At the Metropolitan Opera last night, the conductor entered the pit, the audience applauded heartily, and the conductor gave the downbeat.
Ordinarily, this would be unremarkable, but the opera was Wagner’s Parsifal, and in some productions the conductor is not seen to enter the pit. He suddenly appears, in a spotlight, beginning the music—this sublime music.
The Met’s current production of Parsifal is by François Girard, a Canadian director. It premiered in 2013. I reviewed it then and will not comment on it now. But I must say, I remain baffled by it, as I believe Wagner would be.
The conductor last night was another French Canadian, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, whose appearances at the Met take on outsize importance, for he will assume the music directorship in 2020, and people want to know, “What are we getting?”
Last night, Nézet-Séguin was unquestionably professional. But there must be more, of course, in this post.
As Act I unfolded, I was too often aware of the conducting. I never entered “Wagner time,” a plane apart from the everyday. The music seemed managed, from phrase to phrase. It was placed, like silverware on a table. There is a Wagner “flow” that was unachieved.
There was also too much imprecision in the orchestra: poor entrances, especially. The playing was marred by flabbiness and mushiness.
Moreover, there was an absence of heft, or solidity, when that quality is called for.
The Procession of the Knights ought to be spellbinding—hypnotic. Wagner infuses that music with some kind of drug. Last night, the drug did not take, in my opinion, in part because of a mushy pulse.
Individually, orchestra members played superbly. I could start listing the first-chair standouts, but I’m afraid I would list the entire roster (with special honors to the woodwinds).
Parsifal is, in part, a festival of low voices, and that begins with the bass in the role of Gurnemanz. The Met had the Gurnemanz of our time—and the Wagner bass of our time, and the Germanic bass of our time—René Pape. He has maybe less voice than before, but it is still Pape. He sang with his usual fine diction. And much of his singing was songful, and appropriately so. Unfortunately, the orchestra occasionally covered him up.
Amfortas was Peter Mattei, the Swedish baritone. A low voice, yes—but Mattei’s was never more beautiful than when going up high. He sang with extraordinary beauty. Also with emotion that was sometimes hard to bear. Seldom has the suffering of Amfortas been clearer.
In Act II, Maestro Nézet-Séguin was very good. The conducting had blood in it, as the music does, and as this production does. There is not much ethereality in Act II. The music is relatively straightforward (although requiring the right propulsion).
Singing the title role, Parsifal, was Klaus Florian Vogt, the German tenor. He had an excellent night, singing with Parsifal-like youthfulness. I might have liked a touch more sound, but that would have been a bonus. Definitely a bonus was his hair: opera hair, or Fabio hair.
(Here, as you may know, I refer to Fabio Lanzoni, the long-tressed model of the 1980s and ’90s who graced any number of romance-novel covers.)
Making a late Met debut was Evelyn Herlitzius, a German soprano in her mid-fifties. She sang the role of Kundry, and sang her very effectively. She was a bit tremulous of voice, but she was accurate of pitch. She reflected the terrible torment of Kundry. When she seduced, she really seduced. Her soft singing was beguiling. Less fortunately, she screeched up top—but she was still a Kundry to remember.
She was wily, and so was Evgeny Nikitin, the Russian bass-baritone singing Klingsor. A veteran, he has this diabolical role under his skin, and the voice and technique are dependable.
Last night, it occurred to me that, in the Six Flower Maidens of Parsifal, you can hear “the stars of tomorrow.” You can also hear them in the Five Serving Maids of Elektra. And in the Three Ladies of The Magic Flute. And in the Rhine Maidens of The Ring. In any case, the Met’s Flower Maidens were pleasing.
Less pleasing, I’m afraid, was Act III. The music was careful, deliberate, and unmoving, in more than one sense. Rather than spellbinding or transcendental, it was dull, which is not Parsifal. It was also sloppy in the orchestra. And, again, that heft or solidity—which is part of Parsifal, along with horizontality and ethereality—was absent.
Parsifal can go by like a song—like a sonnet. Last night, it never seemed longer, to me.
Maestro Nézet-Séguin has had better nights—many of them—and he will have many more, no doubt.