Millions worldwide will have spent six hours in a cinema today watching the transmission of Parsifal from the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. [I have since seen Act I and the final sections of Acts II and III in Tokyo; the total length was down to five and a half hours, thanks to being able to skip the long intermissions.]
The production began promisingly: men dressed in suits advanced as the orchestra played the grail music and began to rid themselves of jackets, ties, watches as the Dresden Amen and faith motifs were sounded. They ended up seated in a closed, brightly lit circle, while women huddled in darkness on the other side of a stream. The circle suggested a Rotary Club, or Freemasons, or Scientologists, or AA, promising a novel, dechristianized take on the opera as a comment on contemporary quests for spirituality. The various ritual gestures throughout Act I were neither Christian nor Buddhist, again suggesting a modern cult.
There is a draggy section after Amfortas's exit for his bath in which Gurnemanz offers catechesis to his listeners, followed by a sermon on the wickedness of killing swans to the bumptious Parsifal. One hoped for some resistance from the latter, but no such luck; he turns out to be a real forest idiot, putty in his mentor's hands. [Rene Pape was boring, as Michael Tanner notes in his Spectator review, but is the fault not chiefly Wagner's? Why could he not write more for Parsifal and Kundry, and put a stop to Gurenmanz's garrulity?]
Though it is now broad midday the sky is filled by a huge dark planet -- a solar eclipse of some kind? -- worthy of Lars von Trier. During the transformation music all gaze on obscure shapes in the sky. Amfortas's agony is the vocal and dramatic highlight of the act, and was magnificently sung and acted by Peter Mattei. [But a less agonized Amfortas might be more attractive.] Blood was much on display and one thought inevitably that he could be crying out for someone to find a cure for AIDS. In the grail ritual he dips his two fingers in the Blood and the businessmen-knights spread the sacred droplets from their fingers to each other's mouths. Only the words of the libretto forced a Christian reading of the scene. The invisible choirs, including "ces voix d'enfants chantant dans la coupole" seemed to be miraculous voices borne on the wind, as there was no cupola. The scene was somewhat intrusively dominated by Gurnemanz and Parsifal -- the former scrutinizing the latter to see if he "understands". What is he supposed to understand? Again the scene could be read naturalistically -- he is supposed to grasp and empathize with the depth of Amfortas' pain, or perhaps acquire an insight into the First Noble Truth of Buddhism.
Act II was ghastly! All the characters had to wade in a pond of menstrual blood. The flower maidens sang without sweetness or charm, their dresses dripping. Offstage, during the second interval, they looked quite displeased as theyhastened off to shower. The Kundry-Parsifal duet, rather boring in early stretches [listen to Karajan's great recording to see how much was lost], reached its climax with the kiss on a blood-stained bed, suggesting that Parsifal has lost his spiritual virginity? [Kundry's diction was hopeless, Parsifal's splendid; though I find Kaufmann's voice rather hard; there are warmer inflections in Jame Morris, for example.] At the moment of the kiss [prolonged and consensual, though Kundry has taken unfair advantage but adopting a maternal approach which shifts into the erotic key] Parsifal ains insight into Amfortas's suffering and becomes "knowing through compassion". His yell, which George Moore scoffed at, was dramatically convincing here. Perhaps he grows up too fast, but in any case he now sings with impressive authority. The scenario of rejecting the Temptress is of course corny and it wallows in manichean phobia of sex and women. Is it Wagner's retraction of the pagan loves of Tristan, Siegmund and Siegfried? Parsifal stops the lance-brandishing Klingsor with a "sign" but it is not the sign of the Cross, just his raised hand. Absurdly, the flower maidens also brandish lances.
Act III. Conducter Daniele Gatti, excellent throughout [no, the speeds were awfully slow, and he had not the ability of Knappertsbusch to make the slowness raptly contemplative; I heard his Meistersinger in Salzburg and he was booed], played the prelude eloquently. Then there was the lugubrious scene of the now grey-haired Parsifal's return and the terminally silenced Kundry washing his feet and being baptized. The Good Friday music had a grandiose rising planet scene, but again midday was marked by an ominous eclipse. The fantastic chorus introducing the final grail scene (crashing into new harmonic realms)and the entire scene are set against a background of swirling dark clouds. [When Amfortas was carried in, looking like the dead Christ, the scene was quite grandiose, bringing to mindgreat medieval paintings of the pieta or deposition.] Kundry's role is upgraded, as it is she who comes forward bearing the grail, during Amfortas's rather dull music, and then elevates it (in place of Amfortas). Parsifal then plunges the lance into the cup while Kundry looks up at him in adoring ecstasy; this sexual overshadows the healing of Amfortas's wound. Her subsequent death (prescribed by Wagner) is a sort of Liebestod after all. [Intensely 'Christian' as well, however. Kaufmann seems totally wrapped up in the role of Parsifal, which he interprets in straightforwardly Christian terms, as his interval interview showed; his lips moved in silent prayer in this act; he acts brotherly love toward Kundry touchingly.]
François Girard's production, for all its impressive effects, does not produce a coherent vision of the opera and does not succeed in making it of real contemporary relevance. The boos he received may have come from those who wanted a more conventional approach; but more likely they expressed dissatisfaction at the confusing nature of the spectacle. [Still, it does attempt to match the sublimity of the score, straining after this goal with memorable effect.]
Parsifal may not lend itself to coherent modernizing interpretations. It is what it is. One would like to treat it as a harmless fantasy, letting its yearning music speak for itself. But the work has a disturbing spiritual power that cannot be ironed out so easily. It plays on a Christian mythology already distorted and paganized in the medieval legend but still bearing potent symbolic overtones, and it dramatizes the challenging ideas of compassion and of fidelity to a mission. So perhaps any production is bound to be an ironic patchwork, letting sublimity and irony jostle each other. The present production is disappointing because it did not fulfil the ironic promise of its contemporary setting and fell into a Lars von Trier style grandiosity instead.
Anthony Tommasini writes: "For all its imaginative directorial strokes and seriousness, however, this “Parsifal” is a downer. Wagner’s suffering grail knights may fear they are losing touch with God. But in most stagings at least they are connected to nature, and its renewing cycles give them some hope." http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/18/arts/music/parsifal-at-the-metropolitan-opera.html?pagewanted=all Why does he say the grail is lifted by the wizened Parsifal? (The program note in French cinemas said that Parsifal, struck by Amfortas's suffering, sets off to recapture the grail (sic; recte: lance) from Klingsor. Jonas Kaufmann points out that Parsifal is precisely not struck by Amfortas and he supposes that he stumbles on Klingsor's castle by accident.
Well, one commentator found a coherent ecological spiritual message: http://opera-cake.blogspot.fr/2012/03/inconvenient-parsifal-from-opera-de.html
Good comment here: "So it is in many ways a very moving production, with Peter Mattei’s agonized Amfortas and Jonas Kaufmann’s messianic Parsifal taking acting honors. Some of it feels familiar from Syberberg and Lehnhoff (particularly the post-apocalyptic atmosphere), but that's OK. It is, for the most part, enthralling to watch. But I have to say I have grave doubts as to the Meaning of it All. I think preserving a sense of mystery and wonder is crucial to Parsifal’s appeal. But this production does make several big gestures towards having a vision of the drama’s allegorical meaning, too. They aren’t plentiful, as a maximalist who has watched the Herheim Parsifal too many times I find it intellectually quite sparse. Since it doesn’t venture too much, I’m not inclined to cut the production a lot of slack for things that don’t make sense, and I think it has some big issues.
"The production’s thesis seems to be that the world--as exemplified by
Monsalvat-- is out of joint, the men and women separated and the knights
closed into themselves. By making them mix it up and giving Kundry a
role in the Grail ceremony, Parsifal restores balance. But by choosing
gender as the signifier of spiritual imbalance, Girard makes things very
hard for himself. The production ignores the really crucial and
pernicious portrayal of women in Act 2. Inside the wound or not, they're
still women. (It’s a too infrequently noted hypocrisy of Parsifal
that the opera argues that women are the source for the evil from which
the knights have to be purified, and yet indulges the work’s audience
in a prolonged scene of women singing together and besieging the male
hero. Lord, make me chaste, but let me spend a long weekend at the
"Girard’s idea of the women’s exclusion from society as the source of the knights’ problems really appeals to me. But I’m afraid that if you stage Act 2 as a conventional male gaze sensual extravaganza, which he does, it doesn’t really convince. Parsifal is a confusing work, sure, but it has some central themes that are pretty clear: the knights have been tainted by sensual temptation. Redemption can only come from a pure fool (Parsifal), who first needs to learn compassion. He becomes a sexual ascetic after refusing Kundry’s seduction. So Girard’s idea of inverting this demands some serious intervention in the portrayal of seduction as the source of the knight’s problems as well as Parsifal’s awakening to asceticism, something that he does not do."
Other reviews: http://theclassicalreview.com/2013/02/the-met-unfolds-a-spare-darkly-human-and-deeply-moving-parsifal/