NEW YORK — So far, Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been nothing but good news for the Metropolitan Opera, and they could use it considering the sexual-misconduct allegations that have sent Met conductor James Levine and now the stage director John Copley into exile.
On Monday, Nézet-Séguin opened a revival of Wagner’s Parsifal — an opera he has longed to conduct — and received a hero’s welcome from a public that has heard this opera conducted by the best, although this event wasn’t quite the Nézet-Séguin triumph that one could hope for. (It helps that he’s built up plenty of goodwill from past performances, held a fun and revelatory video-streamed master class at the Juilliard School recently, and continues his prestigious recording career with a new Deutsche Grammophon disc of Prokofiev violin concertos with Lisa Batiashvili and Chamber Orchestra of Europe).
Nézet-Séguin had a long-standing date with Parsifal — Wagner’s distilled, meditative last opera with its story of sin and redemption at the service of the Holy Grail.
The availability of singers who can handle five hours of Wagner is such that Parsifal can’t be as easily scheduled as a Brahms symphony. So having already conducted some earlier Wagner, Nézet-Séguin took on this opera on Monday in ways that assured that he was ready for the piece, which he conducted last year in Montreal.
His precise sense of color reminded you why he’s a Ravel specialist, though his usually purposeful pacing and grasp of the larger structure wasn’t always apparent. If the applause meters are to be taken seriously, baritone Peter Mattei received the most rapture. But Nézet-Séguin was right behind him, while other singers (even tenor Klaus Florian Vogt, whom I loved) seemed to inspire uncertainty. Whatever the case, the overall Parsifal package had much beauty to hear and nearly as much to see.
Though Parsifal is all about inner transformation — specifically of an innocent lad who is ordained to redeem a society of sin-wounded Holy Grail keepers — the Met’s atmospheric 2013 production by Francois Girard is more full of exterior weather imagery with twilight clouds and beautifully composed stage pictures. Knights of the Holy Grail are sometimes shown in silhouette, reminding you what an impact Wagner’s myth-steeped opera had on the symbolist movement.
The images have a level of abstraction that’s going to speak differently on any given day. The columns of vertical light in Act III reminded me of the commemorative 9/11 light-beam tribute in downtown Manhattan in one minute, and the twister from The Wizard of Oz in another moment. The much-publicized blood that sometimes soaks the stage floor can suggest wounds or redemption. Thus, one can have a surprisingly personal relationship with an opera whose mythology can feel remote.
In the title role, tenor Vogt aided that. The vulnerability of his light, boyish sound also invites you in, even if some opera-goers might prefer the more virile Jonas Kaufmann. The Vogt voice has plenty of spine (and never more so than in recent years), so he’s not going to be one of those short-shelf-life Wagnerians.
As the wounded leader Amfortas, Mattei projected agony backed by rich vocal color. The evil magician Klingsor can lapse into comic-book-gothic, but not with Evgeny Nikitin, who projected fallen-angel anguish. Rene Pape was vocally charismatic but interpretively dependable as the grail knight Gurnemanz.
The opera’s primary spell breakers (for me) included Evelyn Herlitzius (as the woman who leads virtuous knights astray): She clearly knows the psychological ins and outs of her character, but her loud, vibrato-ridden voice is barely able to manage much sense of lyricism. Also, the usually secure Met orchestra left a ding on the opera’s radiant landscape with dropped notes. Nézet-Séguin has said that circumstances can cause an opening performance to feel a bit like a dress rehearsal. So future audiences in this seven-performance run, through Feb. 27, are more likely to be consistently transported.
Incidentally, the Prokofiev disc on Deutsche Grammophon is definitely worth hearing: Batiashvili has long established herself as an intelligent, technically flawless violinist, and her synergistic relationship with Nézet-Séguin yielded a particularly distinctive reading of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with an almost 3-D sense of animation.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts 'Parsifal' at the Met
Metropolitan Opera performances of Parsifal are Feb. 10, 13, 17, 20, 23, and 27. Note that Nézet-Séguin does not conduct on Feb. 23. Information: 212-362-6000 or metopera.org.