Time for another mash-up of SNLC with the opera diary series begun by Demi Moaned, and since continued by self, in light of the latest live Metropolitan Opera HD-movie cast today. With that in mind, today's variation on the standard opener:
Anyone see the Metropolitan Opera HD-cast of Parsifal today?
Given that 2013 is the anniversary year of 3 of opera's major composers, Verdi, Wagner, and Britten, it's fitting that Wagner's last opera would feature in the Met's repertory this season. Parsifal is a very tricky work to stage, however, given the rather ritualistic nature, not to mention stately pace, of much of the story. Given that with 2 intermissions, the whole show can potentially run nearly 6 hours, it's understandable if your answer to the above question is "no" (but hence the poll). Spamalot this isn't. The reason for the snarky reference to Monty Python, amongst other stuff, follows 'neath the flip....
First, so everyone is up to speed on the plot, you can read the Met Opera's synopsis here, or the wikipedia article. You now see the reference to Spamalot, since the Holy Grail features in the plot of Parsifal. The other connection to the King Arthur legend is in the etymology of the name Parsifal, which can be considered a rough equivalent to Percival (or Perceval) in the Anglo version of the tales of the Knights of the Round Table.
In her NYT preview article on the new Met production, the splendiferously named Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim (you couldn't invent a name like that if you tried - at least I couldn't) notes by way of introduction to the opera for the novice:
"Parsifal, first performed in 1882, is Wagner's final work for the stage: in equal parts, fairy tale, ritual and philosophical testament. He wrote the manuscript in purple ink and termed the work a Bühnenweihspiel, a festival for the consecration of the stage."The full German term that CdF-W meant is Bühnenweihfestspiel, just for the record. That aside, she also notes:
"The opera's themes of reincarnation, renunciation and enlightenment through compassion are evidence, [director François] Girard said, of Wagner's fascination with Buddhism. Wagner was introduced to Eastern forms of spirituality through the writings of Schopenhauer, and the Buddhist ideal of renunciation in particular comes through in letters to Wagner’s muse, Mathilde Wesendonck, and in the diaries of his wife, Cosima."One other theme that some have seen in the opera, in the light of Wagner's own personal prejudices, is anti-Semitism, such as summarized in passing by Jan Swafford in his biography of Johannes Brahms, regarding the conductor Hermann Levi:
"After a growing professional and personal closeness with Wagner during the 1870's, in 1883 Levi became the anointed conductor for the premiere of Parsifal - an opera that was, among its qualities for good and ill, perhaps the highest expression in art of pseudo-spiritualized Germanic antisemitism."While I don't claim anywhere near the expertise to give anything resembling a full or even 1/4-full discussion of this statement, it's not a new idea, as the wikipedia article indicates, given Wagner's own raving anti-Semitism throughout his life. In brief, one can try to postulate the sorcerer Klingsor, the opera's bad guy who stabbed the knight Gurnemanz with the spear that had pierced Christ on the cross, and thus gave Gurnemanz the wound that has not since healed, in the opera's backstory, as an 'impure' character who was rejected from fellowship with the Grail knights. Parsifal, by contrast, is the 'pure' character who redeems all, not just psychologically pure in the sense of being a total naif and innocent, but also in the Germanic "golden boy" sense of 'purity'.
Citation: Jan Swafford, Johannes Brahms: A Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, pp. 387-388 (1998)
Girard's production apparently tries to avoid such racial concerns by giving the opera a setting more informed apparently by pressing environmental matters, again per CdF-W's article:
"In his vision Parsifal is set in a postapocalyptic world made barren by global warming. The sets by Michael Levine, [tenor Jonas] Kaufmann said, 'look exactly like those images you see from Africa where it hasn’t rained in many years and there are cracks in the surface of the earth.'"In his NYT review of this production, Anthony Tommasini elaborates on this idea with details about the sets:
"There is not one tree or tuft of grass, not even a patch of moss. Instead two barren, sun-baked, dirt-gray mounds are divided by a river bed with just a trickle of flowing water, sometimes thick with blood. In the background videos depict dark clouds, swirling mists, and, sometimes, cosmic images of strange solar systems and ominous planets."The production also puts the Grail knights in business suits, to emphasize the "modern" feel.
With all that, obviously everything really rises or falls from the music. Happily, no worries on any account there. All the singers do a terrific job, with the principal roles as follows:
* Jonas Kaufmann - Parsifal
* Katarina Dalayman - Kundry
* Peter Mattei - Amfortas
* Evgeny Nikitin - Klingsor
* René Pape - Gurnemanz
Although you'd think that Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal would be the vocal center of the story, because of the opera's title, if I had to give the palm to just one singer among the leads, it would have to be René Pape as Gurnemanz. He has tremendous stage charisma along with a great voice, not to mention the kind of satanic magisterial looks that makes him perfect typecasting for a role like Mephistopheles in Faust. Here, however, as Gurnemanz, no devil he here, but instead he's the rock of conscience and nobility among the Grail knights.
Kaufmann himself does a very fine job as the holy fool Parsifal, in solid voice (and one or two opera beefcake moments for the ladies on stage in Act II [not to mention gay men in the opera crowd, but never mind]). In fact, it only occurred to me that the Monty Python parallel applies in Act II of Parsifal, since you can regard the Flower Maidens trying to seduce Parsifal from his quest for the holy spear as parallel to the Castle Anthrax scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. However, Parsifal isn't meant to be funny, of course.
It was also amusing to learn in the intermission features, from host Eric Owens and a supervisor of the Met's stage staff, about how the stage crew managed pools of stage blood (water, food grade glycerin, and food coloring, in case you're wondering). Namely, there are heating units that pre-heat the "blood" to 105 deg F before Act II starts, and there are also heating pads that try to mitigate the dissipation of the heat as Act II proceeds. But you also have to remember that all this water, suitably protected, is on top of a lot of electrical stuff. You don't want to imagine what might go down if some sort of leak occurred.
Underpinning it all, of course, is the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in the pit, with conductor Daniele Gatti, actually using a chair (he's only in his 50's - but then Act I is almost 2 hours long, but 3CM digresses, as usual), but more importantly, conducting the opera from memory, as there was no score on his stand. I was kind of surprised that he consented to do a quick chat with Eric Owens, since Gatti strikes me as an ultra-serious type, not one for media-schmoozing. For example, when he took his entrances in the pit, he smiled to the orchestra, but adopted a more neutral, non-smiley, look for the audience, simply nodding in acknowledgement. This didn't prevent him from getting a huge cheer at the end from the audience. You could also see several string players waving their bows as he made his entrance, a traditional gesture of appreciation for the conductor.
Director François Girard was also on hand to do a quick intermission chat, and to take a bow at the end of the performance. Given that this is the only performance of Parsifal that I've "seen", it worked well enough, again especially given the difficulties of staging such a slow-paced (except the 1st part of Act II) and philosophically oblique work. Tommasini commented in his review that this particular production really struck him as a "downer", given the subtext of "environmental desolation" and the barren nature of the sets.
One thing about seeing this production in a movie house (or any of the Met HD-casts), where by definition your perspective is limited to what the HD-director chooses via her camera operators, is that perhaps the up-closeness of the camera mitigates the downer-ness of this production a bit, by focusing attention on the individual singers, rather than just the big wide perspective of the whole stage. Thus you can see little up-close details like Pape trying to warm Dalayman's hands at the start of Act III to wake her up one more time, which wouldn't register in the house from a seat in the upper balcony. Of course, the best movie house sound in the world is no substitute for hearing the singers and orchestra in the same physical space. It's always a trade-off.
So overall, a long afternoon at the movies, but one well spent. I don't know if I'll be inspired to see a truly live production of Parsifal at some point, especially as I would have to travel to do so (it can never be done locally), but who knows. With that, as this is another mash-up diary, you can either:
(a) chit-chat about the opera, or
(b) observe the usual SNLC protocol.
Or you can do both, as always. We're not proud here :) .
PS: If you have a lot of time on your hands and can read German, not to mention being willing to deal with a lack of English subtitles, then....
Act I, from Bayreuth (2012):
Act II, from Bayreuth (2012):
Act III, from Bayreuth (2012):
Or if you can deal with Dutch subtitles:
Act I, from the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam (2010):
Act II, from the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam (2010):
Act III, from the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam (2010):