Opera Review: A Parsifal Even the Wagner-Phobic Can Enjoy

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From the Met’s Parsifal, back onstage through February 27. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

I have not always loved Wagner’s Parsifal. Its stew of repressed libido and cultish mysticism, wrapped in a package of extreme duration, makes me approach it with caution. And yet François Girard’s production, which returns to the Met for the first time since it opened in 2013, blows away that hesitancy like dust.

Girard has dispensed with most of the traditional medieval claptrap, though the obligatory holy chalice and magic spear remain. Parsifal wears what looks like a roomy lab coat; Amfortas’s knights, dressed in untucked button-down white shirts, sit on a circle of folding chairs as if they had gathered for a 12-step meeting. When a director scraps a historical setting it’s often a sign of bad faith and distrust in the libretto’s specifics. For Girard, it’s the opposite: Instead of offering visual competition for the lush beauties of Wagner’s score, he distills the opera to its ruminative essence.

It’s true that in Act Two, blood almost upstages all other forms of both spirit and flesh. It boils and gushes by the tankerful, cascades across the stage, flows from Amfortas’s perpetual wound, impregnates tresses, stains hems and hands, and gets flung through the air. Combined with fissures in flesh and rock, it does a lot of symbolic work, churning through sin, regret, violence, and transfiguration. But the sheer quantity of the stuff has a kind of lurid elegance, and a stage trick that might have turned Parsifal into a Tarantino gross-out instead winds up focusing the attention on everything that isn’t blood and stone: namely, the music.

Compassion, destiny, belief, renunciation — these and many more overarching themes form a kind of philosophical vaulting, but for me the strongest of all these is doubt. Amfortas, Kundry, and Parsifal devote many hours to second-guessing and remorse. The “if-only” fallacy — the notion that what didn’t happen is more knowable than what did — permeates the libretto: Had Amfortas not challenged the satanic Klingsor with the holy spear (or had he won the battle), he would never have been cursed with a lifelong gash in his rib. Uncertainty imbues the score, too. It took Wagner decades to elaborate a musical language of drift, to give harmonic heft to the thoughts of regretful seekers and chastened visionaries.

In Parsifal, the Met delivers doubt with immense conviction. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the company’s future music director and a conductor better known for rampart-storming than reticence, draws a sublimely pensive performance from the Met Orchestra. The strings stretch long, ropy melodies until they quiver, and horns interject glints of candlelit copper. Each beat is so fluid that it feels like a tidal cycle, rushing in, lingering, and sucking back out. For once, conductor and director breathe together: Girard often has the singers move in almost unsustainable slow-mo, so that every gesture — raising a chalice, gripping a spear, anointing a brow — rings with ceremonial grandeur. When Robert Wilson did this 20 years ago in Wagner’s Lohengrin, the results were more excruciating than hypnotic, but Girard seems to have gotten his singers to buy into the technique, or at any to sing through the pain.

This framework leaves ample space for the singers to explore their characters. As the narrator knight Gurnemanz, bass baritone René Pape seems both smaller and greater than he has in other roles. Shedding his usual majestic charisma, Pape gives a hunched, introverted performance with a timbre lightened by intimacy and roughened by experience. His voice bobs on the orchestral currents, occasionally going under in a swell but always reemerging to end a phrase in quiet tragedy. Peter Mattei, too, suffers touchingly as Amfortas.

Soprano Evelyn Herlitzius, who should have made her Met debut a decade or two ago, finally does so as Kundry, a wagonload of misogynistic stereotypes packed into a single character. At various points, Kundry is a crone, a Sleeping Beauty, a murderous seductress, and a reformed whore who anoints the feet of the Jesus-like Parsifal. Somehow Herlitzius turns her into a figure of serene triumph, offsetting her gnashing and groaning with singing of Hepburn-esque poise. (Katherine or Audrey; either will do.)

Klaus Florian Vogt sings the title role with a paradoxical mixture of callowness and depth. Vogt’s Parsifal is a big goofy boy with a bully’s body and a downy voice, but when the time comes to suffer and learn, he turns magnificently wise. The opera, nearly five hours from wheels-up to landing, not including two leisurely intermissions, is an endurance feat for everyone, but Vogt gathers vocal strength over the course of the evening, so that his final proclamation, “Nur eine Waffe taugt,” in which he heals Amfortas with the spear that caused his wound, gleams with powerful tenderness.

These various forces, assembled into the fragile machinery of a theatrical experience, remind us why a company of the Met’s scale matters. It’s not the ability to churn out glamour or pummel high notes; it’s those sporadic nights when an opera can massage away the knots of everyday existence, overwhelm the skeptic, and make a wordy mythological epic feel suddenly urgent and concrete.

Opera Review: A Parsifal Even the Wagner-Phobic Can Enjoy