Sunday, 3 March 2013

Parsifal - New York Metropolitan Opera

Live Relay - 2 March 2013

Wonderful singing from the Principals but the production is flawed.
It has been said that Parsifal is un-stageable.  It’s true that there are quite long moments while the singers are waiting for the music to allow them to move on to the next action.  In the case of Parsifal there isn’t much action anyway and the real movement is often in the music.

It’s also true that familiar concepts for the presentation of operas need to be challenged and in this way operas are renewed down the generations.  Sometimes this is successful, sometimes not.  François Girard has responded to Parsifal by setting it, supposedly, in the not too distant future.   

Act One had the Knights of the Grail in white shirts and black trousers.  The stage was a sloping desert of cracked dried mud, with a small rivulet running through it that turned red when Amfortas took his bath.  The Knights were on the right of the rivulet as a seated circular group, moving together from side to side or using their arms to reinforce the action.  Women in dark clothes were on the left.  They were mostly static. The Grail was a simple golden chalice and no lighting was used to suggest its power.  At the end of the Act the rivulet opens up into a chasm into which Parsifal stares mystified and wondrous.

Act Two, is set in Klingsor’s magic garden, which is generally portrayed as a beautiful colourful place; the text says it is in a wooded valley.  The flower maidens are usually seductive and alluring. Girard put the flower maidens, wearing white nightgowns and having long black hair, in a dark red cave dripping with blood.  If you think of early horror movie female vampires you’ll get the general impression.  
Throughout the act all the performers were standing in a lake of stage blood and, as they knelt or moved, it stained their clothes.  Klingsor had to pick it up in cupped hands and throw it about or pretend to!   A river of blood flowed down the back of the stage between the rocks at the entrance to the cave.  It’s difficult to imagine anything less likely to create a mood of seduction or more likely to distract one from the music. At the end Parsifal just takes the spear from an unresisting Klingsor and that’s it!  In fact so dramatic was this moment that my companion slept through it, although to be fair this interpretation is supported directly by the text!

Act Three returned to the desert of cracked mud, which had now been transformed into a post-apocalyptic scene reminiscent of science fiction from the sixties and seventies.  Klingsors’ realm has been destroyed and, amid graves lightly dusted with snow, men and women stood about looking shocked and filthy, like refugees from the holocaust.  There were a few overturned plastic chairs.  Nonetheless it remained difficult to escape the medieval origins of the work, which is Wagner's interpretation of Parzival, the 13th Century poem written by Wolfram von Eschenbach.  Instead of a 21st century coffin Titurel was swaddled in white wrappings like a mummy as he was laid in his grave and Amfortas’ spear, now carried by Parsifal, was prominent.

Clearly there is blood in Wagner’s text.  Amfortas’ wound bleeds continually and blood from the body of Christ is at the source of the power of the Grail.   Blood is also suggested by Klingsors’ self-emasculation in his mistaken attempt to gain purity, but it is not the primary focus of the story of the opera, which is to achieve redemption.  In this production there was too much blood, which had a visual impact far too powerful for its role in the text.  The director also employed too much coordinated group arm waving, which distracted from the performance as a whole.

But what a performance!  All of the principals gave powerful and impressive readings of their parts.  They acted strongly, especially Peter Mattei as Amfortas, the physical nature of his suffering being matched by his range of vocal colours.  René Pape was a powerful and indefatigable Gurnemanz, who was also very human and engaging.  Evgeny Nikitin as Klingsor couldn’t have been more angry and evil.  Katarina Dalayman, sings her role very well but she was not successful when playing the seductress Kundry in the second Act.  One was left thinking that she could have been Parsifal’s long lost mother, and her heart didn’t really seem to be in it, but later her memorable duet with Jonas Kaufmann’s Parsifal was overflowing with intensity.  

Both of them gave absolutely everything here and I’m sure that their voices more than filled the Met.  Daniele Gatti conducted the whole evening impeccably from memory with assurance and artistry. This was an exceptional cast for an exceptional piece but I’m sorry that I can’t say the same for the production.

A minor gripe about the sound before I finish.  It was noticeable that the balance for the quiet passages and offstage voices was not correct.  There was a lot of low frequency background noise, as if the microphones were too far away from the performers.  I didn’t notice this problem when they did Götterdämmerung a year ago on MET HD Live so they need to do something to address it.


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