The Metropolitan Opera's new "Parsifal," unveiled earlier this month, is musically magnificent, dramatically taut and psychologically penetrating. For better or worse, François Girard's production strips away a lot of the clutter we associate with this opera, but then adds a bit of his own to sharpen the focus on the deeper underlying issues.
"Parsifal," Wagner's last opera, is about the rejuvenation of a moribund community of faith. Their conservative doctrines separate women from the men who worship; the rituals have become rigid and empty. We watch this situation evolve during the prelude to Act 1.
Worse, Amfortas, the community's leader, has sinned: His guard let down during forbidden sex, he is grievously wounded by Klingsor with the spear that allegedly pierced Christ's side as he died on the cross. Even the magic of the Holy Grail can do nothing to heal Amfortas. Only a pure fool, made wise by compassion, can retrieve the Holy Spear from Klingsor, stem his burning pain and restore life and wholeness to the community. Trust me, it's a long story how all this comes about. "Parsifal" is an eternity.
Unlike Siegmund and Siegfried, those two hard, tough-as-nails heroes from Wagner's "Ring cycle," Parsifal is soft, even tender. Star tenor Jonas Kaufmann creates a vulnerable character here, reserving his ample, shining voice for the bigger, more assertive scenes in Act 2. His is a very touching performance.
His mentor Gurnemanz, sonorously and intelligently sung by basso Rene Pape, is more active in the community's rituals than in previous productions; in fact, the Chorus of Knights conducts its worship on stage in a circle of folding chairs through the entire first act, not just in Scene 2.
Suddenly out of their midst bursts Amfortas, whose cry of agony will jar those familiar with the score. Peter Mattei brings the suffering of the fallen king to a new prominence; vocally, Mattei is simply exquisite. Evgeny Nikitin's Klingsor is angry and sleazy.
The enigmatic Kundry touches each of these men in different ways. Soprano Katarina Dalayman amply rises to each challenge set by the role.
The Flower Maidens are tightly choreographed by Carolyn Choa and fetchingly sung by the women's chorus and six soloists; the men's chorus is also superb throughout.
Daniele Gatti's conception of Wagner's mighty score is often brooding and extended, but also visceral and breathtaking at times. Subtle changes in tempi and orchestral dynamics make his reading always interesting.
In Girard's production, gone are the vast trees of the forest, the tall pillars of the Temple of the Holy Grail and the exotic floral landscape of Klingsor's magic garden. Gone too are the three up-curtain scenic transformations, one in each act, which have been integral parts of "Parsifal" since its premiere at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany in 1882.
Designer Michael Levine's set consists of a mound of earth, cracked and dried in Act 1, but covered by scant traces of vegetation in Act 3. Marvelous cloud formations, created by video designer Peter Flaherty, create effective, shifting moods for Act 1, Scene 1, and Act 3, Scene 2. Kundry's big entrance in Act 1 is heralded as much by fast-approaching, ominous storm clouds as by the observant sentries. The lighting for these scenes, designed by David Finn, is also quite atmospheric.
But some of the video projections are questionable: I'd swear that one is a water spout, another is a large shaved leg and yet another is a bright red lava lamp. Because there is no Temple to go to, the transformation in Act 1 merely replaces the expressive clouds with a looming planet.
The biggest disappointment is the Good Friday Spell. After the hours of scenic and musical darkness, uncertainty and pain, the stage is still relatively somber when it shouldn't be. Instead of sunlight or blue sky, a large, dark eye-like circle dominates the background. This is the bright climactic moment in Act 3 when all of nature and all that's good seem aligned with Parsifal's ascension to the role of healer and leader! The ball is dropped, the magic is lost.
Wagner's "Parsifal" is performed again on the Met stage on the evenings of Wednesday, Feb. 27, Tuesday, March 5, and Friday, March 8, and a matinee on Saturday, March 2. Visit www.metopera.org or call 212-362-6000. The March 2 matinee will be telecast live in HD at the Quick Center in Fairfield at noon; the Ridgefield Playhouse presents an encore showing at 6 p.m. on Monday, March 4. Tickets at their websites or through the Met's website.
Jerry Sehulster is a freelance writer who lives in Stamford. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.