“Parsifal,” Richard Wagner’s last opera, had its debut in 1882 at the Bayreuth Festival house. Instead of calling the work an opera, he called it “a festival play for the consecration of a stage.” The opera had a long gestation. The composer first read the 13th century chivalric romance by Wolfram von Eschenbach (“Parzival;” Wagner changed the z to an f), that inspired the opera in 1845. However, he did not write the libretto until 1877 and completed the music in 1881.
After Wagner’s death in 1883, the composer’s family barred staged performances of “Parsifal” outside of Bayreuth for 30 years (the term of the copyright). That moratorium was broken by the Metropolitan Opera in 1903, since the United States did not sign on to the international copyright law.
The Met has unveiled its new production of “Parsifal,” directed by French Canadian François Girard. He provides a fresh take on the opera, moving the action from the Middle Ages to a post-apocalyptic setting. The director has said that he wanted to play down the Christian elements in the text and stress the composer’s interest in Buddhism late in his life.
The opera begins at Monsalvat, the sanctuary of the Holy Grail. Residing there are the knights who guard the cup that Christ drank from at the Last Supper and the spear that pierced his body on the cross. The old knight Gurnemanz recounts the story of how their suffering ruler Amfortas was wounded. An evil sorcerer named Klingsor had sought to join the knights. He tried to eliminate his impure thoughts by castrating himself. Perhaps sensing that he was a bit unbalanced, the order rejected him. Klingsor then declared war on the knights and built a castle with a magic garden filled with attractive women. The plan was effective; Amfortas was seduced and then stabbed with the Holy Spear. According to a prophecy, the wound can only be healed and the knights saved by an innocent young man who will appear one day.
Suddenly, a swan is killed in flight by a youth with a bow and arrow. He is dragged in by the knights but doesn’t know his own name or why he committed the deed. (He is a bit like Jason Bourne except that the action in those films is fast and “Parsifal” is slow, taking over five hours, and is filled with religious themes.) Kundry (a mysterious woman who had brought medicine for Amfortas) reveals the boy’s history; his father was slain in a battle and his mother raised him in a forest before she died.
In the second act, it is revealed that Kundry is sort of a double agent. She is under the spell of Klingsor, who orders her to seduce the young man, whom the sorcerer believes to be the holy fool in the prophecy. After the flower maidens fail to evoke a response in the young man, Kundry appears (now transformed into an attractive young woman) and reveals his name: Parsifal. This sparks his memories and he realizes that he is destined to save the knights and that Kundry is responsible for Amfortas’ injury. She tries to arouse his compassion by telling him that she has been cursed for eternity because she laughed at Christ’s suffering on the cross. When Parsifal rejects her, Klingsor hurls the Holy Spear at the hero. He catches it and causes Klingsor’s realm to disappear.
In the last act, Parsifal returns to the knight’s sanctuary and describes his years of wandering in search of the way back. Kundry (reawakened by Gurnemanz) washes Parsifal’s feet and he is proclaimed the king, after which he baptizes her. The suffering Amfortas wants the knights to end his life, but Parsifal heals his wound with the Holy Spear.
Girard’s production may be more desolate than what Wagner had in mind but it is effective, in part due to the contributions of Michael Levine (sets), Thibault Vancraenenbroeck (costumes), David Finn (lights), Peter Flaherty (video) and Carolyn Choa (choreography). In fact, Klingsor’s maidens in Act II actually looked seductive.
The cast is as fine as could be assembled anywhere in the world. In the title role, Jonas Kaufmann is magisterial, as singer and actor. Whether belting out high notes or appearing as a confused young man, hero battling an evil sorcerer or as an older man ready to ascend the throne, Kaufmann is spell-binding. The rest of the cast is also excellent: Katarina Dalayman as the mult-faceted Kundry, Rene Pape as Gurnemanz, Peter Mattei as Amfortas and Evgeny Nikitin as Klingsor. Praise also goes to conductor Daniele Gatti and chorus master Donald Palumbo.
The opera may be 330 minutes long but it is an unforgettable experience. “Parsifal” runs through March 8th at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center; (212) 362-6000, metopera.org.
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