Hard to believe, but it's been 10 years since Richard Wagner's Parsifal was last seen in New York, in a Met production by Otto Schenk that featured the age-defying Placido Domingo in the title role, Jessye Norman as the sorceress Kundry, and James Levine conducting. I saw that Parsifal three times over its 12-year run, and can recall being completely mesmerized—even though I can't say I remember anything in particular about it. The experience was like being put into a trance, one in which you emerged not really understanding what had just happened, but knowing full well you weren't the same person who'd entered the theater six hours earlier.
I attended the premiere of the Met's new production of Parsifal—actually, a co-production with the Lyon Opera and Canadian Opera Company—a week ago Friday. In contrast to the Met's new Ring, which has polarized audiences with its innovative (if uneven) staging, this new production of Wagner's final opera seems to hit on all cylinders: from casting, to conception and musical direction.
On its surface, Parsifal portrays a medieval group of knights who are in posession of the Holy Grail: the cup that Christ drank from during the Last Supper. The Grail has magical powers, giving the knights strength and keeping them young, but only so long as they keep their vow of chastity. The knights also once posessed the Holy Spear—the lance that pierced Christ's side on the cross—but lost it when Amfortas, the leader of the knights, was seduced by a mysterious woman (later found out to be Kundry). His rival, Klingsor, stole the spear and stabbed him with it, leaving a wound that refuses to heal. (A full synopsis is here.)
Not exactly the most traditional opera material. Fortunately, Met General Manager Peter Gelb had the good sense to hire the Quebecois director François Girard, best known for his films, Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Red Violin, as well as his work with Cirque du Soleil, where he met Ring director Robert Lepage.
Girard has brought clarity and striking imagery to this famously inscrutable opera, placing the story in an unspecified, timeless setting meant to make the audience feel they are part of the drama. Instead of medieval monastic garb, Girard has the knights wear plain white shirts and pants and sit on simple office chairs in a barren landscape. In Act II, he recreates Klingsor's magical garden as a blood-soaked pool, symbolic of Amfortas' open wound. Behind, projections of heavenly bodies—both celestial and female—fill the stage.
The real wonder of this Parsifal, however, is the music. As Gelb accurately notes in the program, the Met has miraculously assembled the world's greatest Wagnerians for this production. Jonas Kaufmann, last seen here as Siegmund in Die Walkure, is mesmerizing as the wide-eyed Parsifal, his dark-timbered voice lending a mysterious vibe missing from Domingo's performance a decade ago. René Pape literally owns the role of the elderly night Gurnemanz, which he sang here with gravitas and confidence. Katrina Dalayman was an otherworldly Kundry, while Evegeny Nikitin was fiendish and forceful as Klingsor.
But, it was Swedish baritone Peter Mattei who stole the show as Amfortas, a role he is singing for the first time. Normally, Amfortas is portrayed as a subdued, pitiable character; Mattei's Amfortas is filled with fiery rage, lashing out at everyone around him in an almost-uncontrollable state.
Many wondered who could possibly filly Jimmy's shoes at the podium. Levine's performances of this opera are legendary, wringing every last ounce of ecstasy out of Wagner's overwhelming score. Enter Daniele Gatti, the Milan-born director of the Zurich Opera, who has performed every performance of this opera at Bayreuth for the past five years—and with good reason: Gatti has spent so much time with Parsifal, he was able to conduct the entire four-hour-plus score from memory. The Met Orchestra responded in kind, following Gatti's slow but deliberate tempos, digging deep during the huge overtures and dramatic "Transformation Music" of acts I and III.
I can't claim to be an authority on the subject, but if the intermission chatter is to be believed, this is one of the greatest productions of Parsifal ever staged, at the Met or anywhere. If you live in New York, do everything you can to get into one of the final three performances. And, if you don't, get yourself to a movie theater this Saturday at noon for the HD screening. Go with open ears, and you'll never be the same. (It'll also be on the radio.)
More pics at the photo page.