I listened to Saturday's Parsifal broadcast at home, so I don't know which details may have been highlighted or obscured or actually revealed to be something different (possible!) at movie theaters, but my favorite character bit of Francois Girard's staging is the look Parsifal gives Kundry in Act III -- actually, the whole sequence. Parsifal has staggered slowly on stage, been hailed as a stranger by Gurnemanz, and, having at last registered that he can -- for the first time in who knows how many years -- stop, put down the spear and prostrated himself to kiss (pray with his head to?) the ground. And he uncovers his head, and begins to rise -- and now it is Kundry who prostrates herself. But here Parsifal gives her a look: a look between those who'd been adversaries in a former existence. There's no enmity or rancor in it -- those, if they existed, were long burned off in his years of sorrow -- but an uncanny blend of acknowledgement and bond and far-off recognition and perhaps, already, the compassion that he'll take up later in the act as he comes fully to himself. Nor does he glance meaningfully in her direction when he speaks of the curse, though she remembers who pronounced it and (as Wagner, I believe, specifes) turns away.
In fact, almost everything about the outer acts' staging is successful. Like that other recent Wagner production, the set is dominated here by video projection, but unlike his French-Canadian colleague Girard keeps the show firmly fixed on the most important operatic special effect: people. So Act I focuses on the collective movements of the knights' circle, its formal breathing and gesturing and, at last, opening out into the Grail ritual before wholly dissolving. Their human presence sets the real scene of the place, while the slow transformation of the background images provides an analogue/relief/intensification of similarly slow-paced developments in the pit -- particularly in Gatti's interpretation. Similarly, the broken state of the circle in Act III opens the stage for the momentous meeting of three solitary individuals who -- as in the last act of Meistersinger -- expand their wondrous harmony to encompass the now-reforged community which, by the finish, is the world. Again the images translate the instrumental contribution, though astronomical images appear at action-highlighting points in each outer act.
Act II restricts the video even further -- there's some bubbling, but it's in a narrow strip up the middle -- and relies almost entirely on the chorus/dance group of Flower Maidens for background, but the basic concept here is off. The pool of blood, the spears, the bare stone walls: softness seems here to have been deliberately and thoroughly expunged. This is, obviously, rather against Wagner's written setting of the seductive garden with, you know, flowers... and doesn't, apart from that, add much besides simple contrast (which could have been arranged in countless other ways). Parsifal's temptations here are all of fellow-feeling -- simple lust, remorse/love/compassion for his mother/Kundry, and compassion for the unmasked Kundry -- and it's odd, to say the least, of Klingsor to have set a trap so unconducive to such a course. (And if, as some have suggested, the triangular bloody set is a giant genital bit, the forest of sharp spears makes it the least tempting version ever.)
One thing that perhaps troubled only me: by very cleverly transforming/widening the stream-bed into the canyon-path to Klingsor at Act I's end, Girard has actually closed the geography of the opera. Acts I and II take place in fairly definite spatial relationship to each other (one can see the walls of what seems to be that same canyon just outside Klingsor's lair), making the subsequent decades of wandering before Act III a bit obscure (yes, yes, a curse did it... but how?) -- though Parsifal does reappear this time walking overland from the far horizon, making it clear he took a different path. Is it not inexplicable magic/divine grace that Parsifal found his way to the Grail in the first place, much less returned to the not-straightforwardly-findable (even when uncursed) Act I space? I tend to this view, and it's one of the mysteries I used to like about the previous beautiful and literal production, but the sight of Parsifal following some thread (blood? the feeling of incompleteness? something else?) to his next fateful scene is also compelling.
More after tonight's show.