Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Jungian Parsifal; Review of the Met Live in HD Production

François Girard’s production of Parsifal, seen yesterday Live-in-HD, was impressive. The production, along with a musically insightful cast and with fascinating conducting by Daniele Gatti, brought clarity of process to the work that allowed its musical webwork to emerge undisturbed.

The set for the first and third acts was divided by a shallow stream that separated two hemispheres that never mixed; one in which the male chorus, in white dress shirts, congregated to meditate. They were organized in patterns, most often circular, but also triangular and moved in highly synchronized gestures that spoke the language of ecstatic ritual.

Surprisingly there was also a silent female chorus who stood almost motionless, dressed in black, forming no patterns, positioned on the opposite divide of this brain-like set. Kundry emerged from and remained on this hemisphere throughout the act.

It was wonderful Jungian imagery of the Anima and Animus. The logical and articulate represented by René Pape as Gurnemanz and by Peter Mattei’s compelling portrayal of Amfortas. Kundry emerged from the non-patterned side and expressed a dream-world that assumed a clarified kind of strangeness in relation to the male side of the stage.

Jonas Kaufmann’s Parsifal was a study in the meditative process. He was dressed in black but walked among those on the articulate side. The dead swan was brought in from deep within the dark hemisphere but was brought the very edge of the divide. Pape reached across to touch the swan as he taught Parsifal why it was wrong to kill this innocent creature.

The Act II set was set in a blood pool several inches deep. It was both fascinating and disturbing; as the Act II set should be. “There is about 1200 gallons of blood onstage,” explained the Met’s Technical Director John Sellars, “it is water, food grade glycerin, and red food coloring.” He said that there were heating pads that radiate heat up through the liquid, which it put into the pool at a 105 degree temperature. Getting this liquid on and off stage was an amazing technical achievement, part of which we were able to view from the cinema during the intermission.

The Act III set was set in a place that seemed like T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land; it was an apocalyptical version of the set from Act I. There were no longer any patterns. The mute Kundry crossed over to the articulate side of the stage as she was baptized and Parsifal crossed to the inarticulate side during the Good Friday Music.

Katarina Delayman was able to fuse the demanding acting load required of Kundry with the laser-sharp pitch flexibility for which the part is infamous. Kaufmann was riveting as Parsifal. His ability to shape vocal colors at the extremities of volume and range was perfect for this role. And Kaufmann can act. I was particularly impressed by Pape: Gurnemanz is a character that does not often come quickly to mind when you think of this opera, and yet his music dominates the narrative. Pape brought a magisterial quality and attitude to the role and contributed with each gesture and glance; all of which we saw with the help of the HD cameras.

This production concept worked. It allowed a complex and slowly unfolding dreamscape to speak without distraction. The performance was filmed beautifully, the camera angles never distracting and often at the perfect place to balance close expression with larger stage context. Even the subtitles were well done, often worded to transmit the Schopenhauerian influences in the original German. The only disappointment was that the sound of the off-stage choirs at the end of Act I just sounded distant; there was no movement from the changes in elevation of that sound up and down as it happens when you hear the work live. These subtleties are among those that cannot yet translate into the cinema.

It takes years to properly learn the score to Parsifal. I learned it from a piano/vocal score and listened to it on LP. It was an advantage in a way, because so many productions distract from the central core of the music. This production and its performance clarified that central core and honored the music.

The curtain opened to a memorable scene. During the brass interlude of the opening prelude the stage was filled with characters staring curiously back at us in the audience, seen through a hazy dark screen. They seemed to generalize the audience for this music—the living audience, but also somehow the 130 years of historical audiences. In one sense it represented those on stage joining us in continuing to learn this work. In another sense we joined the tradition; joined its own sense of communion symbolized in part within the music.

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