Monday, April 15, 2013

The post apocalyptic fertile land of the soul that is Parsifal

Start by playing that video, and let that sound start washing over you. That glorious rich, lush, languorous sound of music from Parsifal, conducted by Daniele Gatti, who conducted the performance I just saw. He chooses tempi that are rather slow, making it a longer opera than normal. But, he also gives a very good case for playing it slower, bringing out detail and generally wringing every last depth out of the score.

And what a score it is! Wagner's last opera is quite something if you are new to his work. Its long, and very meditative. Much of the opera people spend time explaining what has happened, or why something is happening. The action, such as it is, mostly happens in the second and third act, yet the first is over 2 hours long. Yes, that is a lot of character development, and backgrounding, but this is an opera where "time here becomes space" as Gurnemanz tells Parsifal. Its also an opera rich in meaning and symbolism, that people argue over, trying to get a grasp on what is it about, and why does it grip us so.

For me, it has always been about redemption, both personal and as a group. It is about trying to find your place in the world, and learning to accept it. There is also an element of the standard fantasy novel that revolves around a young hero who has to go through a series of trials to find his way in the world. Though, in this case, the mythology is based firmly on the holy grail myths of the medieval period, not something pulled out of the post Tolkein leftovers of so much bad writing.

So, as you would expect, The Met pulled out a very starry cast for this production. This was a joint production that was already mounted at Opera Lyon, but with a very different cast. The director has opted to allow the story to tell itself, while updating the setting to the current, or indeed, slightly into the future. The set mostly is a hillside that appears to be post some ecological disaster. The ground is dry and cracked, with a stream that runs down the slope with a bend in it, dividing the stage up. During the first act, the stream starts flowing red. Is it representing the wound of Amfortas who is being washed when it happens? Or reflecting on how he fell? Or is it a foretaste of the middle act set in Klingsor's castle, a nightmarish location where the floor is covered in blood, as if to give the impression we are inside the wound.

And yet, for all the non traditional elements of this production, it remains at its heart a traditional production. This is a production that has been stripped back to the basics. There are no amazing scene changes to dazzle the eye when we switch to inside the Castle of the Grail Knights. Rather, everything is outside. The costumes are all modern, and very plain, except for Kundry and Klingsor, who clearly fit outside the ordered world. Even the Flowermaidens have plain outfits, even if is just a plain white slip dress that gets wet in the blood.

But, for all that, it was a very carefully thought out production. The very ordinariness of the clothes, the barren landscape, the lack of gimmicks, it was all deliberate. This is a production where the performers were put front and centre. Where everything that was done, could be linked back to the score. To be sure, there were a couple of exceptions where certain things happened in ways that were not as written by Wagner, but in this modernist take on a traditional production, they made sense. And, never once did anything jump out as wrong, or jarring, it flowed logically and seamlessly to the expected conclusion.

So, to the cast. This was the sort of cast you expect when you go to The Met, but only rarely get anywhere, a cast where there is no weak link, where every lead performer is both well known in the opera world, and well cast. Where you just sit back and revel in the sheer beauty of what is unfolding in front of you, and loose yourself in the magic that is Wagner's Parsifal.

So, at the heart of Parsifal, we had the seemingly inexhaustible René Pape as Gurnemanz, the wise knight who is our guide through much of the action. In most operas, having sung as much as he did in the first act, his job would be done, yet in the third act, he is there mourning his friend Titurel, discovering the return of Parsifal. It is he who sees what has happened, and realises that truly he has found in him, the pure fool who will heal and redeem the knights. There is something about the humanity that Pape brings to this role. Its the only way to describe it, but he is the humane heart, his actions are driven by his love for his fellow knights, and humanity in general. It is hard to imagine others bettering this role, but he will remain the model against which I judge all others.

As Kundry, the almost eternal woman, we had the glorious voiced Katarina Dalayman. Another experienced Wagnerian, she worked to bring life to a character who seems to be different in each act. Here, she succeeded as much as can be expected. Her performance often felt like watching an amnesiac, as if Kundry could not remember what had gone before, and yet at others she was the all wise woman, who knows far too much. It worked effectively, even if the seduction of Parsifal ended up feeling like watching your mother try to seduce someone. Somehow the sexy got lost amongst the motherhood for me, leaving me unconvinced, except realising that there was a spell involved in bringing the attraction. And again, vocally, this was a big powerful, seeming tireless performance. To be sure, some of her quieter moments sounded less pleasing than her loud ones, but it was more a quibble than a complaint. This was a big sound, fully controlled and a seamless performance of a role she understood and lived.

As the wounded Amfortas, we had Peter Mattei, singing the role as if he was born to it. To be honest, I was not expecting him to be so successful in the role. For me, he was always more the lighter Mozartean voice. Shows how much you need to hear voices live to understand them I guess. However, he lived that role. The agony he faced, was painfully obvious with every move. His deliberate decision to crawl into his father's grave, to die with him and end the suffering was a logical step in his pain, as well as worked well to help hide the removal of the wound from his skin when time. And he sang the role well, full of anguish, yet still beautiful sounds.

Yet ultimately this is Parsifal of course, so the production depends on a tenor who can produce the goods. And yes, we had that. Jonas Kaufmann is both a consummate actor, and a powerful singer. Part of me wanted a different singer in this role, because I have a connection with two tenors who have made the role their own. Yet, really, who can fault Kaufmann? He gives all to the role. And brings the lost soul from the beginning to the man who brings wholeness to the knights. It really is a remarkable performance, proving why for many he is the go to singer for many of the Wagner tenor roles.

So, really, what can I say? This was a performance to marvel over, of an opera that dares to ask questions that do not always have answers. It challenges you to think about your actions, to look to yourself and your own actions. Will you rise to the occasion when the big decisions come as Parsifal did? Or, will you fail, and succumb as Amfortas? Yet, even as you ponder those questions, you are left with the glorious music, especially those big transcendent choruses, always demanding more. i fear they will haunt me for a long time to come. And I welcome this.

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