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.)