Tuesday, March 12, 2013

New Parsifal at the Met

Caught the final night of the new Met Parsifal last Saturday and will add my voice to the chorus that has rightly praised this production's thoughtfulness and superior musical virtues. After the debacle of the LePage Ring, the Met really needed to prove it could still do right by Wagner, and with this show, they have unquestionably shown that they can.

The cast speaks for itself, bringing together some of the finest exponents of these roles available today. Kaufmann's unique baritone-flavor tenor brings a very different color to the music than the traditional blazing heldentenor sound, which aligns nicely with the bleak sobriety of the production. Pape's Gurnemanz is pretty much the gold standard, of course--listening to that unceasing outpouring of lush legato you can only pity whoever has to eventually step into his shoes. Dalayman was loud and awesome, as is her wont, even if Act 2 didn't quite catch fire the way it did last time with Waltraud.

But the revelation of the evening, at least for me, was Peter Mattei's Amfortas. Mattei's rich, urgent sound and beautifully precise realization of this part has, I think, permanently banished Thomas Hampson as the default Amfortas I hear in my head, and for that I thank him (and no, I don't really mean that as a burn on Hampson, whose Amfortas is a reminder of all the good things about him and very few of the bad, but it's just been way too long since I got excited about Amfortas, you know?) To boot, Mattei offered a searing physical performance the likes of which one rarely sees in the opera house, a testament to both his acting chops and the direction.

As for the production by Francois Girard, it gets some big things very right and at least one thing pretty wrong--a success to be sure, but a qualified one...

In Girard's vision, the grail knights inhabit a barren world devoid of any nature or sustenance, indeed of any evidence of the divine save for the magic spear and goblet talismans anchoring their bleak outlook. The knights spend most of Act I hunched in a tight, insular circle, a symbol not of equal brotherhood but of society feeding on itself incessantly. Moreover, while there are more women than usual in this grail zone, they are pointedly segregated upstage, suggesting that the all-male society of the grail is more a symptom of its sickness than its purity. These are simple gestures painted on a simple setting, but Girard deftly evokes a sense of utter spiritual deprivation.

Given Parsifal's affinities with science fiction, one is tempted to see this wasteland as a post-apocalyptic landscape or some other exotic locale. Yet Girard tells us plainly that the world presented on stage is a metaphor for our shared society. As the prelude begins, we see a black reflective surface dimly displaying the auditorium, which lifts to reveal the cast in rows mirroring the audience in their seats. Sure, the pat "these characters are...YOU" moment can be heavy-handed, especially when introduced as a reveal to stoke some point of cognitive dissonance. But the intention is honest here--simply informing the audience of the parameters of the interpretation presented.

The problem really lies with Act II, which places Klingsor and the flower maidens in a shallow pool of blood somewhere below the parched grail landscape, and is meant to represent a journey into the actual wound of Amfortas. Zerbinetta at Likely Impossibilities has an incisive critique of the situation here:
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.
OK, this is going to get a little real, but I would go even further and argue that the images Girard plays on by staging Act 2 "in the wound" actually makes for a disturbing affirmation of the work's most retrograde tropes. By staging Kundry's seduction in a pool of blood, on a pristine white bed which grows progressively soiled with blood, Girard has realized Parsifal's rejection not just as a rejection of lust in the name of empathy for Amfortas, but as a moment of visceral body horror. Following this logic, Amfortas' wound is the "wound" all women have, the wound from which all sin originates, and the font of unnatural blood that serves as the evil counterpart to the blood Jesus shed on the cross to redeem man from that sin.

Now, in another production, one might be inclined to read this as an attempt to reveal and reject those tropes, as meta-commentary on the disturbing gender politics which run through how Parsifal is constructed and received. But I'm skeptical that that level of commentary is in this production's DNA. It seems more plausible that the no-doubt inspired gimmick of going INSIDE THE WOUND was too good to pass up and the full ramifications of that choice were never really reconciled with the more subtle ideas that the topside acts play around with.


Mirto_P said...

Can't wait to see the HD encore Wednesday, almost especially for Mattei. Wondering how many Rossini Figaros other than Mattei have "graduated" to Amfortas. The only one I can think of offhand is: Thomas Hampson.

Anonymous said...

Great assessment. At the 2nd intermission, all of us at the bar were talking about the Act II Wound as vagina. The slit between the mountain walls, the pool of blood, the hymen-blood of sex on a virgin white bed, maidens dancing in white with pools of blood at their feet, etc. We struggled with what this all meant. Was the message that

1) Holy men should avoid women.
2) Women are bleeding wounds, even before they have sex with a man.

Needless to say, we couldn't figure out if we should be more upset with the director or Wagner. We split it 50/50.

Alex said...

Mirto_P -- I'm thinking about going back for the HD Encore too, though Hvorostovsky has a big recital at the Kennedy Center that night, so a little torn.

Anon. -- Some more to chew on re: that Second Act here: http://likelyimpossibilities.blogspot.com/2013/03/parsifal-and-religion-conversation.html, which makes the case for a reading more sympathetic to Girard on this count (and points out some subtle elements that didn't register very well in the fam circ). Basically, this evil blood world fantasy of female sexuality is what plagues the grail knights, and it is this outlook they have that has driven them to their insular society incapable of engaging the normal upstage women in a healthy, balanced way. Kundry's duality, representing both blood and water via baptism, is then the bridge back for Parsifal and the rest of the Knights.

While I'm still wary about some of the imagery left unaddressed (have the knights really made peace with the reality and agency of women's bodies or is the breakthrough just that they have learned to be less neurotic about it?), I can appreciate that there is a lot more connective tissue in the overall approach than I gave credit for on first blush.