Sunday, March 03, 2013

Jonas Kaufmann and the Holy Grail


(I didn't quite mean to write all this when I sat down this morning. It was going to be a straight review of a cinecast. But no. Please get a cuppa, then fasten your seatbelts.)

Every now and then, a writer regrets something. Today: two things. First of all, I think I once said something sniffy about opera cinecasts. I take it all back.

Just imagine a world where we can all go to the cinema and see a simultaneous relay of something happening 3000 miles away that is perhaps the finest performance possible today of one of the greatest operas ever written. To experience it would otherwise cost us a transatlantic air fare, a New York hotel and several hundred $$$s in tickets booked about a year in advance. Yet there it is, splayed across a big screen a mile up the road, in high definition picture and rather good sound, and we are sharing it not only with our full-house cinema and the theatre where it's happening, but also with packed cinemas all over the country, all over the continent, all over the globe. And the radio audience as well. Folks, we are in that world. We should be so lucky.

As I said before, it's not the same as a live performance. But my goodness, we still get the experience, and it is full on, and it is everywhere. It's an extraordinary feat of technological expertise and I can only take off my leopard-print hat to those who developed it. Yesterday's Parsifal offered Jonas Kaufmann wrapped, this time, in a solar storm: a flicker of sound loss here and there, for a fraction of a second, was apparently due to flare-ups on the sun. The system must, on the whole, be pretty robust.

The second thing I regret is my early years as a Wagnerphobe. As a kid in north London I swallowed all the usual rubbish and never dared touch it. That's another topic... but the essential point is that my mind remained closed to this music for a long time. And I was missing out. And if you are in the state I was in, then the chances are that you, too, are missing out on what could potentially be a life-changing experience. Better late than never.

The Met's Parsifal is directed by Francois Girard - whom you may know for his films such as The Red Violin and 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. Interviewed by the HD screening's presenter for the occasion, the bass-baritone Eric Owens (a brilliant Alberich), Girard commented that the way to tackle Parsifal is to go back to the music. To paraphrase: everything you need is already in there. 

Like many of the most satisfying Wagner directors, he has focused on strong imagery that is sophisticated yet never cluttered: huge scale, powerful effects of light and colour. The concept, if concept it is, is "post apocalyptic" - whether induced by war, meteor or global warming is immaterial, but occasionally there's the sense that we are in another galaxy, as vast planets rise in the background. Act I's processional music finds the knights assembling to observe an other-worldly light show - an aurora borealis of sorts.



One danger of Parsifal is that, given the music's timeless spans of quietness and anguish, the action can become static, yet Girard never allows this to happen. The knights in Act I - white shirt, black trousers - form a circle that seems to breathe with the music, opening and closing like a flower as they bend together; their movements amplify the emotions and the narrative in a stylised yet subtle way. Klingsor's realm is framed by vast walls that spill light and blood from their edges, while the floor is filled with blood-like liquid. Here the flower maidens are amplified by dancers: again, blocks of motion, spears catching the light, strong, simple, focused, both striking and sinister in effect.

But above all, Girard has got to the heart of the work by drawing out its compassion. That is the opera's theme: Parsifal is "the fool made wise by compassion". So we need to see on stage exactly what this compassion is. It is everywhere it needs to be, but especially in the characters' tenderness towards one another in the context of a devastated world. The swan episode is heartbreaking (OK, the swan looks a little woolly, but Rene Pape as Gurnemanz manages to convince us it is real), for you can well imagine that in a world where water is reduced to one blood-stained trickle of stream, a swan is a precious rarity indeed. The geometry of the swan's wound and Amfortas's is clear as daylight - red stain on white - but the symbolism is never hammered at us.

Kundry's tenderness for Amfortas; Gurnemanz's tenderness for Kundry, who ultimately dies cradled in his arms; the rebuttal of those who reject such empathy; and Parsifal's final reappearance, harrowed and aged over we don't know how long, presenting himself for Gurnemanz's annointing not with arrogance but remarkable humility as he declares that he will be king. This overwhelming sense of connection and compassion seems in no way contrived: it is there, in the music and the text, and all Girard has done is to take it on its own terms and bring out the best in it. An opera director gets a standing, yelling ovation? Unusual - but this one does. He deserves every second of it.

Perhaps there have been times in the last 130-odd years when the piece has been better sung, but it is difficult to imagine how. Kaufmann as Parsifal offers tenderness aplenty and that special velvety, covered tone of his when it's needed. But inside that chest (which his female fans will be happy to know is, for much of the time, bared) there is a type of Heldentenor waiting to be unleashed, and in Act II it is given its head. "Amfortas!" He opens up and the voltage can flatten us - not with volume necessarily, but with focus of tone, emotional intensity and sheer musicianship. Kaufmann may be the thinking woman's pin-up, but if he were five foot high and six foot wide yet sang with the same sound, brain and heart, I really think we would still flock to him in the same numbers. [UPDATE: a few males have tweeted a gentle protest that I have only mentioned JK's female fans in this context. Fair enough, chaps - please join us!]

And the rest of the cast matched him. There is a touch of genius in Rene Pape's Gurnemanz (right): his rich, flowing tone feels effortless, his attention to nuancing of the words made Act I (nearly 2 hours, much of which he carries) fly by, and the empathy of his character shines without being forced. Peter Mattei as the suffering Amfortas reached the same level of wondrous tone and dramatic impact; and in Act III he plunges into Titurel's grave in a gesture that seems to sum up the human tragedy of the whole work. Katarina Dalayman simply is Kundry - a timeless, earth-mother figure, all-giving, loving, exhausted emotionally but never vocally. Around her neck, she wears a variety of symbols: a cross rubs together with a new-age crystal. More of that in a moment.

Biggest credit, perhaps, of all: Daniele Gatti in the pit. It's been much remarked on, in astonishment, that he conducts this five-hour masterpiece from memory, but even more remarkable is what he does with it. In short, he keeps the sound of the orchestra quiet enough for the singers not to have to yell. It's a big orchestra. It takes a lot of doing. But the sounds shift across these vast tracts of music with the transparency and wonder of those aurora borealis images; the atmosphere is hushed, rapt, meditative and filled with a surreal glow; and the textures are clear and flowing enough to allow us to hear the counterpoint and detail that point the way forward to half the masterpieces of the next 50 years.

Act I shows us where Pelleas et Melisande originated. Act II's flower maidens are a signpost to Richard Strauss. Act III is chock-full of late Faure. The Prelude lights the way towards Mahler 9. Origins of late Bruckner and Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius? Look no further. You realise that this is what those composers were all trying to do, and you can't blame them for trying, and you can't help but marvel at the way the fact that they didn't manage to do it nevertheless let them create new paths of their own, with great works the result.

On their knees, palms open to the light, head back, the chorus receives the moment in what can only be described as a state of grace. How Wagner achieves this must be one of music's eternal mysteries. Anyone who has been through a spiritual awakening of any kind, in any religion, or cult, or meditation process, will recognise it. Yet Wagner himself doesn't appear to have been an especially spiritual or religious person beyond his intellectual interest - and in terms of spiritual system, Parsifal is in a world of its own. The focus is obviously Christian, yet Jesus Christ is never mentioned by name. And the blend of eastern myticism and the references to reincarnation (Kundry was once Herodias?) would probably be rejected with a good deal of scepticism by most traditional Christians - wouldn't it?

As for the Grail: it is found. It exists. And it sits in its box. They're not on a quest for it any longer - the thing has turned up, but Amfortas, driven mad by pain, won't allow it out to heal his community. What is Wagner's Holy Grail?


Could it be music? Art itself? 

The channelling through a golden cup/opera/book/painting/other marvel of a holy spirit that can heal us when we let it out and allow its light to shine? 

And perhaps this is why many of us who are neither religious, nor believers, nor fanatics, nor indeed anything but ordinary 21st-century people in a local cinema on a Saturday evening, wept over Parsifal yesterday.

Maybe that is its message for us in 2013. The Grail is found: we know the power of music to change lives and heal souls. It has been proven, time and again. But we still won't let it out of its box - not necessarily out of spite or ignorance or foolishness, but out of pain. Let in the compassion, let in the empathy, and take it up, and let it do its work.

I refer you to the Music Inspirations section of my sidebar for further reading.

(NB: There are various 'encore' screenings, but dates and times vary from cinema to cinema. Our nearest, Richmond Curzon, is on 17 March at 2pm, according to a notice in the foyer yesterday - nothing about it on the website, though.)