Welcome Musical Distractions: Piano, Then Parsifal and Handel

On a recent evening, while the rest of the world was glued to the spectacle of bombs raining down on Baghdad, I found myself enthralled by the spectacle of a young man seated at a piano in the elegant paneled library of the Lotos Club. The occasion was a fund-raising gala for the Music Festival of the Hamptons, and the listeners-well-heeled men and women in evening dress-were not the sort to get sappy over one of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words,” no matter how exquisitely delivered. But as the pianist, a young Israeli named Daniel Gortler, played the Song in D major, a Romantic miniature that rippled with straight-from-the-heart tunefulness, I felt a current of common feeling run through the room-a sense of profound gratitude that we were here together in a safe place.

Sharing great music may be the best way to cope with these bewildering, benumbing times. A few days after the Lotos Club event, I heard Mr. Gortler again, in a midday recital at Rockefeller University, next-door to New York Hospital. This time, many of the listeners were dressed in clinical white coats or surgical scrubs, but for the moment, they had left behind their labs and their operating rooms for the alternative realities of Beethoven (the Op. 110 Sonata), Mendelssohn (eight “Songs Without Words”) and Brahms (the Variations on a Theme by Handel). Mr. Gortler, a slim, buzz-cut man in his mid-30′s who lives in Tel Aviv and is hoping to make New York his home, brought these 19th-century masterworks to vibrant life, revealing qualities that are rare in today’s world of young, breakneck virtuosos. His thoughtful grasp of the works’ architecture reminded me of the late Claudio Arrau, and his ear for the noble, singing line reminded me of Arthur Rubinstein. As he traversed the peaks and plains of the Handel Variations, a journey requiring prodigious reserves of nimbleness and stamina, he demonstrated the power of a musical adventure to make the world’s great misadventures seem puny by comparison.

That evening, I attended the first night of the Met’s revival of Parsifal , which is more shattering of the here-and-now than any opera ever written. For as long as I can remember, Wagner’s sublimely garrulous Easter idyll has been James Levine’s most indulgently enjoyed whirlpool bath. I’ve grown impatient with Mr. Levine’s love of snail-like tempos, which seem calculated to give proof of his sovereign control over the magnificent orchestra he has built-and to show his uncanny ability to keep a musical behemoth afloat like a hovercraft whose engine is always on the verge of giving out. (His pulseless pacing of the duet that closes Ariadne auf Naxos , a few weeks ago, had me screaming silently for release, despite the valiant vocal splendor of Deborah Voigt’s Ariadne and Richard Margison’s Bacchus.) But this season, the figure on Parsifal ‘s podium was Valery Gergiev, who is mercury to Mr. Levine’s granite.

Mr. Gergiev’s cavalier disregard for punctuality, not to mention his idiosyncratic way of indicating a beat (“like a quivering stalactite,” a friend of mine describes it), reportedly drives the orchestra members nuts. (During a ragged Otello earlier this season, they seemed on the point of mutiny.) I’m told that Mr. Gergiev showed up late for the dress rehearsal of Parsifal , which began without him, under an assistant conductor. When he finally arrived, he glowered from a seat in the auditorium, then rose imperiously to relieve the pinch-hitter of his baton. On opening night, I sensed a certain tug-of-war in the pit-at the expense of the all-enveloping musical atmosphere which Wagner so ingeniously contrived. The silences during the Prologue were not pregnant ones, but pockets of dead air. Act I, which is devoted almost entirely to exposition, is difficult to keep taut under the surest of hands; as conducted by Mr. Gergiev, it proceeded moment to moment, without any sense of a grand unfolding.

Still, there were some marvelous stretches, notably during a beautifully rapt Act II in the Grail temple, and the cast was superb. In the title role, Plácido Domingo continues to astonish with the untarnished gleam of his heldentenor; and, as always, his dramatic conviction is unfaltering. At 62, though, he appears to be anything but an innocent young swan-killer-a creaky miscasting that only added to the grim datedness of Otto Schenck’s 12-year-old production, which is conceived not as a mystery play, but as a sequel to The Magic Flute . Violeta Urmana’s Kundry was piercing and true; Falk Struckmann brought a neurotic intensity to anguished Amfortas. But the show belonged to Gurnemanz: As the Brotherhood of the Grail’s resident sage, René Pape towered over the events with a bass voice of immense power, German diction that gave eloquent clarity to every gnomic utterance, and a force of personality so compelling that, for once, I allowed myself to ignore the anti-Semitic underpinnings of Wagner’s most “Christian” opera and to yearn wholeheartedly for the redemption of these Aryan knights. Once again, music-in this case, the distillation of Wagner’s supreme gifts as a composer-trumped ugliness.

As it did, on a more gossamer level, at New York City Opera’s pretty new production of Handel’s Flavio . This seldom-heard work of 1723 offers a preview of Mozartean humanism in its tale of the triumph of love over squabbling fathers, aristocratic sexual exploitation and death by swordplay. City Opera mounted it like a candy box done up in 18th-century pinks and greens that would have looked right at home at a Palm Beach lawn party. I wasn’t consistently enchanted by the work of the young director, Chas Rader-Shieber, which ranged from aimless to delicious (notably, in the arrival of more tulips than I’ve ever seen onstage). Nor was I always delighted by the cast, which was led by two countertenors, David Walker’s sweetly ineffectual Flavio and Bejun Mehta’s effortful Guido, who offered passages of great beauty when he wasn’t veering wildly off-pitch. The brightly monochromatic Emilia of Jennifer Aylmer had similar problems. But the conductor, George Manahan, and the City Opera orchestra attacked one of Handel’s most felicitous scores with a buoyant gusto that was irresistible. At some point in the second act, I said to myself: “To hell with being a music critic-relax and enjoy it while you can.”