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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Opera Review: Changing of the Guardians

Parsifal at the Met: Redux.
By Paul J. Pelkonen
My man Gurnemanz. Rene Pape (left) dresses Jonas Kaufmann in Act III of Wagner's Parsifal.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Parsifal went through its first changes in personnel on Tuesday night. This was the first of two performances to be led by Israeli conductor Ascher Fisch, who is well known for his Wagner performances at the Seattle Opera.. There was also a substitution in the role of Kundry, with mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens stepping in for an indisposed Katerina Dalayman.

Kundry is the most complicated of Wagner's heroines, and a steep challenge for any artist. Just as the character hovers between demonic seduction and virtuous service to the knights of the Holy Grail, so does the vocal part. Wagner created this unique figure by combining characters from his source material, the Parzival epic of Wolfram von Eschenbach. The result is a disassociated figure, with multiple personae characterized by huge interval leaps for the singer.

Ms. Martens is a dramatic mezzo with a chesty lower range She crossed into head voice when required, producing a full-throated soprano tone with impressive, if not always firm upper notes. There was a wide, noticeable vibrato but she stayed on pitch. She took some of the first act to adjust to Mr. Fisch’s conducting, with some of her lines being swallowed by the orchestra. The second act was better, culminating in a searing curse that rang above the orchestra.

Mr. Fisch took a business-like approach to the score, moving forward thought the long narratives of Act I and leading a Grail ritual of shattering power. The Act II opening (featuring Evgeny Nikitin’s devilish Klingsor) was taken very fast, with a terrifying minor-key surge from the heavy brass. The conductor sped through the Flower Maidens’ chorus but decelerated for the  duet, supporting the melodic line and exploring the stark orchestration of "Ich sah ihn." The third act was performed in a similar vein, slow and majestic but never glacial or dull.

The cast remains among the finest assemblages of Wagner singers working today. Jonas Kaufmann’s Parsifal is a revaluation, displaying the rich palette of colors written into the part  and a commitment to both Wagner and director François Girard’s ideas. He remains deep in the role from start to finish , following the hard road to enlightenment through deep chasms and this production’s notorious Act II set, a vast lake of stage blood.

René Pape is a veritable force as Gurnemanz, sometimes soft and contemplative as he massages the meaning of every syllable in his long narratives. Peter Mattei’s portrayal of the stricken Amfortas remains painful to watch, but not to listen to. A study in agony, his physical embodiment of the wounded king makes the opera’s final miracle the moment when he stands up and walks normally. With acting like this, no fancy visuals are needed.

This was the third time that this writer has seen Mr. Girard’s version of the opera. From last night’s vantage in the Family Circle, more details were visible. These included the sudden, projected “fleshy” texture of the stage in Act I, the brief upstage appearance of Evgeny Nikitin’s Klingsor in the Act II and the slow closure of the chasm in Act III. This remains a compelling take on Wagner’s opera, combining painful asceticism with an environmental-physical message that ultimately ends in healing.

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