François Girard’s New Production of Wagner’s Parsifal at the Met
Richard Wagner, libretto and music
Production – François Girard
Set Designer – Michael Levine
Costume Designer – Thibault Vancraenenbroeck
Lighting Designer – David Finn
Video Designer – Peter Flaherty
Choreographer – Carolyn Choa
Dramaturg – Serge Lamothe
Kundry – Katarina Dalayman
Parsifal – Jonas Kaufmann
Amfortas – Peter Mattei
Klingsor – Evgeny Nikitin
Gurnemanz – René Pape
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Conductor, Daniele Gatti
If we lived in a redeemed world, Francois Girard’s production of Parsifal at the Met would make history the way that Max Reinhardt’s Everyman did when it flabbergasted—and terrified—audiences at the Salzburg Festival in 1920. Parsifal is a kind of Everyman, and both are summoned to a reckoning by Death. But instead of being condemned by his sins, Parsifal is saved by his innocence. Despite the rather desiccated debate over whether Wagner’s Parsifal is actually Christian, this production succeeds because it takes us through terror, not to pity as Aristotle demanded of tragedy, but to illumination.
On the face of it, Wagner’s telling of how the Grail Knights lost the spear that pierced Christ’s side and called upon a holy fool to fetch it back again, shouldn’t be as potent as it remains. Carl Jung, T.S. Eliot, and James Joyce toiled to mythologize the modern world; a cocktail party wasn’t just a cocktail party when the shade of Euripides lurked in the corner. If, as Joseph Campbell insisted, a man on the street corner waiting for the light to change could be on a mythic quest, then a customer in the archery department at Eddie Bauer’s might be a Parsifal questing after the Holy Spear. But I doubt it.
Archetypes have become a watery yet pretentious model for the unconscious, and happily, Girard stirs our conscious minds, and our conscience at the same time. He has set the Grail Knights, not in the castle of Monsalvat created by medieval imagination but in a post-Beckett landscape of gray desolation (the Knights in slacks and white shirts sit on folding chairs, yet they are only a stumble away from poking their heads out of trash cans, as in Beckett’s Endgame). Even the usual spring greenery of Good Friday in Act III has been scoured to lunar bleakness (mistakenly described by several critics as post-apocalyptic, which is explicitly not what Girard meant—this isn’t nuclear winter. It’s spiritual bereavement). The earth is cracked down the middle as if by an open sore; the brown channel runs with a trickle of water (the hope of redemption) and later with blood (the sacrifice redemption requires).
In the Met’s splendid production that preceded this one, no effort was spared to picture forth Wagner’s stage imagery as literally as possible. This caused gasps when the Holy Spear, flung at Parsifal by the evil wizard Klingsor, stopped in mid air over his head, at which point the walls of Klingsor’s castle collapsed to dust, and the surrounding landscape was filled with thousands of flowers. But gasps turned to giggles as Jessye Norman’s Kundry swept through the meadow and the flowers boinged on their wire stems like bobble-head puppets.
Girard employed the Met’s vast stage machinery very differently. The most spectacular effect was the dripping blood—1,600 gallons of it, as reported in the press—that flowed down the cliffs of Klingsor’s domain and collected ankle deep around the Flower Maidens, staining their white shifts with gore. The most meaningful stage effect, once Christian miracles were banished, consisted of back projections that mapped out a cloud atlas of brooding weather (from blood-red skies to towering cumulus), and then went cosmic with rising moons, unknown worlds, and symbolic penumbras (intergalactic haloes?) to signify God’s grace. The overall effect was a post-modernist Gesamtkunstwerk that went Wagner one better—Girard not only united all the arts but made the scenery an active player.
Art can’t be all in the clouds, however, and this was undoubtedly the most fleshly Parsifal anyone has seen, thanks to an often shirtless Jonas Kaufmann in the lead role, who at 43 puts some gym rats to shame with his almost youthful torso. The Flower Maidens, usually the least seductive of women, were all replicants from the perfect body factory, with slim figures, straight hair reaching to their waists (the prototype must have been a Wellesley undergraduate circa 1965), and most amazing, real voices. This was a cosmetically satisfying cast in every respect—fit, modern-looking citizens out of Barney’s show window who simultaneously had world-class singing talent.
Kaufmann is the cynosure of every eye at the moment (intellectuals, opera queens, music lovers, and celebrity journalists will have to share oxygen in the green room, although the tribes do overlap), and in this production he made history as the most dramatically credible of Parsifals—vulnerable, bewildered, desolate, and triumphant as the tale evolved – whose voice encompassed the entire role, technically more secure, in fact, than notable postwar predecessors like Wolfgang Windgassen, Jess Thomas, and Siegfried Jerusalem. Kaufmann dared to sing softly and with nuance, showing remarkable confidence that he could hold a rapt audience without having to prove that he could drown out a fire engine. He waited to fill the hall with his voice until Parsifal brought salvation at the very end, and the wait made that moment thrilling.
Fully up to his level of artistry was the Amfortas of Peter Mattei, a king who entered not on a litter but as a crippled invalid supported on the shoulders of two knights (the small effect of having his unhealed wound stain their shirts with blood was quite touching). Mattei kept you interested in Amfortas’s guilty suffering; it never became a monotonous plaint. Just below him and Kaufmann was the excellent Rene Pape as Gurnemanz, for once a robust figure nowhere near his dotage—by Act III he has some gray hairs, but so does the exhausted Parsifal wandering back from his trials. Pape’s splendid, seamless bass-baritone reached everywhere, but a certain reticence kept Gurnemanz’s inner travail muted. As Kundry, a role that splits the difference between mezzo and dramatic soprano, Katarina Dalayman’s voice was ideal, and she was convincing as both of Kundry’s schizophrenic selves, the suffering sinner and the seductress she morphs into under Klingsor’s evil powers.
The Met chorus, always consummate professionals, revealed a side I’d never seen, as actors. Girard’s blocking for the Grail Knights was complex and psychologically subtle. Watching the faces and bodies of the chorus men, I admired how moving they could be—and how moved they no doubt were. This was transformative theater that couldn’t help but affect the players. In the pit Daniele Gatti led a remarkably slow reading of the orchestral score—and I thought James Levine was the tortoise . He was much praised for the beautiful sounds he created and for flawless execution. All true, but the Good Friday Spell was almost shapeless at such a glacial pace, and Girard has thought up so much stage business during the final scene, when the Grail ceremony is enacted by Parsifal, that Gatti was forced (I am guessing) to reduce the music to a crawl.
I’ve placed a break here because I want to talk about the meaning of Parsifal, and for some readers the meaning is either bunkum (Nietzsche jeered at Wagner “sobbing at the foot of the Cross”) or outrageous. For the sake of their blood pressure, the hostile can stop reading and retreat to High Mass or Sunday football, wherever they happen to worship.
Wagner presents the conundrum of an artist who changed Western civilization and betrayed it at the same time. His anti-Semitism is unforgivable, and for today’s German stage directors (who dominate opera in its Regietheater phase, where “the show” is all-important), artistic purity means that Wagner is to be derided, discredited, and updated in an attempt to squash his moral pretensions. Having no right even to consider himself moral, who is Wagner to teach us anything about God?
In the well-known lore of Parsifal, Wagner conceived of the work as a religious ritual to be held only at Bayreuth, and his wishes were honored—not to mention copyright-protected—for two decades after the premiere in 1882. America wasn’t under European copyright law, however, which allowed the Met to poach on Parsifal in 1903. It was no longer literally necessary to make a pilgrimage to the shrine, but Parsifal was treated as a religious artifact for half a century, until Wieland Wagner devised a postwar Bayreuth production devoid of elaborate scenery and props, making of Parsifal a symbolic ritual as cleansed of the smell of Hitler and anti-Semitism as possible. He took the whole opera into the light.
But detailing the Lexus before you take it for a drive doesn’t tell you where you’re headed. The purified spiritual atmosphere of Wieland Wagner’s Parsifal was motoring to the same destination of Christian redemption. This didn’t suit an age where “God Is Dead” was old news. The current Bayreuth production (which can be seen in its entirety on YouTube) introduces in dumb show a child Parsifal, the illegitimate offspring of Kundry and Amfortas, running around the stage either in a sailor suit or tighty whities, taking a bath, and prefiguring his adult self, who enters in the same sailor suit with short pants. The other characters are Victorians, liberally sprinkled with pointless symbols. Gurnemanz sports black angel’s wings.1
If the new Met production were reduced to painted flats and a cast that spent more time at Sunday dinner than on a Stairmaster, Girard would still have scored a triumph, because he threw out tradition and the foolishness of Regietheater as traveling circus from Hell. He has seen to the truth of Parsifal, which is about spiritual desolation, a universal theme rather than just a Christian one.
Dressing the cast as our contemporaries was appropriate, and the gestures of religiosity that remained were humble. I’m thinking of how the Grail Knights, standing behind a scrim during the Act I Prelude, slowly divest themselves of suit coats, shoes, and socks until they have become barefoot penitents, evoking Franciscan friars rather than sacred warriors. There is still a golden goblet for the Grail, the vessel that gathered Christ’s blood at the foot of the Cross, another creation of the medieval imagination. It is kept in a lockbox. Otherwise the holy relics are minimal, with the Spear reduced to a long, gleaming stainless steel shaft. The Flower Maidens dance around identical spears (which for an instant look like stripper poles), and to replace the stage direction where Klingsor hurls the Spear at Parsifal to kill him, he and the maidens rush Parsifal with a thicket of spears. Holding up his hand, the youth stops them in their tracks. They freeze, and Parsifal calmly seizes the one true Spear from Klingsor’s hand, at which point the wizard and his minions fall dead to the ground.
If I sat close to tears during most of the performance, it doesn’t promise that I can give the reader an IV transfusion of transcendence. But some inkling might be gained by touching upon how Girard treats women in the opera. “God Likes Girls” could have been the headline sent out by news agencies. In Wagner’s original there is only a woman, not women (the Flower Maidens are a magician’s wraiths), and she is punished relentlessly, to the point of misogyny. Girard populates the stage with as many women as men, and although they don’t sing but only stand in the background wearing widow’s weeds, a rush of air enters this world, puncturing the sterility of a male-only priesthood. Even more radically, in the final scene it is Kundry who holds the Grail aloft as Parsifal dips the Spear in blood. The women throw off their mourning and join the men, forming a community in the light of grace.
I didn’t take this as feminist revisionism but a bold stroke to elucidate Parsifal’s meaning for us. The images of a despoiled landscape being saved didn’t carry overtones of eco-kitsch, either. By the end, water flows down the crack in the stage. Salvation is not yet complete. There are no flowers, and the skies, which were emblazoned with a shaft of white light when Parsifal revealed the Holy Spear to Gurnemanz, end as a lowering blanket of gray clouds penetrated here and there with gold. Who knows if the Met’s patrons felt transformed? They were well-off New Yorkers putting on their coats and discussing whether Boulud Sud was still open across the street.
But Girard wanted us to be transformed. However horribly Wagner betrayed history, history has had its revenge, and then some. It’s time to see if his vision of holy art, voiced by Hans Sachs at the climax of Die Meistersinger and ritualized in the slow-motion of epiphany of Parsifal, can be sparked to life. If so, then this new production was more than a revival of Wagner’s most moving creation. It’s the revival of a heartbeat that has been weakened to a thready pulse.