Nobody goes to Wagner operas for the plot. So don't be taken aback that the redemption parable that is his opera Parsifal becomes a mere skeleton for a network of mythology-inspired poetic images in the new Metropolitan Opera production.
The composer's expansive final work has a muted beauty unlike anything in the repertoire; two of its three acts feel more like ceremonies than opera. I wouldn't have it any other way, but the opera's contemplative manner and five-hour-plus length make it a daring choice for a Met simulcast, to be seen at noon Saturday at six area theaters, with an encore presentation March 20.
For those somewhere between Parsifal devotees and skeptics, this production has significant mitigating factors. The title role is portrayed by camera-friendly tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who is also an excellent vocal fit. Francois Girard's handsome production is full of symbolism to mull during long stretches of music.
Example: What are those funereal widows doing off in a corner? Is Act II set in the bottom of a canyon or are we inside somebody's bloody wound? Why does Act III open with silhouettes of grave diggers? Are those planets in the background? Is everybody in this opera already dead and simply moving between celestial realms?
Some might say such questions are foreign to the opera, but mythology should have chameleon qualities. Taken literally, the libretto has Parsifal, a child of nature, appear out of the forest to a band of knights guarding the Holy Grail, led by Amfortas, whose past sins are manifested in a wound that bleeds when he performs sacraments. Parsifal resists much temptation to bring back a healing spear. That's not enough to sustain five hours.
The seemingly disconnected symbols - amid plain modern clothes and stage pictures nearly as formal as Kabuki - make the opera a place where the key characters aren't sure why they're together, but by the end are united in a state of spiritual equilibrium, as the orchestra achieves a final resolution of inner yearning.
Though not always at ease with the theatrical aspects of playing a holy fool, Kaufmann reaffirmed his status (at least at the Feb. 18 performance I heard) as the leading Wagnerian tenor today. His two new recordings, Wagner on Decca and the complete Die Walkure on Mariinsky, are stunners. Few other Parsifals have the vocal pliability to express the character's vulnerability in Act II. Peter Mattei is unusually articulate as Amfortas. As Kundry, Katarina Dalayman leads a rather fierce band of flower maidens (Parsifal's sirens), though in the performance I heard her vocalism was unruly in key moments.
One is most grateful for those who hold the production together, among them Rene Pape, a constant pleasure in the potentially tedious role of Gurnemanz. The opera's real star is conductor Daniele Gatti, who cultivated particularly rich orchestral textures and never lost the burning inner intensity.
Information on theater locations and tickets: 212-362-6000, fathomevents.com or www.metoperafamily.org.