NEW YORK (AP) — 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 Friday night. 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.