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05 Mar 2013

Wagner Parsifal at the Met

This prioduction of Wagner's Parsifal, directed by François Girard, premiered in Lyons last year. The Met, being a far wealthier house, was able to assemble a truly spectacular cast: Jonas Kaufmann, René Pape, Katarina Dalayman, Peter Mattei and Evgeny Nikitin. Success guaranteed, even if the production is European and modern. These performances set new benchmarks. This Parsifal will be the stuff of legend for decades to come.

Richard Wagner : Parsifal

IKundry : Katarina Dalayman, Parsifal : Jonas Kaufmann, Amfortas : Peter Mattei, Klingsor : Evgeny Nitikin, Gurnemanz : René Pape, Conductor : Daniele G\atti, Director : Francois Girard, Designs : Michael Levine, Costumes : Thibault V\ncraenenbroeck, Lighting : David Finn, Video : Peter Flaherty, Choreography : Carolyn Choa, Dramaturg : Serge Lamothe. Metropolitan Opera House, HD broadcast 3rd March 2013


"Hört ihr den Ruf?". From the moment Pape starts to sing, we realize that this will be no routine Parsifal. Gurnemanz apperars in normal street clothes, so you concentrate on the man he is and what he says, without the filter of fancy dress costume. This makes for an uncommonly direct portrayal. Pape enunciates the long recitatives with careful deliberation, his phrasing natural, each word measured so its meaning cannot be missed. Like the Wanderer in Siegfried, Gurnemanz knows he cannot change the past, but might glimpse the future. The Knights mock Kundry, just as she mocked Jesus. Gurnemanz shows her compassion. Pape's voice warms when he addresses her. In the final act, he touches her face with great tenderness: you wonder if there's more to their relationship than Wagner lets on. A sub-theme of sexual repression runs through the opera. A basic understanding of Wagner's ideas on nature, human and otherwise, should alert us as to what Parsifal might really mean. Fearful of Kundry, the Community blocks out part of the balance so necessary for growth.

This production, directed by François Girard with designs by Michael Levine, interprets Parsifal in connection with the breadth of Wagner's vision perceptively. Fundamentally Parsifal isn't "about" Christianity at all, though Christian icons abound. The Knights of the Grail didn't exist, and Klingsor is sheer fantasy. The idea that any one group should "own" the Grail contradicts the very idea of Christianity, where each time Mass is said, communities all over the world re-enact the Communion. If anything Parsifal is a veiled critique of established religion. Just as Wagner challenges capitalsim in the Ring, in Parsifal he challenges conventional piety. The Grail Knights hate Klingsor because he uses magic to achieve his aims. Yet they themselves practise superstition. Good Friday commemorates the Crucifixion. It doesn't, of itself, create miracles. The Knights talk the talk, and walk the walk (the processions) but even Gurnemanz can't, at first, understand who Parsifal is and why he seemingly defiles the holy day by turning up in his grubbies.

Religion and religiosity are very different things. Parsifal is more Siegfried than Jesus. He's a posthumous child whose background is obscure: all we know are his parents' names, although Kundry, like Brünnhilde, may know more than she's letting on. Like Siegfried, Parsifal is an innocent unpolluted by the world (another reference to Wagner's Romantic ideas of Nature). But unlike Siegfried, who thinks only of himself and the immediate moment, Parsifal learns through compassion. "Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor", can grow and develop, and become the Saviour releasing Amfortas from his wound. He regains the Spear that pierced Jesus' body on the Cross. He baptises Kundry, who thus (in this non-misogynistic production) can greet the Grail. Yet hang on! Jesus was the Son of God: Parsifal is the son of an obscure human being. Imbuing him with semi-divine powers is sacrilege. And in any case nothing in the Gospels suggests that the spear at the Crucifixion had magic powers. Miracles come from God, if you believe, not from inanimate objects. The Grail Community believes in things but not in the concepts that mark true faith.

Parsifal works as a spiritual experience because the music is sublime. It can detoxify our ears, clearing out the mental muzak that pollutes our normal lives. The diaphanous textures, and the reverential tempi operate on our psyches, putting us in a kind of zen state where we're receptive to spiritual urges. Parsifal can be soporific in the wrong hands, but let's not forget that the REM state of sleep is physiologically important, connected with dreams, memory and deep refreshment. No wonder Parsifal evokes spiritual feelings even if the narrative is fundamentally non-religious.

With Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal, one can believe. He sings like a God. In the First Act, Kaufmann has relatively little to sing, because Parsifal is still in embryo, so to speak. Kaufmann's eyes observe everything keenly: he's learning with every moment that passes. Because Siegfried knew no fear, he was easily fooled. Parsifal, on the other hand, is feared by strangers because they can sense instinctively that he has a mind of his own.

In Klingsor's Zauberschloss, Parsifal kills the Flower Maiden's lovers - that's why the scene is awash with blood, as the text makes perfectly clear. Parsifal kills without malice, just as he killed the Swan who led him to the Grail community. He's still very much on a learning curve.In any case, Blood flows all over this opera. There are so many references to blood, death and birth that it's surprising how restrained this staging really is.

The Flower Maidens in this production are powerfully realized. They are beautiful, but close up we can see they are wearing wigs and have identikit painted masks. The choreography is by Carolyn Choa. The women are grouped in the shape of a lotus, so when they bend and move, they look like a giant lotus opening its petals. Choa choreographed Anthony Minghella's Madama Butterfly. While the use of the colour red also figures, the intention's quite different. The Lotus is a Buddhist symbol of purity, shooting up sullied from the mud beneath a lake. Parsifal, by implication. The reference is also to the Buddhist way of Compassion Wagner was reading about at the time he was working on Parsifal. That's yet another reason for not taking the "Christian" aspects of the opera too literally. Parsifal offers Compassion as an alternative to the self-righteous judgementalism of the Grail community. Buddhists don't believe in deities but in concepts of good ethics. Anyone who lives with selfess virtue can attain Boddhisatva. Interestingly, when the Knights of the Grail first gathered in Act One, they, too, formed a circle like a lotus, though it didn't last. A small detail, perhaps, but absolutely relevant.

The scene is nott gory. The floor is covered, but it's shiny like a mirror, reflecting what's above it. A bed descends on which Kundry attempts to seduce Parsifal It's pure white, but as Kundry moves about, she stains the sheets red. As the Flower Miadens dance, the water turns their dresses pink, in a parody of girliness. They lean on spears, like pole dancers. They are mocking the Spear as Kundry mocked Jesus, but also making a statement about the misogyny of the Grail community and of the established Church.

Katarina Dalayman's Kundry is flesh and blood woman in a negligée. Waltraud Meier's wild animal Kundry in the Nicholas Lenhoff production remains a tour de force, defining the role at its most savage.. But Dalayman is right for Girard's humanist Parsifal, and the scene on the bed gives her a chance to show Kundry's quintessential vulnerability. Dalayman is good, and would shine more had we not been blinded by the glory of Kaufmann's singing.

The Second Act marks a turning point in Parsifal's journey towards self-knowledge. Just as he is about to succumb to lust, Parsifal thinks of Amfortas's suffering. With tremendous force, Kaufmann sings "Amfortas! Die Wunde! Die Wunde!", and then with heartfelt agony "Furchtbare Klage!". His voice carries such authority that it seems to obliterate everything around him. His singing is so powerful that quite frankly, it doesn't matter how he catches the Spear, or how Kundry curses him. He's invincible because he has found his Mission.

Yet Parsifal still has a long way to go before he achieves his destiny. In the Final Act, the Grail Community is falling apart, the Knights scavenging for survival in a post-apocalyptuc Wasteland. The ground is parched and cracked. Water and blood are fluids, both essential for life. Yet even at this nadir, there is hope. When Pape sings "...der .Lenz ist da!" he prepares the way for Parsifal's "die Halme, Blüten und Blumen", fresh, open meadows rather than the hothouse flowers of Klingsor's realm. But perhaps it's also an echo of Sieglinde's "Du bist der Lenz". Nonetheless the Grail Community is still so hidebound by pointless rules that even Gurnemanz can't recognize The Spear when Parsifal places it before him.

"Der Irmis und der Leiden Pfade kam ich, soll ich mich denen jetzt entwunden wähnen" When Kaufmann sings of Parsifal's struggles, his voice expresses genuine anguish. Just as the Spear was once forged in flames, Parsifal has matured through suffering. Amfortas's wound can be healed by the Spear; Parsifal's wounds make him who he is now. He uses the Spear to help others. The Shrine is opened, and it would appear that the Community revives. Wagner's instructions are that a white dove appears over Parsifal's head. Anyone with a basic grasp of theology recognizes the reference to Jesus. Kaufmann's timbre is so strong and pure that you can suspend belief for an instant. Superlative performances, too, from Peter Mattei (Amfortas) and Evgeny Nikitin as Klingsor. In any ordinary production, they'd shine. In this luxury cast, there wasn't any weak link. Daniele Gatti's conducting highlighted the drama. I can remember a Bernard Haitink Parsifal where the tempi were so slow that that it would have worked better as audio. Beautiful, but Parsifal is a work for the stage.

Wagner was an artist, and for him, art transcended all else. Parsifal is a miraculous work of art, utterly convincing on its own terms. But it's art, not religion. Wagner adapted Icelandic sagas for the Ring, and medieval legend for Tristan und Isolde. Adapting the Gospels for his own purposes would have been perfectly logical. If anything, Girard's Parsifal makes me appreciate the true spirituality in the opera, rather than the pseudo-Christian mumbo-jumbo.

Anne Ozorio

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