BWW Review: Parsing PARSIFAL at the Met, with an Impressive Cast under Nezet-Seguin
Richard Wagner's last opera, PARSIFAL, is a tough nut to crack. With its highly religious overtones, lack of action and incredible length (it ran about 5 hours 40 minutes the other night), it's not exactly a light night at the opera--even if for those of us who consider opera to be a "light night". Still, with the right cast and conductor, it can be transcendent. The Met's new revival came pretty close to getting us there.
PARSIFAL is loosely based on an epic poem about the Arthurian knight Parzival (Percival) and his quest for the Holy Grail, the cup that Christ drank from at the Last Supper. For me, it felt every moment of its 5-going-on-6 hours: The first act alone runs nearly two hours and, frankly, there's not much action in it, though there is some great music and the concomitant singing; Act II, however, is pretty spectacular and Act III rounds out the evening impressively.
The Francois Girard production--in a modern take, designed by Michael Levine with modest costumes by Thibault Vancraenenbroeck, with Peter Flaherty's abstract projections--was new in 2013 with Jonas Kaufmann in the leading role and, frankly, that was about all that mattered then, though Rene Pape and Peter Mattei did stellar work, as Gurnemanz (a veteran knight) and Amfortas (ruler of the Grail kingdom), respectively.
Five years later, this buhnenweihfestspiel--"festival play for the consecration of the stage," just in case you didn't know this was serious business--still has Pape and, particularly, Mattei doing fine work, but added an amazing performance from soprano Evelyn Herlitzius. Making her Met debut as Kundry, who's an amalgam of several characters in the Grail myths, she first appears in the opera as an old crone and then as a seductress. While Herlitzius doesn't have the most beautiful voice one could imagine, she was a presence to be reckoned with and filled the Met with little effort--no small achievement. And of course, there was the magisterial baton of the Met's music director, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, which whipped the performance along, as if this wasn't his debut with the piece.
Then there is, of course, Parsifal himself--the knight who first appears as an unnamed fool "enlightened by compassion" and is transformed by the end into the heroic figure who is the redeemer of the knights, curing Amfortas of his mortal wounds. As Shakespeare might have said it, "Ay, there's the rub."
Tenor Klaus Florian Vogt's Parsifal, with his reedy voice and benign affect, was a little too mild for me, particularly after seeing Kaufmann's hearty, baritonal version five years ago. While it's true that I haven't heard 50 other Parsifals with which to compare it, I just did not buy the interpretation--particularly when I had a similar reaction to his work in FIDELIO a year ago. This light-voiced figure, who seemed to float a few inches above the ground, did not seem big enough to fill the role. I will say that others thought he was just fine. That's what makes horse races--or, at least, opera audiences.
The stars of the show, certainly for me, were baritone Mattei, who not only sang up a storm but brought a rounded, deeply moving character to life, and Nezet-Seguin. The conductor, who moved up his planned tenure as music director to fill the void left by James Levine's sudden (professional) demise, is a welcome addition to the New York music scene and brought a finely nuanced, exciting performance from the Met orchestra. (The Met chorus, under Donald Palumbo, was up to its usual fine standard.)
Additional performances of PARSIFAL, include the February 17 matinee, and the evenings of 20, 23 and 27. Curtain times vary (complete schedule here); with the running time approximately 5-1/2 hours, including two intermissions.
Tickets begin at $25; for prices, more information, or to place an order, please call (212) 362-6000 or visit www.metopera.org. Special rates for groups of 10 or more are available by calling (212) 341-5410 or visiting www.metopera.org/groups.
Same-day $25 rush tickets for all performances of Parsifal are available on a first-come, first-served basis on the Met's Web site. Tickets will go on sale for performances Monday-Friday at noon, matinees four hours before curtain, and Saturday evenings at 2pm. For more information on rush tickets, click here.