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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Opera Review: The Precious Cure

The "new" Met finally gets Wagner right.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Blood simple: Parsifal (Jonas Kaufmann) encounters
Kundry (Katherine Dalayman) in Act II of Wagner's Parsifal.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
There are any number of ways to interpret François Girard's new production of Wagner's Parsifal, seen Monday afternoon and evening at the Metropolitan Opera. One argument is environmental: the Knights of the Holy Grail are holding on to a precarious existence in a barren wasteland, having suffered the misfortune of their king Amfortas' injury. These knights spend all their time in what looks like an encounter group, hunched on black plastic chairs on one side of the stage. The female chorus is shrouded in black, segregated from the men. In Act III, the landscape has become a graveyard.

The visuals presented in Act II offer another, medical interpretation of events. The "wasteland" turns out to be the skin of some larger being (perhaps Amfortas himself) and Parsifal is sent as a disinfecting agent who enters the king's wound to cleanse it of infectious bodies (represented by the magician Klingsor and his slave Kundry.) Klingsor's "magic garden" is awash in blood, inhabited by flower maidens that all carry matching spears. (These looks a little bit like medical needles.) The set  (with its towering walls of striated, necrosed muscle tissue and repeated blood imagery) is the interior of the wound itself.

This stark new production of Wagner's final opera is the great success of the 2012-2013 season, a well-reasoned, beautifully staged show that solves some of the major problems of Wagner's final opera in a unique way. The costumes are simple: pure white dress shirts for the knights (that are yellowed and shabby by the events of Act III) and white gowns for the Flower Maidens, splashed and stained as they slosh in a (literal) lake of stage blood in Act II. Mr. Girard even comes up with a novel solution for the "spear trick" producing an impressive visual (with a very simple effect) at the opera's climax.

Parsifal is an important opera in the history of the Met. In 1903, the company was the first house outside Bayreuth to produce the work, breaking a copyright embargo set by the composer himself. As such, this show is cast with great care, featuring a showcase of the current generation of Wagner stars, supported expertly by comprimario players and the mighty voices of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus. Daniele Gatti conducts with variable, generally slow speeds,. He creates beautiful textures in some scenes, but problems of balance and timing emerged in the Transformation Music in Act I and the crucial transition to Klingsor's magic garden in Act II.

The cast is led by the smoldering Jonas Kaufmann, who sings Parsifal with great musical intelligence and dynamic control. At some points, he sings so softly that one has to strain to hear him. At others, he rings out into the house with bite and metal, never wavering in the production of clear tone. He also proves a strong actor and reactor, engaging in pantomime during the Act I temple sequence and following his destiny from fool-to-empath-to-ruler in the course of a long evening.

Parsifal's transformation and growth is caused by his witnessing the suffering of Amfortas, the wounded King of the Grail. Peter Mattei gives everything to this portrayal of endless suffering, using his physical skills to appear as a man broken in the prime of life. It is agonizing to watch him struggle to open the Grail in Act I, and his Act III monologue (delivered from within his own father's grave) has soul-rending power. Mr. Mattei also proves himself a strong Wagner baritone, with a fine voice that he uses to paint this portrait in agony.

René Pape continues his streak as the preeminent Gurnemanz of our time. The big German bass makes the old knight almost a leading man, singing with rich, potent tone and molding each idea and turn of phrase with the utmost care. In the Good Friday scene, he injects depth and compassion into "Du siehst, dast ist nicht so", showing his complete understanding of the character and the importance of those words as he comforts Parsifal. (Mention should also be made here of Evgeny Nikitin, nasty and yet compelling in the short role of Klingsor, the opera's antagonist.)

Kundry is Wagner's most complex creation and one of the most difficult roles in the operatic repertory. Katherine Dalayman rises to the challenge of portraying this two-faced woman, who, like Amfortas is suffering from her own affliction. She longs for death, torn between serving the Grail Knights as a penitent and seducing them under the control of Klingsor. Ms. Dalayman's long duet with Mr. Kaufmann in Act II suffered from slow, dragging tempi, but she rose effectively to deliver the climactic curse. In the final tableau, it is Kundry who opens the Grail before finally expiring, signalling a new equality of the sexes and hope for the future.

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