Sunday, February 24, 2013

Parsifal: durch Mitleid wissend

The education of the pure fool: Parsifal, Act I
The more I think about Francois Girard's production of Parsifal, the more I am struck by how thoughtful its engagement with the work is, and how gloriously humane its message. Girard uses the visual language of Christianity and Buddhism without being tied to either, thereby more effectively getting at essential truths without using symbols which might seem exclusive. For this is a production recognizing that the effect of all sin (or evil... but I'll stick with the word of the libretto) is alienation from self, from others, and from the natural world. The eventual atonement and reconciliation are attained through true recognition of others, with agape love, this force so powerful that it lightens what had been in darkness, unites what was divided, heals what was broken. False dichotomies are broken down, and symbols are used to lead to truths instead of as ends in themselves. It's a beautiful production visually, as well; much was done with the relationship of humankind to nature which I didn't fully take in, but I hope to better this on further attendance. Girard presents the community of knights in the first act as suffering from a dangerous blindness, mirrored in the thick veiling of the women from whom they are divided (lest the audience feel complacent about this, a mirror has melted to a scrim during the overture.) Gurnemanz is the closest to enlightenment, but as we learn in Act III, he's idolized Titurel, not seeing him as "Ein Mensch--wie alle!" His engagement with Kundry, too, is cautious and limited. When the swan, wounded, enters, it is represented by a female dancer, and set down on the women's side of the stage. Gurnemanz can't cross to it, but strokes it tenderly and with pity; the tragedy of its unavailing search is deeply felt, and representative (for Gurnemanz) of all the failed quests of this broken society. Parsifal can't see it as anything but a beast. "Gebrochen das Aug' " doesn't mean anything to him, although he begins to sense that it is important.

The knights are united, it is true, but the cost is too high, not only (but most graphically) seen through Amfortas' suffering. They are too focused on the Grail, although the communal sharing of its blessing (like the passing of the Peace in high church liturgies) is not made a Eucharistic meal. The nourishment is mystical, but the cruelty to Amfortas is nonetheless dangerous. This man's body is broken. Parsifal watches intently, fascinated. But when he approaches the assembly and meets Amfortas' gaze, it is the youth who looks away. The king might have offered him the blessing, but Parsifal can't face Amfortas as an individual, turning away and refusing his office. Gurnemanz's anger is clearly not only for the suffering, but for Parsifal's refusal to engage it. Klingsor's realm (possibly at the base of the cleft in the Act I valley?) is deeply uncanny, a space lost to sun and air. More sinister than this, however, and more unsettling than the lake of blood, is the enslavement of will--not only Kundry's--that has taken place here. The flower maidens face away from us, in formation, deprived of individuality: this is what evil does. This redirection from the focus on temptation as somehow intrinsically feminine/female was much appreciated by me! Parsifal is genuinely bewildered by this perverse society. As these lost souls start touching, then stroking, then grasping at him, it is horrifying as well as suitably sensual. They almost win: they are surrounding him, claiming him, imprisoning him, and he is fatally passive almost until the last minute,when he tears himself free. It is then that Kundry enters. "Parsifal!" This is persuasion: a more subtle but no less dangerous approach to corruption of the will. He comes to her slowly, slowly, tense and preoccupied with what she tells him, but she is able to approach him. This is, however, only the simulacrum of the genuine emotional connection he craves. At first he is passive under her kiss, but then returns it, and then, tightens his grip and embraces her with violence; it is she who tears herself away, not the other way around; it is his violence, not her seduction, which is the horrifying transgression. It is an act of will, not a totemic sign of the cross, which stops Klingsor and the flower maidens. When he addresses Kundry, it is with sudden, overwhelming sweetness. Finally and for the first time he is looking at her as another individual, and he knows she will want to find him.

When the curtain rises on the third act, the tragedy of the broken society is apparently complete. The latest of many burials is completed in dogged haste; there are graves on both sides of the dry rill, and Gurnemanz is alone. Kundry's exhaustion is complete. Gurnemanz, attempting to revive her, warms her hands in his and strokes her hair, but he still can't cross to her. For once it makes sense that Gurnemanz does not recognize the spear: here, it's not brought back in triumph as weapon or relic; it's a walking staff, the last support of a man half-crippled and bent double with exhaustion. And nevertheless, Parsifal prostrates himself before the spear itself. It's not a heroic return; it's more satisfying than that. There's no pride in his declaration of what he's done, and no bitterness; he's drained of everything but the bare truth, the same truth which Gurnemanz unstintingly gives him. When Parsifal says that he's come to fulfill the office, it's nothing more and nothing less than recognition. He does for Kundry what baptism is supposed to accomplish: he takes her hand and guides her across the hitherto impassable divide, into community. And while Gurnemanz explains the Karfreitagszauber, Parsifal embraces Kundry with infinite tenderness.  It is Parsifal's tears which are the tears of the sinner, as he huddles with his brow to the ground; but though his back is bare no flagellation comes; none is needed. The washing and the clothing of this exhausted, resolute man are both incredibly moving acts of love. When the knights enter, they are carrying Amfortas, whose body, like that of Christ in the Deposition, is broken, no longer belonging to itself. Amfortas--physically, spiritually, and emotionally on the edge of destruction--is saved by a double miracle. Kundry brings the grail, and Parsifal the spear.  Amfortas is incredulous but nonetheless bares his chest for healing or a blow; and the impossible happens. Parsifal doesn't need the grail to give the blessing to the assembled company--men and women alike--who then are robed when the relics are reunited by Parsifal and Kundry's joint efforts. I was surprised when, at the last, Kundry dies in Gurnemanz' arms; but she has lived out many lifetimes and has found not only expiation but rest. Parsifal composes her body, and the contrast with the fearful handling of Titurel's shrouded corpse could not be more vivid: even death is redeemed by love.

I've yearned to hear Parsifal live since it entered my musical world on a cheap stereo, and Thursday's performance was bone-shaking and soul-stirring. The powerful, nuanced work from the orchestra brilliantly meshed with the on-stage performances, and the cumulative effect was stunning. Daniele Gatti's shifts in dynamics and tempo were subtle, closely followed by the singers. Slow tempi allowed for silences, as well, which seemed as much a part of the music as the sound. The strings could shift from radiant tenderness to solemnity in a moment, and the brass were brilliant (one or two moments of suspected uncertainty did not mar for me the effect of the whole.) I spent much of the first intermission trying to remember why I'd ever found Act I over-long, so compelling was its emotional arc. Gatti and the orchestra were not afraid of the terrors of Act II (with the result that I trembled uncontrollably) and made Act III deeply cathartic. Girard's focus on interior transformation left the orchestra with the task of portraying Verwandlung, and they did.  "Geleiten wir im bergenden Schrein" was almost unbearable in its intensity, the conclusion overwhelming in its beauty.

The chorus, prepared by Donald Palumbo, received the rapturous applause which their efforts deserved; they sang with great expressive power, and had good collective chemistry. As Klingsor, Evgeny Nikitin gave a fine but not outstanding performance. His sound was admirably consistent, and reasonably strong, but he lacked in the vocal charisma and subtlety which the other principals brought in such abundance. Peter Mattei brought tears to my eyes in the first act, and I've been crying over his Amfortas at intervals ever since. It's hard to believe that this run marks his first assumption of the role, so nuanced and so intense is his realization of the suffering king. Mattei's consistently beautiful sound was used to convey strength and weakness in long, anguished phrases. He achieved (I thought) a remarkably full realization of Amfortas' conflicted character in economy of gesture in Act I, and his Act III monologue was hair-raising, his cries of "Wehe, wehe" fearsome, while still beautifully produced. René Pape's richly human Gurnemanz raised my expectations for the role, and expanded my understanding of it. His sorrow and his hope were palpable from his first notes, and his singing was of outstanding power and beauty, pure-toned and penetrating. Moreover, Pape had excellent chemistry with the other singers, essential to the production. Amfortas, Parsifal, and Kundry each swoon into his arms; and he is always there to catch them. I'm still thinking about what this means, but I'm certain that Pape's use of text was quite extraordinary. His capability for contrasting the sense and sound of Sünde and Sühne makes me wish he'll record Bach (or, indeed, Gurnemanz.)

The infamous vocal and dramatic challenges of singing Kundry were impressively met by Katrina Dalayman. Mercifully, the production takes focus off her sexuality and on to her cursed struggles to perform her own will, and to be treated as an individual rather than as a symbol or agent of something beyond herself (so... sexuality does come into it, but it's intelligently treated.) The role of Kundry seems a good fit for Dalayman's vocal strengths: she sang with clear, focused sound, and conveyed Kundry's remarkable emotional journeys with expressive phrasing and subtly varied vocal color. Her cry of anguish, "Meinem Fluche mit mir alle verfallen!" was searing in its intensity. Once again confounding expectations of conventional tenor heroism, Jonas Kaufmann created a portrayal of Parsifal thoughtfully realized from start to finish. His experiences and insights were inscribed on his body language, brilliantly, and then, of course, he sang, many of his choices revelatory. Defensive and distressed by turns in his first encounters with Gurnemanz and the knights, Parsifal reveals the ubiquitous human tendency to direct guilt away from oneself. The transformation of Act II occurs because, in confronting his own guilt, he is able to understand that of others entirely without condescension or pity. The blood-stained hands are his, as well as those of every sinner, and there is a horrified silence in this realization before the searing "Amfortas!" The change in Kaufmann's vocal color as Parsifal truly engages with Kundry for the first time--"Du weisst, wo du mich wieder finden kannst"--was as moving as it was unexpected. The final realization, so long resisted, "Ich bin's, der all' dies Elend schuf!" came with explosive force; that it is ultimately redemptive rather than corrosive is testimony to the completeness of Parsifal's transformation. For once, I found it slightly difficult to hear Kaufmann through the rich orchestral tapestry of "Wie dünkt mich doch die Aue heut so schön," but I appreciated the interiority he brought to the passage. I'm still not sure how he did it, but he managed to handle the heroic declamations of the final scene as naturally as conversation... and of course, in this production, that is what it is. The collective triumph is that all address each other in love, as equals and allies.

Curtain call photos:
Evgeny Nikitin (Klingsor)
Peter Mattei (Amfortas)
René Pape (Gurnemanz)
Katrina Dalayman (Kundry)
Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal)
Company bows
Cast and conductor
More love for Gurnemanz
Jonas Kaufmann takes a bow for saving the world
Maestro Daniele Gatti
With the excellent chorus


  1. Thanks for this great review! I too had some thoughts about the so-called misogyny of Kundry's role--which I did NOT see in this production, as well as the "enslavement of will" aspect of both Flower Maidens and Kundry. Glad to see I'm not alone. Your review added to my excitement about seeing Parsifal again on Wednesday!

  2. I always love reading your reviews before I go to an HD broadcast; they really help me marshal my thoughts. I'm glad to hear that Kundry's sexuality is not the focus in this production, as that's something that's always turned me off about "Parsifal". It's so interesting to hear how Girard sets everything up. I can't even think about Saturday without an excited twist of the stomach.

  3. Thank you! Wonderful review. It was my first Parsifal. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that one of my first thoughts afterward was to wonder what you thought (as I live in the Midwest and often live my opera life vicariously through your blog.)

    I really thought it was something special. I've never felt so "held" by a performance. More than mere performance, the leads were trying to help us understand this world. I learned more about how to listen to opera from this performance than any of the others I've been to.

    It is a challenging work. I've heard so many people, in avoiding it, say they don't "get" Parsifal, or are put off by the imagery, or whatever. I can't say I "got it" but it definitely got me. Thanks again.

  4. @Ivis It's always lovely to exchange ideas - hope Saturday's performance is wonderful too!

    @Christie Thanks! I hope you enjoy! And that you have water/handkerchiefs/smelling salts as needed. :) Will look forward to comparing notes afterwards.

    @Jeff Thanks so much - I'm honored, really. And I'm so glad you were able to see this live. I think your point about the principals really working to draw us in, to help us share an understanding of the drama/production/music, is an excellent one. I do think that directness is a large part of what makes this so successful.

    Note: sorry about delay! Blogger was glitchy about comments earlier this week.

  5. Sorry to come in on this so late. Really enjoyed your review, Lucy. Read so many responses shortly after the opening performance, then was locked into a week's course in deepest Somerset where the internet connection was zilch (yes, it's still possible!). But read your review immediately after seeing the HD, so it was timely. Fabulous production - brilliant that you could all see it in NYC. Can't wait for the DVD. I found Rene Pape so moving as Gurnemanz - wise and sad, stern and compassionate. He shows Kundry respect and affection very touchingly. It seems to me that she is indicated as Parsifal's equal from the start: G: 'so dumm wie den erfand bisher ich Kundry nur!' - that her raising of the Grail at the end reinforces this interpretation, and that when she dies, perhaps finally released from the cycle of suffering (Samsara), Parsifal's smile as he looks at her is one of recognition of her as an equal - she too will return to assist others (Buddhist notion of Bodhisattva). One of the necklaces she wears is a Tibetan Buddhist mala - complete with counters attached to the string of beads. Some different choice of words in the surtitles would have brought out the Buddhism more - compassion for Mitleid for instance, and delusion for Wahnsinn, instead of madness. Poison Ivy on Parterre doesn't need, I think, to get so upset about the Christian stuff - as a practising Buddhist I find lots of Buddhist resonance. And, as Parsifal says while resisting Kundry 'Doch wer erkennt ihn klar und hell,des einz'gen Heiles warhen Quell?' Nice one Wagner......... JK really pulled out the stops in the Amfortas 'aria' no? Thrilling. Thank heavens for an intelligent and truly thoughtful director. And his wonderful cast.

    Am off to a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in India in 3 weeks time - Maybe I can get a copy of Wagner's Die Sieger to take with me - now that could be interesting.........

    1. Thanks so much for your input! The concepts of Samsara and Bodhisattva do seem to fit well with the work and the production, and I was glad to have that to mull over when I saw it again on Friday. I don't see what Mitleid can be translated as other than compassion! Madness is closer to the German Wahnsinn, I think, but I saw the perils of delusion as a major theme in the production.

  6. "des einz'gen Heiles wahren Quell" sorry!

  7. I bet you hadn't thought of this before: act II takes place inside Amfortas' wound.


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