Wagner – Parsifal / Metropolitan Opera 3-8-13

I watched and listened to this from a spot that I had never sat in before, the very rear of the orchestra section. Like, literally, the last row. Every time I go to the Met I am re-impressed by the sound: I have never ended up in a spot in that hall where I had trouble seeing or hearing. And what I saw and heard last night was well worth splashing through the slush for.

I do not have a lot of experience with Wagner’s Parsifal. I think I’ve heard bits of it once or twice before, but I’ve never seen it either on stage or on DVD. It is not a story that particularly appeals to me in emotional terms. Everyone feels awfully guilty despite not actually having done anything really bad as far as I can tell, and there is a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing with regards to wounds and spears and magic cups. At the end, the spear and the magic cup are reunited (here, Parsifal actually dips the spear into the cup with a great flourish) and I have to admit my first impulse was to try very hard not to giggle. Also the whole thing with the wounds. King Amfortas has one because the necromancer Klingsor sent Kundry to tempt him with sex and then stole his magic spear and used it against him (Klingsor castrated himself earlier on, so maybe he was feeling some sort of lack in the category of things that one might think of when one thinks of spears as symbolic objects?) and the wound is kind of all about sin and all that, and everyone but Parsifal is feeling tormented by desire, and at one point Kundry says to Parsifal that she’s got a wound that won’t heal over and perhaps he might like to have a look at it, and I sort of wanted to take her aside and tell her, one – given what I think we’re kind of talking about by this part of the story, it’s not supposed to close up and heal over, and (two) if by some chance it does close up and heal over, you should really, really make an appointment with your gynecologist, because that is not the kind of situation you want to ignore, medically speaking.

The Met’s production is really striking. I liked it. The first act takes place in a wasteland with a background of moving clouds. The knights are men in suits, and during the introductory music, they remove their jackets and ties and are left in white shirts and dark trousers. Amfortas is dressed in the same way. The costuming makes his wound (red splash on white) very visible. The stage is divided in two. The knights remain on the right, seated in a circle on chairs (the simple metal-framed stacking kind). There is a kind of dry fissure on the ground, and to the left of that is where you typically find the women, including Kundry. These women are not mentioned in the synopsis of the opera – they tend to remain silent and still. I think they may be there primarily as a way of pointing out that the knights are all dudes and that this is important. Anyway, people tend not to cross the gender fissure, at least early on. When they bring in the swan that Parsifal has shot, the people carrying it lay it on the ground right at this border, with its head along the line; later, when Gurnemanz begins to discuss the spear, he almost crosses the boundary; when Kundry tells Parsifal about his mother and his father, he reaches across the line to grab at her; at the end of Act I, Parsifal, having witnessed the magic of the grail but unable to articulate a response, kneels at the edge of the fissure, which has now widened and filled with blood. He dips his hands in. But this little gender division line is not fully breached until Act III, which also takes place in this wasteland. Here, Parsifal wanders over to the women’s side, and when he baptizes Kundry, she is seated on the men’s side; near the end, when Parsifal brings in the spear and it is reunited with the grail, he makes a gesture that draws both the men and the women around so that they are mixed up together. The gender thing tracks with the separation between the two holy objects.

Act II takes place in Klingsor’s magic fortress. What you see is two high cliffs that nearly meet, leaving a narrow opening at the rear of the stage. Rivulets of blood run down the cliffs and as the act unfolds, the gap at the back turns to a bright red fissure (when Parsifal shows up) and later to a sort of lava-lamp series of underwater blood bubbles, and later to red clouds. There is also a pool of blood on the floor. At least, I think there was. This is the disadvantage to sitting at the orchestra level. The stage is nearly at eye level, so while some things from this vantage point look really striking (e.g. the flower maidens’ poses and gestures as Parsifal arrives) other things are not visible, including the pool of blood on the floor. But the blood itself soon gets everywhere. Klingsor wets his hands in it and tosses drops in the air, and the girls’ white dresses are wet with it, as is Kundry’s. And you definitely hear this pool of blood. When the girls troop out they go splishety-splash through the blood, and when some of them return later with a bed for Kundry to tempt Parsifal on, they come splishety-splash through the blood, and later still, when Parsifal (in a Matrix-like move – Klingsor menaces him with the spear, and then everything stops and Parsy just walks over and takes it from him) captures the holy object and Klingsor’s fortress crumbles, the girls kneel (splash!) toss their hair forward and back (splash!) and finally slump over. It’s pretty great. I’m not being sarcastic; it really was.

There is also music in this opera. There is some really wonderful, fascinating music that more than makes up for any impatience one might feel as far as all the business about magic sticks and magic cups is concerned. For example, in Act III, when Parsifal baptizes Kundry, the orchestral music does this thing – it seems like it’s going to resolve, and then it doesn’t, and then a few other things happen with the chord progression and — well, it’s hard to describe, but it was really neat. And the orchestral sound in Act III during the transition where Gurnemanze and Parsifal and Kundry leave, and all the knights and the silent women come back – the double basses and perhaps a few other sounds combine to create these moments of deep rumbling sound that you can feel in the air as well as hear. It was, again, fantastic. But it’s not just the orchestral music alone; it’s the orchestra and the singers together. I am more and more a fan of René Pape (Gurnemanze). I was about to write that I could listen to him sing for hours, but it’s not a matter of could: this is exactly what happened. He sang for hours, and my attention did not flag. There were several parts that I particularly liked, e.g. the part in Act I where Gurnemanze is explaining about the spear, as well as some specific moments of Act III, but really it was pretty fantastic from beginning to end. And in terms of Wagner’s music, the way the orchestral music works with the vocal parts — or, rather how the vocal parts are embedded into the orchestral music — there is something utterly absorbing about this, magic sticks or no magic sticks.

Oh and yeah, Jonas Kaufmann is in this too. I thought the long monologue in Act II where our hero finally understands compassion and guilt was particularly nice, as was the section in Act III where Parsifal is wandering about talking about the beauty of the flowers; ditto the moment soon after when he notices that Kundry is crying. (He has a high note there on “crying” that I suspect has something to do with a similar pattern in Act II when Kundry (Katarina Dalayman) explains that she laughed at Jesus on the cross – the word “lachte” is also way up high and solitary, and this little pattern recurs later in Act II when she returns to that same theme.) But anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Kaufmann. Indeed, there weren’t any weak links here at all as far as I could tell, either in terms of singing or in terms of acting. I suspect this is not destined to be one of my favorite operas, but I do think it measurably increased both my admiration of Pape and Kaufmann as well as my appreciation for Wagner.

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