The Met’s now-five-year-old production of Wagner’s Parsifal is a harrowing affair. There is neither a blade of grass nor a shrub for Act 1’s characters to touch or smell, just uneven expanses of gray/brown dirt separated by a fissure of water that turns blood red when Amfortas arrives. The Knights of the Grail are in dark suits that they shed down to their shirtsleeves; they sit barefoot on folding chairs in a circle. Gurnemanz is the same, indistinguishable from the others save for his pronouncements. François Girard’s production on Michael Levy’s sets is relentlessly bleak – there’s blood in the water in Act 1 and Act 2 features the wound lengthwise, as a full center backdrop, looking like a giant vagina. The Flowermaidens (without a flower in sight), in white nightgowns, carry spears and sway seductively; they, Kundry and Parsifal frolic, act and react in acres of blood. Amfortas’ wound made universal or the menstrual blood of women tricksters?

The final act looks even more depressed, with no life to be seen and what appear to be fresh graves. In a horrifying moment, Amfortas crawls pathetically into Titurel’s grave. Kundry opens the box containing the Grail and it is left open, for all to see. She dies cradled in Gurnemanz’s arms. There is forgiveness. In the opera’s final moments, Parsifal places the tip of the spear in the Grail cup – can we avoid the male-female imagery? The fissure is closed and wounds – not just Amfortas’ – are healed. Visually, throughout the evening, save for the swirling backdrops by Peter Flaherty (lava lamp-like effects, storm clouds, what may be close-up of part of a human body or a sand dune, a rising moon, a streak of white), there isn’t much. Movement is slow and self-consciously undramatic. It remains entrancing in its refusal to charm. Transformations are internal. Somehow, it’s beautiful. Perhaps like any metaphysical puzzle, this is not one that requires solving. Redemption isn’t always clear.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s leadership bodes very well for his upcoming tenure as music director. He leads the score as one long, long journey, everything happening for a purpose. The killing of the Swan does not destroy peace – Gurnemanz and the others seem to realize that Parsifal’s arrival augurs well, even if this bit of behavior appalls them. The brass – trumpets in particular – were having a difficult time at the opening but they were quickly forgiven: the sound and feel that Maesto Nézet-Séguin brought from the Met Orchestra was nothing but beauty. With no scenery to help, the Tranformation Scenes  depended entirely on the orchestra to create imagery. The Flowermaidens’ scene, so often seeming like an overlong act at the Folies Bergère, was sheer loveliness, with a seductive sway. There was a dreamlike quality to the whole evening, as if the opera were happening above the stage; I believe the word is ethereal. Wagner wanted this opera to be like no other, and he succeeded.  

The controversial cast members were the debutante Evelyn Herlitzius as Kundry and Klaus Florian Vogt in the title role. Ms Herlitzius’ sound is not plush. It has an edge at all registers, particularly at the top of the role. This disturbed some people. I’d say that they are overlooking a total performance (not unlike her Elektra from a few years ago at Aix, available on DVD), one in which the moaning, laughing, cajoling and seducing are all filled with self-rage and disgust, not to mention an underlying desire for something entirely different. It was brilliant, without falling easily on the ear. And Mr Vogt is a bright voiced Parsifal, not in the Kaufmann/Vickers mould. Wounded and confused, eventually accepting his burden with grace. His tone is beautiful – no wonder his Lohengrin is widely admired – and the sound is focused enough to ride through the big moments.

No issue can be had with the Gurnemanz of René Pape, who so thoroughly inhabits the role that his gait changes from the first to third act, and his sound is a bit more gruff and weary later on. The thrill in his voice is palpable when he realizes that Parsifal will, in fact, heal Amfortas, and with his uplift comes enormous relief in audience and orchestra. And again, what a grand, beautiful sound he makes. Peter Mattei’s Amfortas is a terrifying show-stopper. He crawls with difficulty, he prays, he rails, he rants. His suffering is almost unfathomable. The huge voiced Evgeny Nitikin is snarling and dangerous as Klingsor, and Alfred Walker’s Titurel is righteous and measured.

Never losing momentum, this performance of Parsifal, coming in at 4 hours and 18 minutes (the two intermissions scandalously equal 87 minutes), seemed exactly right. I suspect the other six performances will sell out. They certainly should.