After the unprecedented spectacle that was "The Ring Cycle," it seems that director Francois Girard thought the only way to do more with Wagner was to do less. And he was right.
His production of Wagner's "Parsifal," which was broadcast live in HD from The Metropolitan Opera at noon last Saturday, is stark, featuring mostly minimal sets (with one big exception), and places the focus of the production on visionary choreography and powerful performances instead of epic scenery.
Many times during the performance, singers make up much of the scenery, with Act I and Act II both featuring large groups of singers primarily as subtly moving backgrounds until they're called to the spotlight.
Tenor Jonas Kaufmann is seen as Parsifal with the “Flower Maidens” in a promotional image for The Metropolitan Opera’s “Parsifal,” originally written by Richard Wagner and directed by Francois Girard.
It's a brilliant move in a great (if very long) show that reminded me why I love going to the opera: to experience profound art through the delicate balance of masterful music and melodrama.
The story of "Parsifal" is complicated, but I'll try to offer a summary of the beginning at least: The knights of the Holy Grail are offended when they find a dead swan that has been shot out of the air. Apparently, swans are not fair game, something of which some wandering man was not aware when he took one down with an arrow. One of the knig-hts, Gurnemanz, reprimands the stranger, who has unknowingly stumbled upon the knights' gathering, and demands to know his name, where he comes from and what he does. But the journeyman, a blank, abstraction of a figure, doesn't remember anything, not even his name, and thus, is considered a fool. He watches idly as the knights perform a bizarre ritual, through which the leader, Amfortas, who has a gaping wound in his side, brings the Holy Grail out of its protective black box to provide sustenance to the other knights.
The "dumb" man turns out to be Parsifal, who is destined to be a hero of the group as the story progresses. Parsifal is played by Jonas Kaufmann, my favorite opera singer. Kaufmann does not disappoint, giving a tireless performance, as he is onstage for nearly the entire four hour-plus production, during which he is tempted and stripped by the Flower Maidens and seduced by the evil witch Kundry.
The Flower Maidens scene, which takes place in a hell-like setting, is the most visually striking part of "Parsifal," especially because the entire stage is covered in fake blood. During a break in the live broadcast, the stage manager said that managing the blood was the most difficult aspect of the Met's current season, mostly because they have a lot of expensive electrical equipment that must be protected from the liquid.
And yes, this meant that the singers were barefoot and standing in quickly cooling liquid for about an hour (by my estimation) without a break. During the act, I thought, "A guy must have thought of this scene. There's no way a woman would have thought, 'What if we have 40-plus women standing in white nightgowns in a pool of cold, fake blood for an hour?' "
After the first act set the story in motion and the second act had a lot of fun, the third act just left us with Kaufmann, Rene Pape and Katarina Dalayman onstage, the two men, tenor and bass respectively, singing tremendously, without bells and whistles or a giant, multi-level, morphing machine. Just a couple of the Met's best singers doing what they do best.
There will be an encore of "Parsifal" at 6:30 p.m. March 20. Check local theaters to see if they are participating in the encore showing.