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Sunday, February 11, 2018

Parsifal Lifts the Spirits and Heals the Soul

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
So how was the revival? The good news first: René Pape (Gurmenanz) and Peter Mattei (Amfortas) anchored the first and third acts with performances that were every bit as fine as their 2013 portrayals. Pape's voice has lost a bit in volume -- in the third act monologue he actually was drowned out by the orchestra. But the richness and beauty of his voice are very much intact, and as a result he could make the long monologues really sing. For example the expository monologue on Klingsor's "unmanning" can meander but with Pape's magnificent bass I was riveted. He's not much of an actor though. Pape has always been about The Voice. I do wish his Gurmenanz could have been more specific with the acting but that's a small gripe.

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
Evgeny Nikitin also reprised his portrayal of Klingsor and was a fun, over the top villain. His voice is very different from the mellifluous voices of Pape and Mattei. There was definitely some Bayreuth bark in his voice but it was appropriate, and he chewed the scenery and left blood on the stage (pun intended). The Flower Maidens sounded absolutely lovely, like real sirens, and I love their look: the dark hair, the spears, the white nightgowns.

Herlitzius and Vogt, photo @ Ken Howard
Evelyn Herlitzius has one of those thin, screechy shrill voices that somehow always find their way to Kundry/Elektra/Ortud. Dramatically she throws herself into the part, but vocally there's nothing seductive or sensuous about her sound, so her as the raison d'etre of Klingsor's Castle of Temptation strains belief. She does do the big octave drop in "Ich sah ihn und lachte" well. And she does a good cackle. But this is a voice I just don't want to hear again.

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 Francois Girard production is a mixed bag. I think Act One is the best-staged with the men and woman on opposite sides of a chasm that looks suspiciously like a female genital organ. Girard depicts the knights as a closed society/cult, and the rot within the society is a result of its narrow minded worldview. At the end of Act One the crevice opens to a visible vagina and Parisfal lies down on his stomach and peers into the hole. Very subtle. But in general this act conveys the ambiguous feelings about women and sexuality that the knights have.

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
Act 3 is a barren post-apocalyptic world (of course), and onscreen projections seem to indicate a lunar eclipse. But this is where Girard sort of runs out of ideas. Parsifal is anointed the "redeemer" by ... getting a fresh white shirt. (For those keeping track, unlike Kaufmann Vogt does not go shirtless in this production.) During the final moments of the opera the Knights of the Grail also dramatically shed their dark jackets and all are wearing white shirts. The women now co-mingle with the men. Kundry takes out the grail and gives it to Parsifal. The end.

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;


  1. Bravo, Ivy! You bring us into your world as you experienced this opera.

  2. Are you seing this producton in the house? It;s wonderful. Mr. Opera might sleep through the whole thing too.

  3. Hi Ivy,
    Another terrific review! I saw this fabulously sung production when it opened a few yrs.back. While I was happy to see no nazis, concentration camp victims, torn jeans, tuxedos, cell phones or TV sets, I felt the blood filled stage was overkill and dressing the Knights of the Grail to look like an Arrow shirt commercial in 1954 was off-putting. Simple dark, non-period shirts would be better. The religious nonsense depicted in the story is overcome by the unbelievably magnificent, mesmerizing music proving again George Carlin's comment that the only good thing about religion is the music.

    1. Ain't that the truth. Without religion we'd be without Mozart's Requiem or Bach's Mass in B Minor.

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  5. Right about that. Just to add, besides Kaufmann, other Parsifals I've seen at the Met are Botha and long time ago Helge Brilioth. No need to add that Pape and Mattei are great.

  6. My, that was quick! The performance was over at 12:45 am, and you posted your review at 6:30 am. I hope you have time for a nap today.

    I always enjoy your review and I enjoyed this one.

    I was also at last night's performance.. Unfortunately unexpectedly alone. My husband, who's really passionate about Wagner, realized ten minutes before we were to leave that he was too sick to go. After some discussion, I took an expensive cab ride to be sure I'd make it in time. I showed up with about ten minutes to spare and discovered that the Met lobby was almost empty. I had arrived an hour early! I assumed the performance was at 6, like Monday. But Saturday night was at 7, not 6.

    I enjoyed it all, particularly Pape and Mattei. Herlitzius was better than I expected from listening to the broadcast on Monday. I agree with you about Vogt. His portrayal was curiously ... blah. As Tommasini wrote, "sometimes Mr. Vogt played the fool a little too well. He seemed a little lost." In the Monday broadcast, his "Amfortas! Die Wunde!" sounded almost bel canto -- which is wrong for that phrase. Last night it was only slightly better: "Amfortas!" had some strength, but "Die Wunde!" was simply straightforward, not impassioned. As if he sang "Die Wunde" instead of "Die Wunde!"

    Thanks for an enjoyable review.

    1. Did you hear a squeak to his voice when under too much pressure? I wasn't sure whether that was just the way he sings or what.

    2. No, didn't notice a squeak.

    3. Also I was surprised by how much Vogt looked at the prompter. This isn't a new role for him. But I felt like he planted himself by the prompter for 99% of Act 2.

  7. Right you are Ivy. Just to add, previous Parsifals I've seen @the Met are Kaufmann,Botha and, a long time ago, Helge Brilioth. Always fun to read your reviews
    Best, Madison

  8. Great review. I feel this may be the best Parsifal production I've seen, but not everyone thinks so. (FWIW, I also liked the old Schenk/Schneider-Siemssen story book production.) I listened to the prima last week, and look forward to Saturday's broadcast. Can't wait to attend the final performance and hear this cast live.

    1. Have fun! But ... BRING A PARSIFAL SELF-CARE PACKAGE! I would not have survived without the snacks, the juice, the book. It's an endurance test for the audience and the singers.

  9. Thanks for the review and for the clips of Mr Kaufmann and Mr Vogt side by side. What an unattractive voice Mr Vogt has in this clip. I find Mr Kaufmann's singing so much more beautiful and expressive.

    1. I agree. But Jonas is a unicorn. Amazing voice, but oh so elusive. It's difficult to be a fan of his -- it means constant disappointment when he cancels.