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Striking new look for ‘Parsifal’ is opera to treasure at NYC Met

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NEW YORK — In Wagner’s “Parsifal,” the leader of the Knights of the Holy Grail suffers from an agonizing wound that will not heal. In Francois Girard’s vision of the opera, this wound afflicts the earth itself, etching a widening crevice that tears society apart and threatens the survival of mankind.

The French-Canadian director’s starkly modern and thought-provoking staging, first seen last year in Lyon, France, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera on the evening of Feb. 15. Though traditionalists may object, this is a “Parsifal” to treasure, elevated to the highest musical level by the solemnity and sweep of Daniele Gatti’s conducting and the dedication of a dream cast of singing actors, headed by tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the title role.

From the opening notes of the prelude, Girard attempts to make the audience see themselves in the events on stage. A mirrored curtain reflects back at us a blurred image of the auditorium where we are sitting. Behind the curtain we soon see the chorus, the men stripping off jackets and shoes and remaining dressed in everyday attire of white shirts and dark pants. Once the curtain rises on Michael Levine’s set, the stage is a desolate, perhaps post-apocalyptic landscape with a narrow river running down the center; the men are seated in a circle of chairs on the right, while the women have been banished to the left.

When the wounded Amfortas is carried in to seek relief by bathing in the river, it turns to blood — a grim reminder that no water can cleanse him of his sin: He once allowed the temptress Kundry to seduce him and, while locked in her embrace, was stabbed with his own spear by the sorcerer Klingsor.

At the end of Act 1, the river widens into a chasm, and Parsifal, the “innocent fool” who will redeem Amfortas, descends into Klingsor’s lair. First he must fend off the Flower Maidens, here imagined as spear-carrying warriors in sleeveless white dresses. Then Kundry attempts to seduce him on a bed whose sheets turn red as Girard floods the stage with 16,000 gallons of fake blood. Parsifal, overcome by compassion for Amfortas’ suffering, resists Kundry, destroys Klingsor and reclaims the holy spear.

Girard’s staging in Act 3 is breathtaking in its simplicity, beginning with Parsifal’s return to the knights. First just the very tip of his spear appears in the background, growing taller as the exhausted hero staggers up a hill. Finally he appears, shrouded in a kind of monk’s habit. Not until later does his reveal his face and the close-cropped, graying hair that has replaced his curly locks. Parsifal heals Amfortas with the spear, and by baptizing the penitent Kundry, he also heals the rift in society. At last the women are able to cross the divide, and Girard underscores the reconciliation by having Parsifal choose Kundry to uncover the Grail.

Integral to the production are the video projections by Peter Flaherty, a constantly shifting array of multicolored shapes that sometimes resemble storm clouds, a moonscape or even contours of the female body.

Kaufmann, more than most Parsifals, looks and acts the part of a callow youth to perfection in the opening scene. Vocally, he rises to the stirring climaxes in Act 2 with his customary thrilling tone, then seems to deliberately hold back in Act 3, giving many of his phrases a hushed, worshipful quality.

To bass Rene Pape falls the longest role in this or just about any opera, the knight Gurnemanz who doubles as narrator and father figure. Pape pours out unstinting rich, velvety sound, but just as important, his is a deeply felt interpretation: His joy at the miracle that has brought Parsifal back and saved the knights brings tears to his eyes — and ours.

As fine as Kaufmann and Pape are, the revelation of the night is baritone Peter Mattei, tackling the role of Amfortas for the first time. When has any singer so powerfully expressed the suffering of this tormented character while producing burnished sounds of such breathtaking beauty? His monologues in the first and final acts are the musical and dramatic highlights of the evening.

As Kundry, soprano Katarina Dalayman rises to the challenge of the seduction scene with a fearless performance, her singing blemished on the opening night performance only by a couple of troublesome high notes. Baritone Evgeny Nikitin blusters his way with suitable menace through the role of Klingsor, and debuting bass Runi Brattaberg makes the most of the brief offstage utterances of Amfortas’ father, Titurel.

Gatti, conducting without a score, is clearly enraptured by the Met orchestra’s ability to spin a glorious web of sound. On opening night, the players returned the compliment, remaining in the pit while he took his bows on stage with the cast and production team. As always at a Met premiere of an adventurous production, there were a few boos for the director, but they were drowned out by cheers.

There were six performances scheduled through March 8, including a live high-definition broadcast to movie theaters around the world on Saturday. Asher Fisch takes over as conductor for the last two performances. Gatti conducts Saturday’s Met Live in HD performance.

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