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Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat

February 17, 2013

Jonas Kaufmann in Act II of ParsifalPhoto: Ken Howard/MetOpera 2013
The Metropolitan Opera continued its campaign to be the world’s preeminent company in the world of retail artistic values this weekend with the opening of another new-to-you production, Wagner’s Parsifal. And as with many imported co-productions new to this New York stage in recent years, it’s far more successful than the homegrown fare the company has produced recently and it is certainly the best “new” production yet this season. That’s not to say it’s a great one – it just stands out a bit in a field of generally weak competition. François Girard’s impressionistic, painterly modern-dress affair, first seen at the Opéra National de Lyon, does tap into the ceremonial aspects of the libretto, making the work bracingly modern at times. And the show is rife with a sometimes obtuse visual symbolism that is intriguing to ponder. But the many striking stage pictures are just as likely to evoke as much high art female anatomy as one generally experiences on a visit to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Yes, we get it. Parsifal has mother issues. Flower maidens dancing in a shallow pool of blood staining their white shift dresses and Pantene-treated hair may look good, but subtle it ain’t. Yet, the stage images are bewitching ones nevertheless. The rolling hills that rise and fall in the giant video projections in Act I are clearly the curves of a human body. The cleft in the rolling meadows of the set bleeds under a subtle change of David Finn’s lighting. Finn deserves special recognition here for perhaps the most striking lighting I’ve seen on a stage in quite a long time. His stage painting often outshines the stunning imagery of Peter Flaherty’s constantly evolving video designs.

Some of my favorite images come from Act I when the Knights of the Grail carry out their ceremony dressed in slacks and white dress shirts. Seated in a double tight circle, the male chorus sways about in an affecting way that reinforces why Parsifal might feel like an outsider. The audience does as well, and for a moment one might feel like they’ve accepted that invitation to an after-work prayer meeting from that awfully nice but to-be-avoided creepy guy at the office. That image might actually be a good analogy for the show as a whole. Despite good, and sometimes lofty intentions, and despite this lovely visual sensibility, the show often stalls out with little warning and some of the principals can be given woefully little to do at key moments. In an opera that is about ritual and the slow passing of time, that can be deadly very quickly and there are many moments here that could be tighter or more fleshed out.

Act I of ParsifalPhoto: Ken Howard/MetOpera 2013
But of course the Met has brought musical resources to bear on this staging that are really without comparison on the contemporary scene. Simply put, Peter Mattei’s Amfortas is perfection. René Pape’s Gurnemanz is better known, but no less captivating. Even Katarina Dalayman, a sometimes bewildering Met favorite as Brünnhilde, gives an engaged if somewhat overwrought Kundry that is solid throughout with no shrill sound or shrieking. And at the center of it all is the show’s star and big ticket seller, Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. He certainly delivers, and his baritonal tenor works better here than say in his much-lauded turns as Lohengrin. But even Kaufmann can't quite seem to execute the challenge of portraying a character who goes from puzzled to pious over the course of five hours. It may be an interesting and true-to-life human experience, but it’s a much harder transition to sell on stage than say falling in love or plotting murderous vengeance. Kaufmann’s Parsifal, despite his nuanced, energetic, and warm vocal performance, is just as likely to be removed and aloof until the final scene. He does spend a good half-hour or more of the show shirtless, however, so the production is bound to please a significant portion of the opera audience I’d wager regardless.

The Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus were on fire, by the way. They sounded better tonight than they have perhaps all season and Daniele Gatti delivered a dynamic, polished and nuanced interpretation of the score that wont help jog anyone’s mind about the announced return of Music Director James Levine to the company next season. Gatti can be brutally forceful in some contexts, but not here. The feel of ritual and the promise of salvation were in every note of this performance. That really is reason enough to see the show with an unsurpassed vocal cast. And the Met’s new Parsifal is awfully easy on the eyes, even if it isn’t necessarily going to convince you to see the light.



I saw the Monday night performance. I found the whole thing unrelentingly grim...would it kill them to let a little sunshine break through? A blade of grass? Something?? The 2nd Act I thought was brilliant, though, especially Kaufmann's transformation from callow youth to fledgling Messiah/Buddha. Very captivating.
I thought the music making pretty uninsightful. Rene Pape has a tremendous voice, but so little interpretive flair he left me flat. And the playing from the orchestra was gorgeous but so drawn out & ponderous, I could barely follow. The Amfortas killed it though. He was utterly amazing.
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