Wagner With Speed

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The New York Sun

Pierre Boulez, musing on the tempo of “Parsifal,” once related how Wieland Wagner showed him a little sliding window that cuts into the kiosk of the conductor at Bayreuth. “It was here that my grandfather used to stand and whisper to [conductor Hermann Levi],” the younger Wagner explained. “Faster, Levi, Faster!”

The slowest performances of “Parsifal,” according to Mr. Boulez, were those of Toscanini in the early 1930s. Under his baton, one first act at Bayreuth – where they keep archival records of the timings of all performances – clocked in at a mind-boggling two hours and 20 minutes! The Metropolitan Opera’s musical director, James Levine, loves this glacial pace, but he was not in the pit Friday evening for the opening of the current run. In his place was the Bayreuth veteran Peter Schneider, who brought in Act I in a snappy 105 minutes.

This performance was haunted by rumors and questions. Tenor Ben Heppner skipped the dress rehearsal. Would he be able to sing at the premiere? Would Met management even allow him access? As for Mr. Schneider, he engaged in a rather public dust-up with bass Rene Pape at the dress rehearsal. Would there be some compromise tempo that would satisfy all parties?

These controversies melted away like Klingsor’s magic castle when the curtain went up. But there was a misstep before Act I even began. The vorspiel was poorly executed by the normally excellent Met orchestra; the brass playing was particularly unfocused and insecure. It was hard to accept such a fast tempo, especially in a deeply religious passage that reaches its zenith with the Dresden Amen. Hours later, this same need for speed cheapened the Good Friday spell.

But the evening was saved once Mr. Pape began his declamation as Gurnemanz. This highly touted star was nothing short of magnificent this evening, magisterial and dignified, sympathetic and technically superior. The part is a punishing one – Gurnemanz takes the lead in both outer acts – yet Mr. Pape was a model of pitch control throughout. I never tired of his even and lyrical voice, even though his dramatic skills were a bit subdued, perhaps affected negatively by the alacrity of the accompanying pit orchestra.

Nikolai Putilin possesses an even more piquant, darker lower register than Mr. Pape’s. As Klingsor, he made the most of his one big scene in Act II. (He was an impressive Mazeppa this season as well.)

The other male lead is the gravely wounded Amfortas, expertly played by baritone Thomas Hampson. This role stretched Mr. Hampson’s vocal range, and he suffered a rather nasty case of the flats in his first scenes. But he more than made up for any breaches of vocal discipline with a dramatically true portrayal of intense pain and deep faith. Just as a struggling Wotan in a performance of “Die Walkure” can utilize his weakness to enhance his ultimately dispirited character, Mr. Hampson channeled the agony of the Philoctetean Amfortas for maximum effect.

The performance of the night belonged to Waltraud Meier as Kundry. Ms. Meier saw the character as very human, a refreshing change from some of the shrieking, hyperactive harridans of the past. Her vocalizing was wonderfully moving, her warm lower register rich and secure, her acting superb. Both she and Mr. Hampson added much value to scenes with their eloquent dumb-show presentations. When Kundry finally expires at the sight of the grail, it sent chills up my spine.

Mr. Heppner, on the other hand, did not have a good night. He sounded strained right from the beginning and deteriorated by Act III. He seems to have lost a good deal of his vocal power as well. Perhaps he was simply indisposed.

The Otto Schenk production is one of the finest in modern operatic history. The greatest scene change of the entire 19th century, between the two halves of Act I, is celebrated profusely in Wagnerian lore, and is here handled with elemental swirls of natural wonderment. And all of the talk at the second intermission centered around one question: How did they ever do that transfer of the spear?

The costumes of Rolf Langenfass made the entire proceedings look like a woodcut; the inventive sets of Gunther Schneider-Siemssen emphasized the timelessness of the story and the necromancy of the stagecraft practiced by both Klingsor and the Grail Knights.This is truly art imitating art. As Yeats said, “It was the dream itself enchanted me.”

Afterwards, it was difficult to get a cab out front: The normal horde of taxis was nowhere to be found. Were the drivers late? Perhaps they were under the mistaken impression that Maestro Levine was conducting this performance.

The Met’s premiere of ‘Parsifal’ was notable for its snappy pace, writes. It also featured magnificent performances by René Pape and Waltraud Meier.


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