|Parsifal, photo @ Ken Howard|
Five years ago I survived my first ever live Parsifal. I had a lot of problems with the storyline back then. Since that time I've seen the error of my ways, boned up on my Schopenhauer, and eagerly awaited a return trip to Richard Wagner's final work. And so with my Parsifal prep package of snacks, juice, a pen to take notes, and ipad to read during the 40+ minute intermissions, off I went.
Looking back the 2013 production really assembled a dream cast. Jonas Kaufmann, René Pape, Peter Mattei, Evgeny Nikitin were just about perfect and Katerina Dalayman was very good. It was with some trepidation that I approached the 2018 revival cast. I'd never heard Klaus Florian Vogt and Evelyn Herlitzius live but what I had heard of them through videos and recordings I hadn't particularly liked. And Parsifal is one of those works where you better like those voices, because you're stuck with them for six hours.
|Pape and Mattei, photo @ Ken Howard|
He is capable of much more detailed acting. Just look at this clip of him in the Tcherniakov production:
Peter Mattei's Amfortas is a master class of what Wagner sounds like when sung with legato 100% of the time. There's no barking, there's no snarled consonants. Amfortas' anguished monologues actually sounded like bel canto mad scenes, with his voice flying and soaring. Blood poisoning never sounded so beautiful. "Mein vater!" was especially heart-rending. Dramatically he hit all the right notes. He's naturally one of those tall handsome barihunks but his lanky body crumpled over with pain. And his handsome face added another dimension to this Amfortas -- one could totally believe that once upon a time this King was a ladies man. Bravo. This is a classic performance. He got by far the loudest ovation of the night at the curtain calls.
|Nikitin chewing the scenery, photo @ Ken Howard|
|Herlitzius and Vogt, photo @ Ken Howard|
Klaus Florian Vogt's voice was definitely a surprise. I had heard him on recordings and always wondered how that high boy soprano sound would carry in a big house over a Wagnerian orchestra. Well Vogt has plenty of volume. You could always hear him. And that flute-like voice is preferable to the old fashioned helden-barkers. What he does not have is a voice that has enough color to make the big moments have any real impact. For instance "Amfortas! Die wunde!" is Parsifal's epiphany and I remember when Jonas Kaufmann sang it 5 years ago it shook me out of my seat. The same moment went for nothing with Vogt. I realize I'm in the minority on this one but I preferred Kaufmann to Vogt.
Here's a back to back comparison of the two tenors in the same moment:
I was also disappointed by Vogt's acting. He looked bored much of the time. In Act Two there was no sense that Parsifal is tempted by Kundry and exploring his own sexual desires. Vogt's body language conveyed nothing but "I better not get any blood on my clothes." He also spent 95% of the time staring at the prompter, which sometimes involved a pivot of the head that Joey from Friends immortalized as "smell the fart" acting. In Act Three Vogt looked disengaged. Parsifal is supposed to be a "pure fool, enlightened by compassion." Vogt plays the "pure fool" bit well but doesn't give his Parsifal enough of an emotional arc so his final anointment as the leader of the Knights of Grail has less impact than it should.
Yannick Nezét Séguin led a performance that was better in the more dissonant, exciting portions of the work. For instance the stormy music that continues throughout Act Two had incredible momentum. He did less well with the quieter, more contemplative moments of the score. The Vorspiel sounded beautiful but the Transformation was oddly ponderous and the Dresden amen music was not as ethereal as it could have been. The orchestration calls for seven harps for chrissakes! The performance was also anchored by the magnificent Met chorus, who were stunning in the Transformation Music and the finale of the opera.
|The infamous bloody vagina, photo @ Ken Howard|
Act 2 opens in the infamous bloody vagina which actually dilates (heh) at Parsifal's entrance. The Flower Maidens have the toughest job of all in this act -- they are onstage for the entire 70 minutes or so. One Flower Maiden passed out an a crew guy walked onstage via the stage right wing and carried the poor thing offstage. The idea for this act might have been clever but I've seen two casts and it's hard to make this act work dramatically when singers seem so uncomfortable. Both Kaufmann and Vogt fought a valiant fight of emerging from Act 2 without blood on their hands (pun intended), while Dalayman and Herlitzius struggled to come across as seductive while their nighties were soaked with the fake blood. Also one of the biggest moments of the opera came and went -- when Klingsor "throws" the spear at Parsifal in this production Vogt just turned his back and made a "talk to the hand" gesture to Klingsor. This not-so-polite brushoff freezes Klingsor and voila the spear is Parsifal's and Klingsor's Castle falls apart but not before the Flower Maidens dip their hair in the blood one more time. This actually elicited giggles from the audience.
|Vogt and the Grail, photo @ Ken Howard|
I think that there's quite a few things about the Parsifal libretto that are disturbing -- the fact that Amfortas is punished so severely for one moment of temptation and the linking of Kundry to Herodias brings some icky feelings of misogyny and anti-Semitism into the work. However it should be noted that Kundry is the only explicitly Jewish character Wagner ever wrote. There's theories on Alberich, Beckmesser and Mime but they are just theories. And Kundry the not-so-nice Jewish girl is treated with compassion by Wagner.
But ... this is the most important part. When Parsifal finally healed Amfortas with the spear and as the mesmerizing Dreden Amen music played I started crying. Not just a few tears. I was having an ugly cry in my seat. The ending of this opera is full of beauty and hope. In 2018, the idea of compassion, forgiveness and healing is so powerful. Parsifal is not just an opera , it's an experience that lifts the spirits and heals the soul.
By the way, here's my Parsifal prep packet;