Strong supporting cast, conducting, illuminate Met’s “Parsifal”

Tue Feb 06, 2018 at 1:10 pm
Evelyn Herlitzius as Kundry and Klaus Florian Vogt in the title role of Wagner's "Parsifal" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Evelyn Herlitzius as Kundry and Klaus Florian Vogt in the title role of Wagner’s “Parsifal” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

On the Metropolitan Opera’s calendar, it’s usually the new productions that get all the attention. The revival of Wagner’s Parsifal Monday night was easily one of the most anticipated events in the company’s current season, with its talented maestro-to-be leading an excellent cast and a world-beating orchestra and chorus in an epic masterpiece.

Wagner’s valedictory masterwork is a challenging riddle, a deeply spiritual work with an unlikely hero. The 2013 production by François Girard drives right to the essence of the piece, leaving aside the specificities of the scenario and highlighting the mythic and symbolic elements at its core. With the Knights of the Grail trekking about a barren wasteland in their ratty blazers, tending their pitiful, trickling “holy spring,” Girard’s staging looks for the faintest hope in vast desolation. The images that he creates are not as lavish as some other Met productions, but they’re striking all the same: the crevice that opens up in the stage at the end of Act I isn’t an elevator trick, exactly, but it’s just as good, giving us a glimpse of Klingsor’s castle, stunningly realized as a lake of blood at the bottom of the chasm.

Parsifal features a number of meaty roles, but even so you wouldn’t normally think of it as an ensemble piece–at least not to the degree it felt like in this season premiere. Klaus Florian Vogt felt like something of an afterthought in the title role—his light tenor was consistent enough and was comfortable in the music, but there isn’t much color in his voice. His demeanor on stage, at least for the first two acts, took the idea of Parsifal’s foolish innocence to an unfortunate extreme, to the point that he seemed constantly lost, having wandered into the realm of the knights, then to Klingsor’s palace, and back again entirely by accident.

Soprano Evelyn Herlitzius made an overdue company debut as Kundry, the servant of Klingsor and attempted seductress of Parsifal who later finds redemption. Hers was a captivating performance, even if she did not show the vocal ease of her colleagues: much of the role sits low in her range, where she possesses less raw power. Still, there was a fine, dark smoke to her sound, and it was the dramatic weight of her interpretation that stood out. Her commitment to the role was a thrill to watch, especially in the second act, where the otherworldly calm of her seduction gave way to frenzy as her base desires warred with her pure aspirations for control of her soul.

The rest of this revival’s cast largely keeps together the all-star lineup that debuted the production five years ago. In particular, it is a gift to have Peter Mattei’s Amfortas on stage again. Inspired whether he’s in Wagner, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, or even Rossini, the Swedish baritone is among the most remarkably versatile artists on the Met’s roster, and Amfortas may well be his best role. The part shows off all the best qualities of his voice, from the clear, golden ring of his upper register, to the woolen textures that he can bring in for dramatic purpose. With impassioned singing and aching phrases, he was grief itself, bringing the sorrow of his Act I monologue to life in multiple dimensions: despairing, weary, burdened, and yet clinging to his sacred duty.

René Pape remains an ideal Gurnemanz, his bass-baritone full-bodied, subtly colored, richly resonant. His unshakably stoic bearing in Act I warranted a little concern that this might be a wooden performance, but it served to set up his transformation in Act III, where his stony face broke into crushing despair.

Evgeny Nikitin’s hard-edged, taut sound wouldn’t be right for every role. For Klingsor, however, it’s perfect, offering raw energy and little warmth, for a manic take on the evil necromancer. As the two Knights of the Grail Richard Bernstein showed off a sumptuous bass-baritone and Mark Schowalter offered a reliable if somewhat pinched tenor.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin led an acclaimed Flying Dutchman at the end of last season, but Parsifal (or any mature Wagner, for that matter) is a different animal. In what might be called his first “grown-up” Wagner assignment, he excelled especially at creating colors and textures—silks, warm blankets, blaring blasts. There were pacing concerns here and there—an especially slow tempo made the prelude drag in the early going, but thereafter he kept the orchestra and chorus at a gripping level of intensity all night, opening the second act with rushing energy and hammering the sharp dissonances of the third.

If this is a preview of what Nézet-Séguin’s directorship at the Met will look like, audiences should be thrilled: he has both the maturity and the energy to lead a wide variety of repertoire, and a chance to be the strong presence that the company has lacked since the waning years of the Levine era.

Parsifal runs through February 27 at the Metropolitan Opera. John Keenan conducts on February 23.

3 Responses to “Strong supporting cast, conducting, illuminate Met’s “Parsifal””

  1. Posted Feb 17, 2018 at 7:43 pm by Richard Riley

    I just saw Patsifal on Saturday February 17 and what an experience of watching singers and conductor just going thru the motions. Do the singers and conductor actually think that because its the Met Opera than they dont have to showup?
    However on the bright side, I think the cast and conductor have found a cure for insomnia and should by all means cut the cd of Saturday’s performance in order to balance the books of the Met Opera, you will make a fortune.

  2. Posted Feb 19, 2018 at 3:02 pm by Theodor Leithmann

    As it was a live performance, criticisms must be qualified. Klaus Florian Vogt’s Parsifal sounded a bit light, but that is a matter of personal taste. His vocal characterization: excellent! Mme. Herlitzius’ Kundry sounded a bit dry, but dramatically convincing. Peter Mattei — thoroughly excellent! He sounded tormented, but in a vocally sound and appropriately dramatic way.

    Mr. Nikitin’s Klingsor brought back memories of Gustav Neidlinger’s menacing vocal characterization. Rene Pape’s Gurnemanz had moments of tender, even beautiful, characterization, but the echoes of Frick & Weber still linger in a role that can either be insufferably boring or deeply heartfelt & memorable.

    Yannick Nezet-Seguin’s conducting was capable, but not inspired. Just shows how hard a challenge it is to make a live performance of Parsifal compelling. Knappertsbusch had the magic many other more celebrated conductors lack. He doesn’t seem to be doing anything and winds up doing everything– thinking particularly of the 1951 Bayreuth recording, an unfair yardstick by which to measure Saturday’s MET performance. In sum, Parsifal (like Pelleas) can be either insufferably boring or unforgettably gripping. Not an opera for those with weak bladders.

  3. Posted Feb 20, 2018 at 2:36 pm by Richard Riley

    Blah, blah, blah
    Another apoligist who drops names as if we are meant to grovel at the feet of those in the know and sophomoric mention of the anatomy which is all beside the point. When you fork over $400 + than your allowed to expect your moneys worth and regardless of your operatic experience . This protracted opera is considered by many to be a once in a lifetime CATHARTIC experience unlike any other but Saturdays performance on the WHOLE left much to be desired.

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