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Parsifal in the Repertoire of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York

Wednesday, 13 March 2013 , ora 9.57
François Girard successfully transforms the opera into a timeless story… (the Wall Street Journal)

The film and opera director François Girard has planned and worked for five years on a Parsifal which, starting in March, has been included in the repertoire of the Metropolitan House in New York. The performance is a co-production with the Opéra National de Lyon and the Canadian Opera Company and has received significant financial support from Gramma Fisher Foundation, Rolex, Marina Kellen French and Edgar Foster Daniels Foundation. Only with their support could this super-production be presented on the famous MET stage; some of the greatest Wagnerian voices of the moment participated: the tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, René Pape - Gurnemanz, Katarina Dalayman - Kundry, besides other great lyric artists: Peter Mattei - Amfortas, Evgeny Nikitin - Klingsor, all under the inspired baton of the conductor Daniele Gatti.

Parsifal holds a special place among Wagner's works...

... It's the composer's last completed opera. The first draft dates back to April 1857, but the work will only be finished 25 years later. It's story, ritual and will in equal proportions. Wagner wrote the score in red ink. The absolute premiere is dated 1882 and took place within the second Wagner festival in the hall of the Bayreuth Theatre, called Festspielhaus and built by the musician after his own plans. Wagner described his work as neither an opera, nor a drama, but 'ein Bühnenweihfestspiel' - a practically untranslatable concept, the closest equivalent being consecration or mystery. Respecting the composer's wish, a tradition was maintained for a long time: after each act, the audience wouldn't applaud, but stand up and quietly leave the hall.

Bayreuth had a monopoly on the work until 1903 when Parsifal was staged at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, using an illegally-obtained copy. There was a huge scandal and for all the artists involved in that performance, the doors of the Bayreuth Festival were closed for ever.

A new Parsifal at the MET was obviously an immense challenge at the moment when the entire music world celebrates 200 years since the German maestro's birth. The most difficult mission probably rested with the director, the set designer and everyone involved in the stage arrangements, an extremely complex task, given the symbols, the atmosphere, the greatness, the slow unfolding of the story, the incredible spiritual load of the plot and, inherently, of the music. A special frame is needed for the story of the innocent who saves the Knights of the Grail, by experiencing and undergoing suffering not with his mind, but with his heart. For the first and third acts, François Girard chose a nearly-empty space, with only a few chairs placed in a circle, where the knights meet. The floor of the stage resembles an arid, dry, barren land, crossed in the middle by a thin, weak trickle of water. Above, the sky is heavy and changing colour, from black to leaden hues and scarlet…At the beginning, the water is clean - Gurnemanz shows it to us, in the hollow of his hands; then, after Amfortas' bathing, what starts to flow through the narrow bed of the rivulet is…blood. In the end, this will be reversed, so the blood will be gradually replaced by fresh water.

There's a lot of blood in this production. The idea of the wound which cannot be healed is dominant. The colours are also carefully chosen and are symbolic: white stands for purity, red for sin…The swan is white, with a red lethal wound; at the beginning, the knights wear regular dark suits and during the wonderful Prelude, there are both women and men on the stage watching their image, reflected into a huge mirror. If you look carefully, you can actually see the reflected image of the hall. The message is fairly clear - François Girard has deliberately annulled any temporal or spatial anchors, but he talks to both people on the stage and in the hall, apparently saying: Ladies and gentlemen, this is a performance about you, about your own search for spirituality, for the fundamental principles of life, compassion and suffering…Gradually, the women separate themselves from the men's group and take refuge far away, at the rear of the stage, on 'their' half of the land. They won't mingle anymore. The men take off their coats and remain dressed in their white, spotless, shining, pure shirts…however, these will get dirty, becoming red from the incurable wound of Amfortas, who sinned and was condemned to eternal suffering. White dominates the beginning of the second act - all the flower maidens and even Kundry wear long white dresses. It is suggested that the action takes place inside the wound itself, in a bloodbath which is slowly absorbed by the white dresses of the flower maidens, giving them a strong hue of red from the feet up, higher and higher. And the white bed where Kundry attempts to seduce Parsifal starts to bleed profusely when the young man remembers and he himself feels Amfortas' pains.

An impressive display of forces

Approximately 180 people are on stage: soloists, choristers and understudies; and everyone knows their part and place. In an apparently static display, everything is actually in motion, with small but continuous movements - a gesture, a nod of the head, either to oneself or to a group, a step, some surprise, some pain…The vision of the conductor Daniele Gatti tends towards a majestic and slow musical display, maybe slower than we were accustomed to hear, but with a permanently increasing tension, without a second's relaxation, until the end. The maestro confessed his respect for the version once signed by James Levine. He breathes in unison with the singers, the visual contact is permanent, and he's one with the orchestra.

Jonas Kaufmann - an interpreter with a unique sensitivity and intensity

The role of Parsifal was remarkably acted and sung by the tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Apparently absent-minded all the time, lost in day-dreaming, in François Girard's vision, Parsifal is unable to understand anything, but he feels that something is happening around him. He's insecure, indifferent, devoid of curiosity; he doesn't belong in this world that he doesn't know and where he's a stranger, without a past, present or future…Everything surprises him, but in the end he comes to understand and his eyes light up, proving involvement to the extent of rapture. A singer with a sensitivity and an intensity which are, I dare say, unique at the moment, an accomplished actor with an impressive physical beauty, Jonas Kaufmann managed to identify with the character and transmit the entire complexity of the part.

In François Girard's vision again, Gurnemanz is wise, calm, resigned and yet hopeful. Nothing can perturb his faith; he looks at what surrounds him with detachment and understanding, he expects everything and, at the same time, he expects nothing…Peaceful, collected, ready for everything, good or bad, the character has the outline, the expressivity, the subtlety, the intensity, the delicacy, but also the force and the immobility of a granite rock. One of the greatest Wagnerian artists of the moment, René Pape rendered through his singing and embodied perfectly the director's vision. I unreservedly admired his warm voice, sometimes with velvety tones, the ample Wagnerian phrase uttered without any apparent effort, the discreet, but permanently dedicated acting.

The evening's revelation - Peter Mattei as Amfortas

The way he interpreted his part, using EVERYTHING from whisper to yell including gestures and motions, the musician-actor made us feel and live with him the atrocious suffering of the character, both the physical pain and the remorse of the sinner. In the role of Klingsor, the Prince of Darkness, the Russian bass-baritone Yevgeny Nikitin has an incredibly powerful voice (moulded by the Russian school), a voice that doesn't harmonize at all with the voices of his colleagues in the cast. The difference is at first shocking, but then we realize that this is how it was supposed to be and that it was the best choice in the given context.

Katarina Dalayman - magical moments

The Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman is also a Wagnerian, well-known and acclaimed on the greatest lyrical stages of the world. In 2001 she played the part of Kundry in a Parsifal produced at the Paris Opera. On the MET's stage she could also be seen and heard in the roles of Brangäne (Tristan und Isolde, 2002), Isolde (2008), Brunhilde (Tetralogy, 2013). In the new Parsifal production at the MET, the soprano impresses, especially in the second act, through the beauty of her voice and the delicacy of the interpretation. Together with the tenor Jonas Kaufmann, in the subtle seduction scene, Katarina Dalayman creates truly magical moments.

The performance I comment upon amazes and impresses through the originality of the director's vision, the beauty of the voices and the overpowering massiveness of the sonorous edifice. I don't know if both the director and the conductor started from the ample and fraught unfolding of the story and of the music and built the details or it was the other way around: the details came together, combined, completed each other and came to form a whole, in a continuous majestic movement. All I know for sure is that the effect is overwhelming.

Cristina Sârbu
Translated by Mihaela Olinescu and Elena Daniela Radu
MTTLC, Bucharest University