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Review: Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin Steals the Show in Met Opera’s ‘Parsifal’ Revival


By Mark McLaren, Editor in Chief, February 5, 2018

Tonight’s Parsifal demonstrated that the Metropolitan Opera has made a brilliant choice, and perhaps the only real choice, in its replacement of James Levine. Levine, who conducted regularly at the Met after retiring from his monumental four-decades as music director but who was cut loose in December for sexual misconduct allegations dating to his early career, was arguably the most impactful music director to lead an opera house, anywhere, anytime.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Metropolitan Opera orchestra

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Metropolitan Opera orchestra in a rehearsal of ‘Parsifal;’ photo: Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera.

Well the Met now has the young Yannick Nézet-Séguin taking the helm and I can only hope that he’ll hang on as long as did his predecessor. That because I would bet a lot of money that he will be just as successful.

Nézet-Séguin and the Metropolitan Opera orchestra stole the show tonight with a beautifully paced, languidly expansive and exquisite reading of Wagner’s Parsifal. In this orchestrally driven work, the work from conductor and musicians was sublime. Just like in the Levine years. The playing, across the pit, superb – tuning, ensemble, balance, tone. The brass performed magnificently despite tempos that you might hear in recording but rarely in a live performance.

Nézet-Séguin, the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, and Met Opera audiences have some exciting years ahead.

And somewhat appropriately, the topic on this particularly successful night is redemption.

This supporting François Girard’s most interesting 2013 production. The director’s dilemma with much of Wagner’s work and certainly with Parsifal, is that there’s a lot of heady talk – feelings and such, and not much action.

Act I of the Metropolitan Opera production of 'Parsifal;'

Act I of the Metropolitan Opera production of ‘Parsifal;’ photo; Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Girard’s solution is clever, particularly so in Acts I and III. The ensemble slowly morphs from interesting vignette to beautiful vignette as a projected backdrop plays, often, in real time – brooding sky, rising moon, forms that could be sand dune or human body. The result (with set design by Michael Levine and projections by Peter Flaherty) is starkly visual, architectural, and captivating.

And onto this canvas, Girard places his cast, pulling from it some impressive scene work. Gripping is Amfortas (brilliantly by Peter Mattei) as he reluctantly reveals and raises the Holy Grail, for an agonizingly long period of time, against Girard’s carefully and richly choreographed backdrop in Act I.

René Pape and Peter Mattei in 'Parsifal' at the Metropolitan Opera

René Pape and Peter Mattei in ‘Parsifal’ at the Metropolitan Opera; photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

The scene work in Act III among Gurnemanz (René Pape reprising and expanding his 2013 role), Kundry (Evelyn Herlitzius in her Met Oper debut) and Parsifal (Klaus Florian Vogt) is equally gripping. The action is slow. But these three play it small, relying on the beautiful decay (dry landscape pockmarked with graves) on which Girard has placed this act to sensibly and calmly establish tension.

Evelyn Herlitzius, Klaus Florian Vogt and René Pape in 'Parsifal' at the Metropolitan Opera

Evelyn Herlitzius, Klaus Florian Vogt and René Pape in ‘Parsifal’ at the Metropolitan Opera; photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Girard and his cast understand that less and more, and Girard has used the Met’s cavernous stage to demonstrate the isolation of one’s personal journey in staging that is as compelling as any choreography you’ll see on any ballet stage.

Kundry’s death (spoiler alert) is simple and profound.

The topic of this piece is redemption and Parsifal is traditionally thought of as the Christian Wagner – the Lent opera. Rather dull.

Except that Parsifal is not that entirely, and this production works successfully to so demonstrate. Redemption can be grand. And redemption can be small. Parsifal is about journey and choice.

And that is life. More than a Christian opera, it’s a life opera. We all, metaphorically speaking, shoot swans in youth. We journey and we are tempted. We succumb. We abstain. Those that find peace, those that find grace are those that find some inward and external compassion – those that find compassion and serve.

Any religion, philosophy, self-help group or Upper West Side therapist will tell you so. “Serve…serve…” offers Kundry to Gurnemanz in Act III, as she seeks her own salvation.

Girard delicately pulls from Parsifal its universal truth.

Now there’s a lot of blood along the way. A lot of blood. Maybe a bit more blood than I’d like. But Girard’s insight into Parsifal is as clear as it is concrete.

'Parsifal' at the Metropolitan Opera

‘Parsifal’ at the Metropolitan Opera; Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Tonight’s cast is sound and often thrilling. 2013 production veterans include Mattei, Pape, and Evgeny Nikitin as Klingsor, and all are as vocally brilliant as they are dramatically gripping. Newcomers to this production match veterans with acting chops of their own.

Herlitzius makes a riveting Metropolitan Opera debut. She is a solid dramatic artist and gifted with most everything you’d like vocally in a dramatic soprano – size, warmth and range. I would have loved to hear just a tad more attention to phrase endings tonight, but I am most happy to have heard this debut.

Evelyn Herlitzius in the Metropolitan Opera's 'Parsifal;'

Evelyn Herlitzius in the Metropolitan Opera’s ‘Parsifal;’ photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Vogt, in the title role, is another thoughtful and engaging actor, and his  journey tonight was long and satisfying – solid character work. His pleasing tenor is full and bright.

And thankfully at the helm is Mr. Nézet-Séguin, of whom much is anticipated and expected.

Parsifal, by Richard Wagner, plays the Metropolitan Opera through February 27 in a production by François Girard, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, with set design by Michael Levine, costume design by Thibault Vancraenenbroeck, lighting design by David Finn, projection design by Peter Flaherty and choreography by Carloyn Choa,and with René Pape, Richard Bernstein, Sarah Larsen, Katherine Whyte, Mark Schowalter, Evelyn Herlitzius, Peter Mattei, Scott Scully, Ian Koziara, Klaus Florian Vogt, Alfred Walker, Karolina Pilou and Evegeny Nikitin.

Cover photo: Klaus Florian Vogt and Evelyn Herlitzius in the Metropolitan Opera’s ‘Parsifal;’ photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

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