Pondering the Mysteries of Parsifal

Friday, March 01, 2013 - 03:59 PM

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)

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Comments [12]

M Vigliotta from Sayville, NY

I would love to find a copy of Fr. Lee's commentary that he gave on QXR some years back. I had it and can.t find it.
Parsifal, was very profound.

Sep. 20 2013 11:50 PM
kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

The troubles that tear asunder the prospect of REAL echt WAGNERIAN PERFORMANCESare the total lack of singers with squillo, ping, ringing "juicy', not dry secco , delivery, WAGNERIAN BARKING rather than legato full-throated singing, strained, forced and flat singing, unsupported, undersized and underpowered singing, WITHOUT impressive carrying power and with throaty or nasal ugly voice production. Today's news deals with deficits and declining support for the arts. Tandem to this predicament for the talented is the perception that the current situation will continue for a long time to come. Speaking specifically how this precludes the motivation for young operatic singers who must early on choosing their life's work, many have turned to Broadway or the business world. Nowadays Broadway musicals are out for show-stopping sensationalism with laser distractions, monster sets, acrobatic feats and space age technical projections and featuring dancing over singing. So, for the real thing opera singer, Broadway musicals, outside of Phantom of the Opera and an occasional Les Miserables there is little prospect of a sustainable career. The Wagner oeuvre has suffered the most. Husky physiques, witness the iconic John McCormack, do not offer similar size singing voices in power or stamina. Heroic voices like Melchior, Tamagno, Ruffo and the mature Caruso are nowhere on today's world class stages. Instead we suffer to hear miniscule, non-charismatic, non-distinctively memorable singing voices essaying roles far beyond their underpowered, thin not orotund, singing potentialities.
Why has the always controversial political or uniqueness for uniqueness's sake been the overriding context in which the Bayreuth Festival has ALWAYS manifested its presence back to the days when Hanslick then Tschaikovsky and later Verdi found it an unfriendly atmosphere or decried its "lack of melody (sic !)?" The daughters of Wolfgang Wagner like their dad have managed to incur the wrath of others either more conservative or radical in their concepts of the evolving Wagner music drama production values/concepts. It is an eviscerating condition that feeds upon confrontation rather than productive aesthetics.

May. 11 2013 09:02 AM
Ken, the Critic from Durham, NC

Parsifal is my favorite opera - right now. If I were between acts of Turandot, it certainly would not be my favorite right then. I first saw Parsifal at the old Met in 1963 - Svanholm, London, Varnay, Tucker! I have seen it in Charleston, Bayreuth, Vienna and again at the Met. Mark Twain complained that he sat through three hours of bellowing and when he looked at his watch only 20 minutes had passed. I have never seen it when it did not seem to me it ended too soon.
But the mysteries, conundrums, and unanswered questions persist: What is the opera “about”? Reconciliation? Redemption? Reuniting? Suffering? Compassion? Healing? Growth – from innocence and unknowing to maturity and awareness? What is the opera’s chief philosophical base? Christianity? Buddhism? Schopenhauer? What does Wagner mean by – “You see, my son, here time and space are one.” - “The redeemer, redeemed.” How shall I handle the unmistakable antisemitism and other character faults of 'The Master'?
Wagner’s lifelong goal was to reach people through his art – to make us into something more than we were before; more aware, more sensitive, more compassionate human beings.
That he was unable to do this for himself is perhaps the great burden that he bore and the tragedy of his life.
That he has been able to do this for generation upon generation of audiences is all the evidence we need to recognize the greatness and truth of his art.

Mar. 25 2013 09:15 PM
Rae Barlow from New York City

Since Parsifal is my favorite opera I was at a performance. I thought the performance was wonderful. The music so glorious, but alas the sets were not.

I've thought a great deal lately about opera and story-telling. Operas usually have stories to tell no matter how convoluted. Many productions recently seen have sets which give the viewer no clue as to where the action takes place, e.g., night or day. If one did not know the libretto to Parsifal, he or she would be pretty hard put to figure out that it is morning. Most of the action seems to take place at midnight. One would think some respect or at least a little attention would be paid to the libretto which tells the story.

It seems all to be about the director and what he believes no matter what.

Mar. 14 2013 01:02 PM

Sadly, this Parsifal is another Met opera on my list never to see again until a decent production is done. I will bet that it will be made to look magnificent by Mr. Gelb's cinematic elves with their 18 cameras for the HD, but I am beginning to spend the ticket money to travel to less abusive companies or just to buy recordings. Better to imagine in one's own mind's eye then to be so offended by the Met's bad taste and wasted opportunities.

Mar. 09 2013 06:03 PM

I too attended the Parsifal at the Met and was dreadfully sickened at this production. I had last seen it at La Fenice in 1985 in a kind of Art Nouveau production that to my young mind was beautiful, lush, entrancing and transporting. In contrast the Met's new production seems totally ugly, dark, absurd and a real downer. The First Act looks like a board meeting for Goldman Sachs: a bunch of guys in their suits, strip down to the white shirts and hunch over in a circle. BORING, big time for me and nothing mythical or moving AT ALL. Strained corporate hocus pocus. Nor very authentic to any of the normal expectations from the opera itself... a beautiful garden? No, instead we had a horrendously barren double hillside with the Goldman Sachs group on the right and a bunch of darkly veiled, almost silhouetted banshies on the left barren mound where not a blade of grass, not a flower, not a blossoming tree in what is definitively supposed to be a lush garden of the soulful and blessed.
Then the Second Act was at the depths of some huge gorge with a bunch of automaton willies, again in veils, not the alternate castle's subversive elegance and seductive garden. No, it was a stark craven cleft with a huge, huge lava lamp in the rear bubbling the way overdone blood imagery. Oh, yes, the blood was puddled all over the stage too, to be sloshed about and capillary action made it seep onto the willies white shifts, the awkward and implausible bed and anything else that passed through. Definitely not a seductive or enchanted place and far, far from the intrinsic requirements of the opera itself!
Finally, the Third Act again reeked oppressively of this gloom and doom bringing us back to the first set in a post apocalyptic, devastated world which now was supposed to be REALLY gloomy and downcast with the Goldman Sachs boys looking like they should have if the big financial bailout and free market had let them reap their proper and honest rewards. It was a horrible ordeal that wonderful music (not, by the way, at all as wonderful as James Levine wrings from it) and fine singing could even hope to overcome. The visual burdens are just getting too much for even the finest music and performers to be able to carry along or achieve their proper triumph . Many people left intermission by intermission, those that stayed could mostly be heard trying to make sense or jokes about all this heavy handed misinterpretation, or was it plain misrepresentation? And many more were warned to stay away from such overtly expensive doom and gloom. I know I saved several people from committing to an evening of Parsifal in hell at Met prices, no less.

Mar. 09 2013 06:02 PM
Lee from NJ

I was fortunate to attend the March 2 matinee at the Met and found it deeply moving and memorable. I found the cast, direction, conducting, and the staging riveting and a perfect vehicle to explore and contemplate the many levels of spirituality and humanity in this arguably greatest of Wagner's works. I was literally in tears and unable to speak at the end and am haunted by this story of humanity and spiritual redemption. Wagner's drama is so multifaceted that it provokes and encourages our emotional and intellectual response while it touches at the essential truths of existence. This is the Met at its finest--especially in view of the failed "Le Cirque de Niebelungen" that replaced the superlative Schenck production.

Mar. 06 2013 03:01 PM
Robert from London

I was in the chorus of Parsifal at San Francisco Opera in 2000. It remains the most spiritual experience of my life.

Mar. 06 2013 10:58 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

WAGNER'S PARSIFAL is one of the rare ecumenical operas. Spirituality, rather than a specific religion, although one assumes Christianity, is the all-pervasive pedal point of this music drama.
The incandescent beauty and intoxicating spirituality are so transformational that any religious belief may be accommodated and synthesized to replicate the sense of selfless empathy for the welfare of others that the sacrificed UNICO represents to us all. That may explain why so many famous JEWISH singers GEORGE LONDON, RICHARD TAUBER, HERMANN JADLOWKER, MELANIE KURT, FRIEDRICH SCHORR, ALEXANDER KIPNIS, EMANUEL LIST, JONAS KAUFMANN, OTTILIE METZGER, LILLI LEHMANN, HERMANN WEIL, DESZO ERNSTER, HERTA GLAZ, MARGARETE MATZENAUER, SOPHIE BRASLAU, WALTER OLITZKY, GERHARD PECHNER, ESTELLE LIEBLING, MONA PAULEE, GUNTHER TREPTOW, PAULA LENCHNER, ALMA GLUCK, ADOLF ROBINSON, IRENE JESSNER, MAX BLOCH, ERNESTINE SCHUMANN-HEINK, HERMANN SCHRAMM, PAUL KALISCH, ETC], conductors LEONARD BERNSTEIN, WALTER AND LEOPOLD DAMROSCH, FRITZ REINER, SERGE KOUSSEVITZKY, BRUNO WALTER, FABIEN SEVITSKY, ERICH LEINSDORF, HERMANN LEVI, ETC. and stage directors HERBERT GRAF AND LEOPOLD SACHSE.

Mar. 05 2013 04:43 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

THANKS FRED FOR YOUR AS USUAL THOUGHTFUL AND OBVIOUSLY WELL RESEARCHED DISCUSSION OF PARSIFAL'S MEANING.THE MET'S PARSIFAL performance concluded SATURDAY at 5:55 PM. In all respects sonically the broadcast was epochal considering the lack of voices the size and timbre of MELCHIOR, FLAGSTAD, SCHORR AND KIPNIS. JONAS KAUFMANN WAS AS FINE A PARSIFAL AS THE MET OPERA HAS EVER PRESENTED SINCE MELCHIOR. RENE PAPE HAS GURNEMANZ TO HIMSELF WITH HIS NOBILITY OF VOICE QUALITY, TIMBRE. KATARINA DALAYMAN, THE KUNDRY SINGS THE NOTES WITH A FLOURISH EVEN THE SOARING, HIGH TESSITURA OF THE ACT 2 SCENE WITH PARSIFAL. PETER MATTEI AS AMFORTAS MAKES THE HALLUCINATORY TRISTAN OF TRISTAN'S ACT 3 SEEM PLACID. KUDOS TO MATTEI. EVGENY NIKITIN AS KLINGSOR MENACES AUTHORITARIANLY. MAESTRO DANIELE GATTI CONVINCES US THAT SPIRITUALITY IN OPERA CAN BE AN ECSTATIC, THRILLING EXPERIENCE. THE ORCHESTRA AND CHORUS PERFORM WITH ELAN AND FULL-THROTTLE GUSTO WHERE AND WHEN IT IS APPROPRIATE. THIS WAS A TRULY MEMORABLE PERFORMANCE. I have studied voice and been coached in the Wagner heldentenor roles by legendary artists who made history with their MET OPERA PARSIFAL performnces: ALEXANDER KIPNIS AS GURNEMANZ, MARTIAL SINGHER AND FRIEDRICH SCHORR AS AMFORTAS, MARGARETE MATZENAUER, HERSELF HALF-JEWISH AND KUNDRY AT BAYREUTH AS THE AMERICAN PREMIERE KUNDRY AT THE MET, and the buffo baritone GERHARD PECHNER as Klingor. I am the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute where I coach all the Wagner and Shakespeare roles. SOME HAVE MENTIONED HOW ECUMENICAL ONE CAN VIEW PARSIFAL SINCE SO MANY JEWISH PERFORMERS WERE FAMED PARSIFAL PERFORMERS [INCLUDING CONDUCTORS, OF COURSE, NAMING ONLY A FEW: FRIEDRICH SCHORR, ALEXANDER KIPNIS, ERICH LEINDDORF, HERMAN LEVI [THE OPERA'S PREMIERE CONDUCTOR], FRITZ BUSCH, BRUNO WALTER, ETC. WAGNER'S PUTATIVE FATHER WAS LUDWIG GEYER, A JEWISH TENOR, PAINTER IN OILS AND COMPOSER. WAGNER'S ANYTI-SEMITISM MAY BE ASCRIBED TO THE FACT THAT OUTSIDE OF KING LUDWIG THE SECOND ALMOST ALL OF WAGNER'S FINANCIAL SUPPORTERS WERE JEWISH. LENDERS, UNABLE TO REPAY, OFTEN TURN AGGRESSIVE TO THEIR BENEFACTORS. IT IS KNOWN THAT WAGNER ADORED LUDWIG WHO MARRIED JOHANNA AND UNTIL LUDIG GEYER DIED THE COMPOSERS NAME WAS WILHELM RICHARD GEYER. I am an opera composer, Wagnerian heldentenor and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute. www.WagnerOpera.com

Mar. 03 2013 07:27 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

Let's not forget Alfred Hertz, who was Jewish, who conducted the first Met performance which was the first once staged after Bayreuth. Hertz was the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra after Henry Hadley and before Pierre Monteux.

Mar. 02 2013 09:31 AM
David from Flushing

I recall it being said that the orchestra pit of the Met was provided with an elevator so that a "Bayreuth sound" could be created when it was all the way down. I do not recall noticing the pit being at other than the usual level over the years and wonder if this idea proved impractical.

Mar. 01 2013 05:42 PM

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