Wagner’s Tale of Fools and Blood

Posted February 6, 2018 6:47 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — On Monday, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Metropolitan Opera’s music director designate, conducted a magnificent performance of Wagner’s “Parsifal.” This demonstration of his artistry and his ability to inspire the best from the company’s orchestra and chorus was a good sign of things to come.

It was also frustrating. Not until 2020, three seasons from now, will Nézet-Séguin become the music director full time. This seven-performance run of “Parsifal,” which ends Feb. 27, and six performances of Strauss’ “Elektra” next month are his only engagements this season.

This teaser comes just as the company is in dire need of musical leadership. James Levine had already been mostly sidelined when he was suspended as music director emeritus in December over allegations of sexual harassment. The Met official in charge of artistic administration, Robert Rattray, died suddenly a little over a week ago.

Are all artistic matters now entirely in the hands of the general manager, Peter Gelb? This has long been the way Gelb conceived his role. But even regarding musical matters, how much input can Nézet-Séguin, whose substantial workload includes directorship of the Philadelphia Orchestra, be having?

These questions hovered over Monday’s revival of François Girard’s bleakly poignant 2013 production, even as Nézet-Séguin brought his own strong take to this profound, challenging and very long score. (With two lengthy intermissions, the performance lasted nearly six hours.)

During the first sighing unison phrase of the prelude, the strings played with hushed yet penetrating tone, rising with a touch of hesitation and slowly swelling in sound and radiance, until the upper strings crested into delicate, lacy arpeggios. Nézet-Séguin took a daringly restrained tempo here. The prelude — and whole episodes of the opera proper — invite the listener into a spiritual realm where, as one character puts it, “time becomes space.” Nézet-Séguin conveyed that beautifully.

Yet when called for, he also brought out the urgency and incisiveness of the music. At the opening of Act 2, set in the bewitched castle of the sorcerer Klingsor, Nézet-Séguin tore into the heaving music with searing fervor. I’ve never heard the passage sound so fraught and dangerous.

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann sang the title role when this production was new and set a high standard. Klaus Florian Vogt may have a lighter voice and lacks Kaufmann’s charisma. But on this night, he was deeply affecting as Wagner’s clueless youth, who chances upon the sanctuary of the desolate knights of the Holy Grail and is baffled by their sacred rituals. (He sang the role to acclaim in a new production at the Bayreuth Wagner Festival in Germany in 2016.)

Vogt’s voice has youthful brightness. In climactic moments, his focused sound penetrated the orchestra with vigor. But while the knights await a “pure fool” who, it has been prophesied, will bring renewal to the brotherhood, sometimes Vogt played the fool a little too well. He seemed a little lost.

Bass René Pape may not have all the stentorian power he once did. But with his deep, dark and imposing voice, he again proved ideal as Gurnemanz, a veteran knight. And the way he links crisp enunciation of the words to vocal sounds and colorings remains a model for singers.

Baritone Peter Mattei was extraordinary as Amfortas, the suffering king of the grail knights, when this production was new, and was perhaps even more so Monday. Amfortas suffers from a wound that will not heal, inflicted when he was lured into Klingsor’s realm; seduced by the mysterious, ageless Kundry; and stabbed with a sacred spear he had been entrusted to protect. Mattei brings such desperate fervor to his singing that you can believe in this Amfortas’ vulnerability. The character’s suffering and guilt were apparent in the anguished tone of Mattei’s singing and the wracked movements of body.

The slightly hard-edge sound of soprano Evelyn Herlitzius, making her Met debut as Kundry, takes some getting used to. Her voice can wobble on sustained tones. But there was earthy intensity, even a kind of beautiful fragility, to her singing. And dramatically, she drew out every elusive nuance of this confounding character.

Girard’s production retains its gloomy power. The costumes are modern: The knights wear white shirts and charcoal pants and go barefoot. Their “forest” has a post-apocalyptic bleakness. In a theatrical tour de force, the female demons who, at the command of Klingsor (the menacing bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin), become the flower maidens who try to seduce Parsifal in Act 2, slosh around in a shallow pool of blood that drips from the walls and covers the stage. There are no traces of the meadows, or the woodland murmurs the libretto refers to. But the production counts as a high point of Gelb’s tenure to date.

Still, who is advising him on musical (and larger artistic) priorities? Nézet-Séguin’s full arrival, which this performance made me anticipate even more excitedly, seems a long way off.

Event Information:


Through Feb. 27 at the Metropolitan Opera; 212-362-6000, metopera.org.