Feb. 19 (Bloomberg) -- In performances of Wagner’s 5-hours-plus “Parsifal,” the suffering on stage is so often shared by the audience.
Amfortas, wounded by a lustful misadventure, groans as he presides over the community of knights harboring the Holy Grail. Eventually, Parsifal will heal him with a sacred spear.
Along the way -- across three acts in which he acquires compassion and understanding -- Parsifal ogles flower maidens, vanquishes an evil eunuch and blesses a bizarre woman named Kundry, who once laughed at the crucified Christ. She definitely needs redemption.
At the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, where the summers are hot and under-air-conditioned, I once sat next to an insufficiently hardy music pilgrim who collapsed and spent the second act at the Red Cross station. I felt his pain.
At the Metropolitan Opera on Friday night, however, I fell under a spell. Time moved on and yet stood still. The ethereal music suffused us all. Sitting in our seats, we traveled far.
In the mysterious words of Gurnemanz, a somber knight: Time becomes space.
Wagner finished Parsifal in 1882, grandly calling it “ein Buhnenweihfestspiel” (“stage consecrating festival play”) to encourage a devotional attitude and discourage booing.
As always, he wrote his own libretto, which is why the opera isn’t shorter.
The composer liked his stories so much that he repeated many several times until you are ready to pull your ears off and cry, “But I know Parsifal’s mutti is dead! She was dead in the first act hours ago!”
And yet when the components are superbly connected, there is nothing more hypnotizing in the operatic repertoire. And so it was at the Met.
The Met fielded a starry cast headlined by tenor Jonas Kaufmann, conductor Daniele Gatti and a director of magical powers, Francois Girard.
In close communion with the splendidly inventive Michael Levine (sets), Thibault Vancraenenbroeck (costumes), David Finn (lights), Peter Flaherty (video) and Carolyn Choa (choreography), the French-Canadian director created a new pictorial world. Remote from reality -- and Wagner’s stage descriptions -- it was stirringly believable, starting with the prelude.
We witnessed -- dimly -- the ritual disrobing of the Grail’s knights. Slowly they removed jackets, ties, shoes, and formed a circle at stage left, sitting on simple chairs.
Opposite, shrouded women clustered, separated from the men by an unsettling gash in the ground that morphed into a stream of blood, a chasm, a festering wound and finally a brook of purifying waters.
The second-act set was queasily spectacular and had provoked a lot of chat. Instead of the traditional garden, Klingsor lives in a blood-soaked realm dominated by two towering cliffs and separated by a seeping chasm. The blood puddled on the stage, soiling the white shifts worn by the ninja-like maidens guarding the sorcerer.
With not much help from Drs. Freud and Jung, you could also see the bloody slit as the place where Amfortas once plunged his own spear. But that does get to the heart of the story. Wagner just beat around the bush in his garlanded libretto. While he liked women in his own bed, his operas invariably feature them as sacrificing souls or contaminating witches.
Kaufmann is astonishing as Parsifal, singing effortlessly and with the radiant tone so rare in Wagner tenors. He moves convincingly from a forest-dwelling idiot who murders swans to a suffering wanderer with graying hair. He’s become an affecting actor.
I don’t think better singers exist anywhere in the world, especially Peter Mattei as Amfortas. Unusually tall and thin for a part typically inhabited by well-fed baritones, he seemed to waste away before our eyes.
Gurnemanz, so often a droning dullard, was given rare presence by Rene Pape; Evgeny Nikitin exuded angry madness as Klingsor. Katarina Dalayman was always interesting as the harried Kundry, who shuttles between the two realms (and through the centuries).
Then there was Gatti, whose deep understanding emanated palpably from the pit. Even the first act’s slow tempos were compellingly arched. Breathing with the singers, always in eye contact, he evoked memories of James Levine in his prime as he led the huge orchestra through this stupendous marathon.
Even the chorus was inspired to sing and move with astonishing certitude. Bravo to chorus master Donald Palumbo -- and everyone else involved in this unforgettable evening. The response from a full house (I saw no one leave in a show that started at 6 p.m. and finished shortly before midnight) was thunderously positive with a few boos from more tradition-seeking Wagnerians.
Judging by program bios, Girard spends too much time in Lyon and Gatti in Zurich. Move closer, gents. We need you here in New York.
The live telecast is on March 2. Kaufmann’s splendid new Wagner album is available on Decca.
Funding came from the Gramma Fisher Foundation, Rolex, Marina Kellen French and the Edgar Foster Daniels Foundation.
“Parsifal,” coproduced with the Opera National de Lyon and the Canadian Opera Company, runs in repertory through March 8 at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center. Information: +1-212-362-6000; http://www.metoperafamily.org.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and entertainment section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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