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Posted February 10, 2013

WagAdmin received an e-mail review of a recent Met Opera Guild panel discussion on Parsifal held in New York.

The review was from Jeannie Williams who writes for Opera News and authored the biography "Jon Vickers, A Hero's Life". Jeannie Williams, a journalist, has been a guest lecturer for the Wagner Society of Northern California. Ms. Williams is a member of the Wagner Society of New York.

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Met Opera Panel on "Parsifal"

 You think "Parsifal" is long? Nein, nein! Its magical music can make it seem too short, especially for Rene Pape, and even if it is long, it will take you to another dimension, so you won't notice. What's needed is a director who is not afraid of the length, says Jonas Kaufmann.

  This Gurnemanz and Parsifal, who open Feb. 15 in the Met's bloody production shared with Opera National de Lyon and the Canadian Opera Company, took the stage Feb. 7 to talk with Met GM Peter Gelb, conductor Daniele Gatti and director Francois Girard. You also will need to deal with the facts that these Grail knights do not appear monkish, but wear contemporary shirts and pants, and that the bed of Parsifal's parents takes a star turn in Act 2. Not mention the director's Buddhist views.

  Gelb, who has become quite adept -- and humorous --  in leading these panels for Met audiences, admitted that he for one does fear the length: "I'm afraid of  the overtime." He began the time talk by noting that Gatti and James Levine have tied for the longest "Parsifal", at 265 minutes. That whiz Pierre Boulez, naturally, has the shortest, at 220 minutes.  (Also see Note below.)

  The singers understand his fear. Kaufmann recalled the "Lohengrin" that (controversially) opened the Scala season this past December under Barenboim, also with Pape. It was a slow one, and Pape (King Henry) was saying, "Oh, no, this will never end!" But, "the curtain came in seconds before we had to pay (overtime). The stage manager was going, 'Come on!' " and Kaufmann (who got raves for his performance) pumped his fists in the air to demonstrate.

   Pape said, in his beautiful bass rumble of a speaking voice, that normally he transforms into his characters while putting on the costume in his dressing room. "Here, with the shirt and trousers, you have to think more. You are dressed like a normal human being, not with a long coat." He recalled singing in his first Met "Parsifal"  with Placido Domingo:  After five hours, "I reached that point (Gurnemanz' last line) and I thought, No, I don't want to stop! But I had to." He'd love to go on for ten.

 Gatti and Kaufmann said the prelude in particular is vital to the mood of the audience.

This opera is full of strange things: "It is like a fairytale," said the tenor. "You are taken by the hand of Richard Wagner in the prelude, and you are ready to believe everything he is telling you."

 Gatti said he first conducted the opera in 2008 (his Bayreuth Festival debut), when "my private life was quite in trouble. I found in 'Parsifal' some relief to the pain in my soul." Today he probably conducts it "more fluidly" in some parts. Long, short, it doesn't matter to him. Met audiences should realize that everything in the performance "is the result of a pure commitment to what this genius has written."

  Gelb asked how the cast and production may influence Gatti's approach to tempi; the conductor said he doesn't want to put singers "in a cage," or make them slaves to his tempi, and Kaufmann firmly agreed: "It depends on the mood, the emotions of that moment. It would be a pity to lose that. It's worth trying to have a little flexibility...."

  Gatti noted that audiences are arriving perhaps after a day when "stocks are going down," or they missed three cabs, but the prelude "prepares your soul for another dimension."

 And director Girard ("Thirty-Two Films About Glenn Gould", "The Red Violin", "Siegfried") said, "When you embrace the slowness, it's amazing how short it becomes. There is a vortex of time in the music -- time has been rescaled. Interest is sustained by the music and the meaning of the words. The length becomes meaningless."

  Kaufmann said, "I often experience a director afraid of the length, who invents new things, and people get distracted from the power and the magic -- let the magic do its trick."

  Well, Girard is going for more relevance -- "to make it resonate the most, engage the audience." We will see the cast sitting onstage with backs to the audience -- like an audience, and they strip off their ties and become the knights." But, he said, "We have never been so close to the libretto and the stage directions (of Wagner)." Wagner talks "about the loss of spirituality, fear of the end of the world, desires, temptations -- they are yours, who we are today."

 What makes Parsifal great is measured by his temptation, and the Act 2 garden "is our most spectacular scene." Kundry lures Parsifal by reminding him of his mother, using his vulnerability. "We bring the bed of his parents (on stage), the bed of all love." 

  The production follows "the trace of sinful blood, holy blood." Even Parsifal ends up with blood on his hands.

   Gelb said for the record that more than 2,000 gallons of stage blood is used in Act 2, and there is more scenery-- and more performers -- than in any previous Met production of the opera. 

  Then there is the religious issue. Wagner was interested in eastern religions, and Girard, who uses some Buddhist gestures in the production, recognizes the work's Christian roots, but noted, "Wagner mixes up a lot of dramatic themes, and tries to reconcile all spiritualities in a quest for the great final religion. He also was working on projects on the Buddha and on Christ" at the time he wrote "Parsifal". ..."Amfortas for me is about the duality of Buddhism, passion and temptation, and to me Parsifal is the total Buddhist archetype. He is on the path from killing a swan for no reason to saving the world." And Girard admitted, "I understand the piece through listening to the music - the music is the only redemption of this highly confused libretto."  Or as Kaufmann put it, " A door reveals two or three other doors...."

   Let us not leave out the Klingsor of this "Parsifal". Gelb noted that Evgeny Nikitin was absent from the panel, "but he has promised me he is not at a tattoo parlor."

  Gelb also noted that Wagner originally forbade any production of "Parsifal" outside the Bayreuth Festival, and the Wagner family was furious when the Met put it on in December 1903 (the first time outside Bayreuth). "But they've forgiven us. Eva Wagner will be at the premiere next Friday, so we have the Wagner Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." (Eva Wagner-Pasquier is the Met's senior artistic advisor.)    

 -- Jeannie Williams

NOTE: See this list of Parsifal timings at Toscanini clocked in at the slowest, 282 minutes, at Bayreuth in 1931.


Parsifal (complete) timings


Pierre Boulez, Bayreuth 1970


Clemens Krauss, Bayreuth 1953 (Jonathan Brown has 3.52)


Pierre Boulez, Bayreuth 1966


Hartmut Haenchen, Copenhagen 22 March 2012


Wilhelm Furtwängler, Milano 1951


Christian Thielemann, recorded at Staatsoper, Wien in June 2005 (Deutsche Grammophon)


Herman Levi, Bayreuth 1882


Michael Balling, Bayreuth 1904


Hans Knappertsbusch, Bayreuth 1962


Wilhelm Furtwängler Bayreuth 1936


Felix Mottl, Bayreuth 1888


Herbert von Karajan (1981, Deutsche Grammophon)


Anton Seidl, Bayreuth 1897


Siegfried Wagner, Bayreuth 1909


Fischer, Bayreuth 1882


Hans Knappertsbusch, Bayreuth 1952


Armin Jordan (Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's Parsifal film, 1982) (according to the cover)


Karl Muck, Bayreuth 1901


Hans Knappertsbusch, Bayreuth 1954


Kaehler, Bayreuth 1924


Hans Knappertsbusch, Bayreuth 1951


James Levine, Bayreuth 1990


Arturo Toscanini, Bayreuth 1931


Sources: Jonathan Brown (Great Wagner Conductors), Derrick Everett, Per-Erik Skramstad, Hartmut Haenchen.

"The Master has already composed Parsifal to be very slow, so one doesn't need to add to this by also conducting it slowly." (Richard Strauss to the orchestra during rehearsals)

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