Met debut. As I remarked while listening to his recent Wagner recital CD, he is an authoritative singer and clearly one of the – if not the – leading Wagnerian tenors on stage today. And there was no disputing his performance in this production. Well paced, musically it was an incredibly accomplished performance. While I would have perhaps preferred a greater breadth of vocal colour – and perhaps this was lost in transmission – there was no disputing the quality and emotion of his singing, especially in the second and third acts. However – and this is more likely due to the production than Kaufmann himself – I also wanted for stronger characterization of Parsifal as a character. In the interval Girard spoke of Parsifal’s spiritual journey, but that didn’t seem a consistent theme. While he was significantly short of simply being a cipher, his transition from naïve fool to world-weary knight seemed almost piecemeal. Hopefully in future when this production will undoubtedly return – with or without Kaufmann in the title role – more attention will be focused on Parsifal the character.

The Gurnemanz of René Pape seems to have elicited contrasting opinion. For some he was magnificent both in voice and character, for others while he sounded good he was one-dimensional. There is no doubting the strength and beauty of Pape’s singing and while he did sing with authority, I have to admit that his performance was somewhat colourless and at times almost bland. Again, this Gurnemanz seemed almost one-dimensional in terms of the development of the character.

For me one of the stand out performances was Katarina Dalayman’s Kundry. Vocally she was superb. Her voice was rich and even throughout its register and she managed the range of emotions with great dexterity, colouring and bending her voice with ease to build possibly one of two of the strongest characterisations o the stage. Particularly moving and convincing was her performance alongside Kaufmann in the Second Act. Even her final redemption although Girard’s artistic licence in terms of the Grail’s reveal before her death was an emotional focal point.

I still remember Evgeny Nikitn’s Telramund in Munich and while his Klingsor was not as powerful, it was still a strong performance. His dark bass was ideally suited to the role and his overall portrayal – while sometime risking stepping over the boundary into caricature – was convincing.

However it was Peter Mattei’s pained Amfortas that delivered the most convincing performance – both musically and dramatically. It was an amazing debut performance in this role and was clearly a carefully thought out interpretation. And this was combined with some beautifully nuanced singing.

The single area of disappointment in the musical performance was the off stage chorus. However I put this down to a sound quality problem rather than the singing itself.

As this was part of the HD broadcast before curtain up in the intervals the Met employed a singer to interview the cast, director and conductor. In the past they have used with great success Joyce DiDonato and Deborah Voigt for example. Sadly, on this occasion they used Eric Owens who was either too inexperienced or badly prepared. As well as not always getting his lines right – which you could generously put down to nerves at speaking to a global audience – the questions that I heard him ask were nothing short of disastrous. For example, asking Gatti how he managed to conduct without a score was summarily dismissed by the maestro and his questioning of Peter Mattei did not elicit one answer that made any sense. Only a consummate spin-doctor like Gelb seemed to come off unscathed by Owen’s lack of interview prowess.

Clearly, in this role Owens is clearly more Mime than Alberich. A shame.

A great deal was made about how this production of Parsifal was definitely not set in the traditional era of knights and damsels. And of all Wagner’s operas Parsifal is the one that presents the greatest challenge to any director.

Parsifal represents the final – and not always happy or balanced – symbiosis of all Wagner’s beliefs on religion, mysticism and Buddhism and the various philosophers in one single moment. The opera is about a journey of discovery, suffering and redemption but all too often that journey is centred simply on Parsifal himself and not those around him. Here there seemed to be an even lesser focus on characterization than would be expected.

And an opera brimming with so much inbuilt symbolism requires someone with a clear sense of navigation otherwise not only the narrative but also the meaning can become hazy or even lost.

I enjoyed the excellent Herheim production – sadly only on DVD – and in terms of live performance I have seen both the ENO revival and Covent Garden’s production. The latter, directed by Grüber and made memorable for John Tomlinson’s Gurnemanz was impressive for its spirit of understatement. More recently, Lehnhoff’s production at the Coliseum with its ‘after-God’ setting managed to convey the themes of redemption, love and hope stripped of their Christian overtones and packed an emotional punch although I personally think the director undermined his own narrative with his ending. Indeed it was interesting to read at the time that it had taken over a decade for some of the original ideas in Lehnhoff’s production to finally crystallise.

At times it seemed that Girard’s approach to Parsifal – the result of five years work – was a concept rather than an interpretation. His often hinted at something but ultimately his ideas didn’t seem to coalesce into anything truly substantial except a series of – at times – visually arresting tableaux.

This was a Parsifal set in no specific time. During the prelude, with its use of a slightly reflective screen, men slowly stripped off coats, shoes and watches as if suggesting that they inhabited a place that did not exist except in the audiences mind. Parsifal was not so subtly spot lit and this scene – as with the rest of the opera – was steeped in Carolyn Choa’s distinctive choreography.

As the first act opened we found ourselves in an anonymous landscape, the ground barren with a single rivulet of running water that symbolically turned red with blood. Clearly this was a not so subtle reference to the wound of Christ and for the entire opera the two groups – the men and the women – did not stray across it to their opposing sides.

All the men were in white shirts, the women in veils. The men were the focus of all activity – some of which is slightly trance-like and again indicative of Choa’s choreography, with the women more often than not in the background. It is only at the end that the women only lose their veils and mingle with the men.

The suggestion of a cult was strong and made stronger by the use of pseudo-Christian hand gestures throughout. And yet this vocabulary of gestures was never developed or indeed did not return in the final act.

Yet when we do return to this place in the final act, the post-apocalyptic landscape has become even bleaker. There is hint of frost on the ground with graves and overturned chairs and a vertical shaft of light initially marks the return of the Spear before Parsifal appears over the ridge.

Setting the first and final acts in such a barren landscape requires a clear narrative, sense of direction and management of the use of symbolism. None were much in evidence in Girard’s production. Even the principals – bar Mattei – seemed to lack anything more than a rudimentary sense of characterization through stock poses and gestures and had it not been for the intensity of the music making there would have been a real risk of dramatic inertia.

Even Girard’s Parsifal stood out simply because of his costume and there only seemed a basic attempt to portray any sense of either innocence or the fool. For example, peering over the shoulders of the men as Amfortas revealed the Grail seemed not only weak but also insignificant. And in the final act he returns a broken man who miraculously revives to become king. There was no sense of the fragility or even spirituality in this hero.

Klingsor’s kingdom in the second act was in stark contrast to the first. Set, it seemed, in some kind of hell complete with a sea of blood and white-smocked damsels, Nikitin’s Klingsor looked as if he had had a bad fall. The pincushion effect of numerous Spears seemed a contradiction to the idea of a single weapon and there was less a sense of sensuality and danger than inspiration drawn from Hammer Horror movies. The entire act was saved only by Dalayman’s and Kaufmann’s singing and indeed the mannered choreography of the denouement seemed like a missed opportunity and somewhat of an anti-climax.

Throughout the opera the backdrop was constantly moving with digital imagery. There were the ubiquitous clouds in various formations, images suggestive of a more ‘cosmic’ – clearly meant to infer ‘buddhist’ iconography in some way -and ultimately what I could only reason to be an orange planet. In many ways, the videography – whether intentional or not – reminded me of Lars von Trier’s Melancolia with its own use of Wagner’s music. The background images simply didn’t marry convincingly with the narrative that Girard was attempting to create in the foreground.

Therefore for me at least none of Girard’s ideas – visual or physical – created a cohesive whole or sense of direction. Even the ending, with the simplest symbolism of clouds separating to reveal sunlight on a blemished land failed to convince.

Indeed it seemed that the journey referred to by Girard and others in their interviews was at best more a physical – almost simply a cross-stage journey – than either a spiritual or temporal one.

I have to admit that perhaps the overall scale of Girard’s production might have been lost in the cinema where – as I have said – you only see ever really see part of the entire production. However you have to believe that Girard used the camera to focus on those elements that would bring sense to his interpretation. I never go that feeling I am afraid.

Yet I was left with a sense that somewhere inside that production was an idea worth developing and I can only hope that successive revivals will work to refine and distil what Girard was trying to say.

Yet strangely unsatisfying as the Met’s new production of Parsifal was to watch, there was no denying the overall impact musically of Gatti and his singers.

Wagner’s final work – his Bühnenweihfestspiel – is meant to be a challenge. However it is made harder to contemplate and reflect on if the substance of the direction is as diffused and unclear as the sky often was above it.

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  1. […] It’s me, I know, but Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is possibly the only opera by Wagner that I truly struggle with. Even more so than with Parsifal. […]

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