‘Parsifal’ and ‘Don Carlo’ – A Celebratory Feast of Wagner and Verdi for the Ravenous Opera Fan (Conclusion)

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Jonas Kaufmann & Flower Maidens (Ken Howard / Met Opera)
Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal & Flower Maidens (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Politics and Religion Don’t Mix – Except at the Opera

As far as genuine religious conviction was concerned, though, Verdi limited his brand of Catholicism strictly to his music. An admitted agnostic, as well as a confirmed humanist on the home front, he had strong reservations about organized religion, having withstood a torrent of abuse from clerics and laypeople alike for his personal lifestyle, specifically his “living in sin” (an affair of the heart, no less) with former prima donna Giuseppina Strepponi, who late in the composer’s life became the second Mrs. Verdi.

Indeed, there were many instances in the Italian master’s work – for example, in I Lombardi, Attila, La Forza del Destino, and the aforementioned Don Carlo, along with Otello and the Requiem Mass – where his grasp of religious ritual is clearly in line with accepted practice. Beyond that, Verdi gave religion and the church a wide berth; rather, he put his faith in opera as his principal means of expression – that is, how he felt about the human condition as it related to his characters. For that, he turned to his literary “gods,” Schiller, Hugo, and Shakespeare, for inspiration.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, his compositional counterpart Wagner was as fanatical about religion and politics as any erstwhile nineteenth-century revolutionary could be. One can easily make a case for his works as espousing the concept of salvation through love via the sacrifice of a so-called “good woman” (an extraordinarily sexist term, I know, but that’s how things were back in the day).

Look no further than Senta in The Flying Dutchman, Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, Elsa in Lohengrin, and especially Brünnhilde in Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung for evidence in support of this theory, where the basic motivation for these characters is the redemption of the male protagonist by a self-sacrificing female of the species. In as much as Wagner probably saw himself as the person most needing redemption, he likely cast his “role models” from life (i.e., Minna Planer, Mathilde Wesendonck, Cosima Liszt, among others) as his opposite number. What a modern-day shrink wouldn’t give to have analyzed this Leipzig-born maestro’s mind-set!

Richard Wagner (www.npr.org)
Richard Wagner (www.npr.org)

Still, Wagner managed to stay ahead of the game with his next project. Having devoured the treatises of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, along with the philosophical teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism, medieval poetry and epistemology, as well as early Christian doctrine, Wagner was ready to tackle what would become his most complex form of self-expression: the three-act “stage consecrating festival play” Parsifal (he refused to denigrate the work by calling it a mere “opera”). Overlooking this verbal sleight-of-hand for the moment, Parsifal, which premiered at Bayreuth in 1882, belongs to the same category of music drama as Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Berg’s Wozzeck, and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron – in other words, a work that defies description, belonging to no specific time or place.

Musically, there is nothing like it in the repertoire, nor is there much resemblance to Wagner’s previous output either, although hints of it are present in Tristan und Isolde and Götterdämmerung, as well as Parsifal’s predecessor, Lohengrin (Parsifal is Lohengrin’s father, after all) and its tremulous prelude. The score is comprised of lengthy stretches of chromatic passages, sophisticated harmonics and melodic translucency, with the various choruses (mostly male and boys’ choirs in Acts I and III, followed by the women’s chorus in the central section of Act II) divided into specific groupings in the intricate manner of a Bach chorale. There are also long, stately sections of expository singing (Gurnemanz, Amfortas) and, in Scene ii of both the first and third acts, reverberating bells that sound eerily like those of London’s Big Ben – so marvelously atmospheric!

The Pure Fool, Made Wise Thru Compassion     

To say that listening to Parsifal is a transcendent experience oversimplifies the situation, and insults the intelligence of the creative mind that composed it. There are many irreconcilable issues related to the finished product, however, one of them being the realization that such an overwhelmingly moving work could have been written by so contemptible an individual as Wagner. In this, we must separate the man from his music, with Parsifal becoming the German master’s final word on the subject of salvation, this time by means of a pure fool (the title character) made wise through compassion (“Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor”) – that is, compassion for another individual (Amfortas).

Another problem is the allegedly spiritual nature of the piece. Not to knock Wagner the dramatist when he’s down, but unlike Verdi he did go slightly overboard on the religious inferences, not only in his depiction of the Grail from the Last Supper and the Spear that pierced the crucified Christ’s side, but in his Act I reenactment of the rite of Holy Communion. Mind you, none of this should be taken at all literally, it’s just theater. However, there are many audience members out there who feel a certain “compulsion,” if that’s the right term, not to applaud after Act I. For that, and for a host of other reasons, the opera was initially restricted to the margins of Bayreuth (as per Wagner’s wishes); but through some questionable maneuvering and self-serving machinations, described in detail in the March issue of Opera News, the Metropolitan, in 1903, became the first theater outside Germany to stage the groundbreaking work.

Knights of the Grail (www.npr.org)
Knights of the Grail (www.npr.org)

Holding true to its tradition of presenting Parsifal in the best possible light, the Met recently unveiled a new production by French director François Girard, with sets by Michael Levine, costumes by Thibault Vancraenenbroeck, lighting by David Flinn, and the all-important choreography by Carolyn Choa. How the French love their Wagner! They always try to do right by him, as witness Patrice Chéreau’s 1976 centennial Ring cycle at the Bayreuth Festival, or the Met’s own 45-ton Ring production, directed by French-Canadian Robert Lepage and Company.

The concept, heavy on symbolism and in modern dress, mixes concerns for the wounded environment – essentially, a gigantic representation of Amfortas’ open sore – with the coming together of the Grail Knights and the dispossessed female members of the community, previously divided by physical and/or psychological barriers, with a river of water and blood serving as the dividing line. It was greeted with critical kudos for the thought behind the process, as well as the brilliance of its execution.

On the occasion of the radio broadcast of March 2, listeners were privileged to hear a truly first-rate performance of this challenging piece. The well-schooled cast was headed by charismatic tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal, bass-baritone René Pape as Gurnemanz, soprano Katarina Dalayman as Kundry, baritone Peter Mattei as Amfortas, bass Evgeny Nikitin as Klingsor, and bass Rúni Brattaberg as the offstage voice of Titurel. Conducted from memory by Italian maestro Daniele Gatti, this Wagnerian dream team fulfilled all our expectations – and then some.

Parsifal: End of Act II (Ken Howard / Met Opera)
Parsifal: End of Act II (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

From the first note to the last, it was obvious that Signor Gatti had thoroughly studied and dissected this massive score (he had previously conducted it, at Bayreuth, in 2009). Though not as leisurely paced as James Levine’s somewhat weighty approach to it, Gatti nonetheless led a superb Met Opera Orchestra, one of the world’s finest ensembles, in a sublime reading that can be favorably compared with those of such past Parsifal proponents as Arturo Toscanini, Erich Kleiber and Pierre Boulez. For the most part, tempos were unhurried but never prosaic, lyrically judged yet sinisterly shaded when needed to be; nor did they lack for drama. In addition, the opening of Act II – the more “action oriented” of the three – quickened the pulse, as Gatti spurred the orchestra on to a most satisfying conclusion, in the best conducted broadcast of the season. Bravo, maestro!

Much like Russian diva Anna Netrebko, the darkly attractive Jonas Kaufmann is the Met’s hottest box-office draw at the moment. At this point in his career, Kaufmann can do no wrong. It’s not every day that a singer of his qualities, who can manage the stylistic anomalies of Florestan in Fidelio, Faust in Gounod’s opera, and Siegmund in Die Walküre, is equally at home performing Massenet’s Werther, Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, and Don José in Bizet’s Carmen. This certainly smacks of a new Golden Age at the Met – and elsewhere, for that matter.

Sounding incredibly like Jon Vickers, but without that tenor’s annoying mannerisms, the baritonal aspects of Kaufmann’s voice were brought out, in particular during the Act II seduction scene, where the searing intensity of his cry, “Amfortas! Die Wunde!” was keenly felt. After Kundry’s passionate kiss, Parsifal comes to understand the full measure of Amfortas’ pain and suffering. No longer the pure fool, the tenor’s interpolation of this scene became pure heaven. By Act III, his Parsifal had achieved his humanity, enough to relieve Amfortas of his burdens. This Kaufmann expressed softly, gently, and with the greatest of care: “Enthüllet den Gral. Öffnet den Schrein!” (“Uncover the Grail. Open the shrine!”) A splendid performance!

As Gurnemanz, René Pape was a hugely empathetic wall of solid bass sound. In the wrong hands, this role (one of Wagner’s longest) can quickly unravel and turn into a crashing bore. Not so with Pape. His major contribution was imbuing the old retainer with an enormous amount of understanding, his gorgeously rounded tones filling the Met auditorium easily and abundantly (I can’t wait to hear his Wotan). He was greeted with a rousing ovation, as were all the cast members.

Katarina Dalayman & Jonas Kaufmann in Act II (Ken Howard / Met Opera)
Katarina Dalayman & Jonas Kaufmann in Act II (Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Katarina Dalayman, as the principal female lead among so many males, stood out primarily for her acting ability. All throughout the outer acts, Kundry hardly speaks in full sentences; her phrases are choppy and dished out in short spurts. But in Act II, Dalayman finally came into her own by going at full tilt, including an ear-splitting two-octave leap at the line, “Lachte!” The best sung and best enunciated performance of the day, however, was Peter Mattei’s tortured Amfortas. Beautifully acted despite his infirmities, this Amfortas gleamed brightly, even at his most perturbed. As the evil Klingsor, Russian basso Evgeny Nikitin spat his words out with equal dollops of venom and bile. His magician was evil incarnate, bathed in the river’s blood and bald as a newborn babe. His was a fascinating portrayal of this self-mutilated lost soul; one almost hated to see him vanquished.

I’ve saved the best for last. The Met Chorus outdid itself in one of its most impeccable showings. The chorus members were magnificent in their many guises as knights, pages, esquires, Flower Maidens (each of them bearing a spear and with straight jet-black hair over their eyes), boys’ choir, you name it. The highpoint was their final plea to Amfortas, imploring him to uncover the Grail for the last time (“Zum letzen Mal!”). They, too, were warmly greeted at the end.

So, to wrap things up, Verdi’s Don Carlo was conducted in sluggish fashion, while Wagner’s Parsifal was given a lighter than usual touch.

Uh, shouldn’t that be the other way around? Just asking…

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

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