Pondering the Mysteries of Parsifal

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Wagner’s Parsifal is not my favorite opera and I doubt it ever will be. And yet, since seeing the new production of this work at the Met on Feb. 15, it has taken rather firm hold of my imagination. It will be seen on March 2 in an HD transmission and can be heard on WQXR starting at 12 pm.

I have been thinking about this work, with all of its mysteries and unanswered questions, and wondering why many people cannot endure it while, for others, it is not only the greatest opera experience of all but is almost their reason for living. I know people who have attended every performance in the current engagement and have structured their lives to make this immersion as often as it is available to them.

This opera is in a category of one in so many ways. In fact, Wagner did not call it an opera but a Bühnenweihfestspiel, which roughly translates to a “stage consecration festival play.” After having designed his theater, the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, for the acoustical and scenic requirements of his four-part “Ring” cycle (completed in November 1874 and premiered as a cycle in 1876), Wagner found himself unfulfilled. The great cycle (the first two operas, Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, had received earlier performances in Munich) was disappointing to Wagner in that it did not fully achieve the musical and dramatic concepts in his mind.

Wagner once remarked, "I care absolutely nothing about my works being given; I am only anxious that they should be so given as I intended." In writing Parsifal, which premiered in 1882, he created the sound and theatrical components that he knew would work ideally in the Festspielhaus. He could seat his orchestra musicians precisely in that pit (which is covered--the conductor and musicians are not seen by the audience) to get the sound he wanted. 

James Levine, in an interview accompanying a 1985 Phillips recording, discussed how the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth shaped the particular sound of Parsifal:

“The acoustical and visual properties of this theater are an intrinsic part of the work itself, in a most extraordinary way. Wagner built a hall according to very detailed specifications, heard his “Ring” cycle performed there, and then composed a piece under innumerable conscious and unconscious influences from the hall itself — from the character, the radiance of the sound, the slightly filtered quality imparted to the sound by the orchestra pit, the incredible presence from the stage, the kind of sound that is possible in a hall that only holds 1900 people instead of 2500 or 3000, the kind of sound possible in a hall in which all the seats are above the source of sound, which rises up to the auditorium — a hall in which, no matter what, there is a dynamic level separation between the stage and pit, but a feeling of blending and radiant sound surrounding you that’s never possible in a conventional hall."

I love how Levine manages to express multitudes in one very long, coherent sentence in which, remarkable musician that he is, he speaks with punctuation that is the equivalent of rests, rubatos and crescendos in a musical score.

He further remarked that the architecture and sound of Wagner’s theater in Bayreuth resulted in a “tendency toward overlapping entrances and exits of instruments, rather than a vertical precision of attack and clarity of rhythmic pulse.”

Because Parsifal was purpose-composed to be only heard in one theater, the notion was that audiences would have to make a pilgrimage there to hear it. This too lends a sense of uniqueness to it. Wagner’s widow, Cosima, enforced this by copyright and the work was not allowed to be staged anywhere else. However, an astute person at the Metropolitan Opera noticed that this copyright did not extend to the United States. As a result, the Met became the first theater — on Christmas Eve 1903 — outside of Bayreuth to present a staged performance of Parsifal, using many of the singers who had appeared in Bayreuth and stage designs inspired by the originals.

The Wagner family took legal action to prevent the Met from doing Parsifal, but had no legal grounds to stop it. The Met gave twelve performances in the first season and the opera has been an important part of the company’s artistic heritage. Saturday's performance will be the 293rd in Met history.

Parsifal as a 'Miracle Cure'

The story of the opera is, at first glance, a narrative of Christian myth and suffering. While Jesus is never specifically mentioned, imagery such as the wound that does not heal (evoking the wound to Christ’s torso so ubiquitous in paintings) of the character Amfortas who, having sinned, must suffer until he has received redemption from a character described as a fool (Parsifal). I have come to see, and embrace, this character not as a fool but as a man who was naive and gained understanding and compassion through experience. There are other characters as well, all of whom suffer or impose suffering in powerful ways.

Parsifal is particular because of the audience it attracts and the ways they behave. This has diminished somewhat in the years but still is worthy of discussion. The Met, for many years, presented the opera around Easter. This was not only because of its famous Good Friday Music in the third act but for the opera’s themes of suffering, resurrection and renewal. I well remember, in the 1980s, that many persons with terminal illnesses would make great efforts to get to the Met for performances of Parsifal. Many told me that it gave them solace while others hoped it would miraculously cure them of their afflictions. I recall one audience member dying in the lobby right after the performance ended.

Until very recently, it was the tradition in Bayreuth to not applaud but, rather, to reverently be in the presence of this music and story and then leave in silence. At the Met, there was the custom (until the current production) of adding a program note asking the audience not to applaud after the first act but then encouraging them to fully express their feelings after the second and third acts. This is not mentioned in the current program and, while I am all for applauding opera singers (especially the extraordinary ones in the current cast), I confess that I missed the meditative silence at the end of the first act when I attended recently.

There is so much more to ponder. I think it is limiting to consider this opera specifically as Christian allegory. Many Jewish conductors (including Levine, Solti and Barenboim) have made Parsifal a specialty. I have known atheists who have sung some of the roles with dramatic specificity drawn not from religion but their own humanity. To see this in terms of God, specifically a Christian one, is fine but does not embrace its universality.

Having seen Don Carlo, with Verdi’s uncompromising vision of corruptness of the Catholic church, on the same day that the enfeebled Pope Benedict XVI resigned rather than suffer visibly in public as his predecessor did, I am reminded again — with gratitude — that not everything can or should be explained. When an opera production becomes slavish to a concept, as in the Met’s current Las Vegas Rigoletto, everything must either serve the concept or seem incongruous. We and the opera are diminished.

When there is mystery in a great work of art, such as in Don Carlo or Parsifal, it is not because its creators failed to be specific but rather because they have given you, the audience member, the chance to engage and participate actively by bringing your own feelings to what is described in words and, especially, music. The current François Girard production of Parsifal at the Met, much more than its two predecessors, finds a way to embrace the mystery and humanity of this work in ways that make it deeply personal for every audience member. 

It helps that this performance is beautifully played by the Met orchestra under Daniele Gatti, who leads a splendid cast including Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal), Katarina Dalayman (Kundry) and Peter Mattei (Amfortas). Above all, I will never forget René Pape as Gurnemanz. This is the longest role in the opera, often overlooked because the opera focuses on the travails of the other three characters. Yet he is the witness and our way into this mystical world. Any era in which we can see Pape as Gurnemanz is a golden age for opera.

A note to readers: I will soon be taking questions on everything operatic from listeners to WQXR’s Operavore radio program, heard each Saturday immediately before the opera broadcast. Please leave your questions on the Operavore page. Please be concise and ask anything that's on your mind.

Photo: Stage design for Act III of Wagner's Parsifal, 1882 production (Wikipedia Commons)