Parsifal at the Met

The François Girard production of Wagner’s Parsifal is making waves again, this time not so much for the splash party in blood on the stage but for the lifeblood on the podium waving the baton: Yannick Nézet-Séquin serves up a passionate reading of the score that ranks among the great ones I’ve heard since my first two Parsifals as a standee in the very last season of the Old Met.

Yannick Nézet-Séquin rehearses  Parsifal  with the Met Orchestra

Yannick Nézet-Séquin rehearses Parsifal with the Met Orchestra

In the outer, more contemplative acts, Nézet-Séquin unobtrusively calls our attention to thematic layers of sound often submerged by the strings and horns. Throughout he creates a pulse in the score that never flags. But in the seduction scene in Act II, the centerpiece of the opera, he brings out the intricately woven fabric of the musical phrases with an unrelenting forward propulsion. It was electric! Bravo!

Herlitzius in blood, Act II  

Herlitzius in blood, Act II 

Add to this scene the tormented, passion driven Kundry of Evelyn Herlitzius. She projects Kundry’s agonies with her body language as much as with voice in the outer acts, in which she strives to serve others. But in Act II she, succubus-like, is driven by Klingsor’s magic to seduce Parsifal, as she had done years ago with Amfortas, ruler of the Knights of the Holy Grail. She brought about his moral downfall, which led to his grievous wounding. In Act II she strives to do the same for Parsifal. It’s a tour-de-force performance. Nice way to make one’s Met debut, eh?

Returning to this production, which was new in winter of 2013, are Peter Mattei as an Amfortas tortured by pain and René Pape as the steadfast Gurnemanz. Just as Herlitzius as Kundry invites us to experience her bipolarity of desires and emotions, Mattei, as Amfortas, cuts right to the quick: he doesn’t merely sing “Oh my side hurts,” or something to that effect, but rather he invites us to experience his suffering. And all this in perfect voice. Rene Pape’s Gurnemanz is again solid and richly sung. Bravi!!

Parsifal returns to heal Amfortas, who lies wounded in the foreground

Parsifal returns to heal Amfortas, who lies wounded in the foreground

Evgeny Nikitin, also in that opening season, repeats his role as the twisted rebel knight Klingsor, whose magic garden, with its beautiful Flower Maidens and Kundry, serves as a sexual sand trap for the chaste and unsuspecting Knights of the Holy Grail, Amfortas being to date its prize conquest. Tenor Klaus Florian Vogt is not a newcomer to the Met, but this is his first Parsifal here. Vogt combines an essentially lyric voice with a youthful stage persona.

In order, the four sentries were Katherine Whyte, Sarah Larsen, Scott Scully, and Ian Koziara; the solo Knights of the Grail in order were Mark Schowalter and Richard Bernstein. Both voices from the ceiling of the Met, a ghostly Titurel was Alfred Walker and a Voice was Karolina Pilou. The lovely Flower Maidens were Haeran Hong, Deanna Breiwick, Renée Tatum, Dísella Lárusdóttir, Katherine Whyte, and Augusta Caso. The Maidens especially were excellent.

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus, under Donald Palumbo, sang with great gusto and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra played Wagner’s long score superbly.

The women stand isolated to the left whilst the met pray on the right.  Parsifal  Act I

The women stand isolated to the left whilst the met pray on the right. Parsifal Act I

François Girard’s conception of Wagner’s tale is, as I said in my review of the 2013 then new production, very touching in many ways. During the prelude to Act I, as the increasing light behind the scrim allows us to see a large chorus stage front, the men in black doff their jackets and shoes while the women in black retreat to the left side of the stage, shunned, separated for the eternity of the performance by a small running stream. On the right side of the stage the men in white shirts have circled like covered wagons under attack. They bob and weave in mindless religious rituals; only Gurnemanz, the two Knights and the four Sentries given any individuality until Amfortas breaks out in pain. The wonderful most interesting cloud formations, though often dark, billow and blossom in the breeze. However, the stage is essentially a mud flat, dull gray brown in color.

The serious problems with the production in Acts I & III are, first, that the scenic transformations are nothing more than new projections on the back screen. Not much transformation on stage in other words. The glorious clouds change into relatively meaningless and irrelevant images. Even the dusty old Met production last seen in 1966, mostly sung on a bare stage as if to mimic Wieland Wagner’s revolutionary 1951 production at Bayreuth, did it much better. One can, of course, close one’s eyes.

Kundry looks on as Parsifal is annointed by Gurnemanz. The Holy Spear is behind him  

Kundry looks on as Parsifal is annointed by Gurnemanz. The Holy Spear is behind him 

Not surprising here that the text for the Good Friday Spell in Act III is similarly ignored: Parsifal raptures about the bursting out of green and flowers, while the mud flats here are just as dull as ever. Talk about a buzz kill!

But the second problem in Acts I and III is that there are dead areas on stage such that the chorus to the rear of the set is muted and singers, even the great Pape, on the right rear side are at times practically inaudible. Perhaps the empty area above the stage but behind the proscenium eats the sound. To be fair I sat upstairs.

However, the voices in the probably by now famous Act II pool of blood staging are clearly aided by a tall V shaped wall. No problem hearing Kundry, Klingsor, the Flower Maidens or Parsifal in this Act!

Production aside, musically this Parsifal is so strong for the reasons mentioned above. When in Act III Parsifal draws Kundry to his side, across the meandering little stream that separates the men from the women, it is indeed a transfiguring moment. The men and women actually mingle. Is not the union of opposites to some extent evidence of cosmic change?

This Parsifal is a musical experience not to be missed. Don’t miss it.

Reviewed performance: February 17, 2018, a beautiful sunny day, that is, until the snow came.

Photos: Ken Howard.

As I write this, a chipmunk emerges from his den under my front lawn covered by six inches of newly fallen snow. He sees his shadow. Not sure what this means. He's actually posing for a photo, but my camera is downstairs.

Peace. Ciao, J.