Even in the singular career of Richard Wagner, his final opera, Parsifal, is an unusual creation. It is both a work of genius and a highly troubling one, troubling because it is such an enigmatic work whose story, characters, and above all, philosophy are difficult to understand even to those with great familiarity with the opera. New York's Metropolitan Opera has staged a new production of Parsifal, which was transmitted to movie theaters March 2 as part of the Met's Live in HD Series Conceived as a “play for the consecration of the stage” at Bayreuth, the opera house Wagner was able to open to serve as a shrine to his work only (a house whose festival thrives up until the present day), Parsifal is drawn from medieval myths concerning the knights charged with protecting the Holy Grail.
In Wagner's version, the Fisher King, Amfortas (in the Met's production, baritone Peter Mattei) has been grievously wounded with the spear used to injure Christ on the cross, the other treasure aside from the Grail with which the knights have been entrusted, and the knights, led by Gurnemanz (bass-baritone Renè Pape) desperately attempt to heal the wound. For this task, they enlist Kundry (soprano Katarina Dalayman), a mysterious woman, to find a medicine that will soothe Amfortas's pain. Into the mixture comes a foolish youth who does not know his own name, where he came from, or what his parents' names are. This young fool will later be revealed to be Parsifal (tenor Jonas Kaufmann), who is chastised by Gurnemanz for shooting a swan with an arrow. Parsifal observes the knights' communion and the unveiling of the Grail, but unsurprisingly, he does not understand what he has observed and is driven away from the domain of the Grail. In the second act, Parsifal enters the realm of the evil sorcerer Klingsor (bass Evgeny Nikitin), who is responsible for injuring Amfortas and stealing the spear. Amfortas succumbed to the temptation of Klingsor's “Flower maidens”, beautiful women who tempt and enchant the knights to stray from their holy duties. Among their number is none other than Kundry, who attempts to seduce Parsifal, but upon being kissed by her, he does not give in, but rather, comes to receive the wisdom that allows him to understand Amfortas's pain and the holiness of the Grail and Spear. Klingsor attempts to attack Parsifal, but Parsifal seizes the spear and is able to destroy the evil lord's realm. In the third act, Parsifal returns to the domain of the Grail, which has decayed in the long absence, and both heals Amfortas and assumes the role as Fisher King, while Kundry, doomed to wander the Earth since she mocked Christ on the cross, is able to redeem herself and die peacefully.
Despite its spiritual themes, Parsifal is a troubling work for many people interested in both opera and, especially, Wagner, because Wagner is a highly unlikely source for such a work. Knowing what we know about Wagner, it would seem to be a work filled with both false piety and murky theology. Wagner is one of the most scrutinized figures in history, and given the abundance of things that we know about the composer, we know that he was not a devout Christian, nor was he in any sense a highly moral man. His colossal ego, his repellent personal conduct and beliefs, and his often too large works belie the fact that he was an extraordinary, visionary genius of music. Parsifal is nominally a Christian work, but it is Christianity interpreted through the filter of Wagner, which means that it is going to be a highly distorted version (I doubt if you asked Wagner to explain the mindset behind any of his works, you would get a coherent answer). Furthermore, it is, musically, a highly somber work characterized by glacial pacing and a complete lack of buoyancy or excitement. I like to think of it as a master class in Wagner: neophytes shouldn't come to Parsifal as their first experience with the composer (although, having said that, what would be a good first work from which to approach Wagner?). It is an exceptionally beautiful work, but one whose genius is subtle and whose content can, frankly, be too slow and boring. As Mark Twain wrote about his trip to Bayreuth in 1891, “nothing can make a Wagner opera absolutely perfect and satisfactory to the untutored but to leave out the vocal parts. I wish I could see a Wagner opera in pantomime once...the present opera was Parsifal...the first act of the three occupied two hours, and I enjoyed that in spite of the singing.”
Parsifal, no doubt, can be rough going, and this performance was no exception, a journey of equally rough and smooth parts. The vocal roles are not especially taxing, certainly not by Wagner's standards, and the Met's cast contained several exceptional performances. As Gurnemanz, Renè Pape possessed the smooth, powerful tone for which he has become well known. Katarina Dalayman's Kundry was quite beautiful and powerful, and she took the role to places vocally where other sopranos probably do not go; she may be the best Kundry I have ever heard. As Parsifal, Jonas Kaufmann, the young star dramatic tenor, was not overly taxed by the role, which lay in the lower, more baritonal parts of his voice, and he had a clear, ringing tone for most of his performance. Peter Mattei's vocal performance was not quite as great, but his acting was extraordinary; his physical conveyance of the perpetual agony Amfortas feels was deeply moving in a way that I have never seen in an opera. The new Met production was directed by François Girard, and he has employed several touches to the production, some of which work, some of which are less successful. Girard has moved the production to the present, dressing Gurnemanz and the knights in white shirts and dark slacks, and during the majestic prelude to the first act, the characters remove their ties, jackets, and shoes while the music plays, a touch I despised, because nothing should interfere with the sublime orchestral piece. I don't understand why so many productions insist on putting action to go along with the orchestral pieces; do they not think that audiences understand the concept of a prelude or overture anymore? In the second act, Klingsor's castle is set against a striking rocky set, but the maidens are forced to walk through a giant puddle of manufactured blood, which stains their white dresses and the bed on which Kundry attempts to seduce Parsifal. Klingsor is covered in the stuff: his hair is streaked with blood, his shirt is soaked in it, and he walks around in the puddle of it. Additionally, many of the flower maidens linger on stage, standing in the puddle in formation holding spears and pantomiming to the music. I do not understand or approve of the use of these flourishes, which seem to be included for their own sake and for no dramatic reason. The final act conceives of the knight's domain as taking place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, which I must say, I found to be quite clever. The Italian maestro Daniele Gatti
conducted the Met's Orchestra, playing at fast (sometimes too fast) tempi, but their remarkable performance seemed much appreciated by the audience.
The Met's Live in HD performance of Richard Wagner's Parsifal will be encored on Wednesday, March 20, at 6:30 PM local time.