This is Wagner’s final opera and according to many, including Michael Tanner who I refer to below, his major achievement; a big call given The Ring is included in that comparison. It’s never been staged in Melbourne before this production and I’d only ever seen it on DVD. While I appreciated the music I was put off by the overt religious theme; especially the similarity between the Catholic mass and the Grail Ritual and the role played by Kundry which I didn’t really understand.
But a true Wagnerian can’t pass up an opportunity to see a Wagner opera – so research was undertaken. Firstly on the excellent Victorian Opera website which has a lot of interesting material. This includes an overview of the story and details of the background to this particular production, and if you’re really interested check out the educational resource which can be downloaded as a PDF at the very bottom of this webpage here.
Here under the heading The Total Work of Art Michael Tanner, who has written extensively on Wagner’s work, calls Parsifal a supreme dramatic masterpiece and the satisfying climax of Wagner’s investigations into the central question that obsessed him throughout his life. That question is: how can one achieve true redemption, redemption being a metaphor for self knowledge, self fulfilment.
In particular he says, The first thing to get straight and hold to firmly is that Parsifal is not a religious work … So the fact that in Act I the knights celebrate the Eucharist is not an injuction to us to join in but rather is there so that we can see what varied effects it has on Amfortas, Gurnemanz, the other knights, and Parsifal himself. So forget about any spurious comparisons to the Catholic mass! It’s all about individual anguish and the purely human.
Tanner recognises that it’s not surprising the opera is often misunderstood. He quotes Thomas Mann: Take the list of characters in Parsifal: what a set! One offensive and advanced degenerate after another! A self-castrated magician; a desperate double personality composed of Circe and a repentant Magdalene, with cataleptic transition stages; a lovesick high-priest, awaiting the redemption that is to come to him in the person of a chaste youth; the youth himself ‘pure’ fool and redeemer, in his way also an extremely rare specimen.
To begin with Parsifal seems an unlikely hero, he knows nothing either of his own origins or of the world. So having been allowed by Gurnemanz to see the ceremony of the grail and not understanding a word of it, he’s sent on his way. Only later, awakened by Kundry’s kiss does he finally understand the significance of all that he’s seen. In feeling deep empathy and compassion for Amfortas, he takes on Amfortas’ suffering and in so doing he finally understands himself. Thus Kundry’s kiss is the fulcrum on which the whole opera depends. Thereafter Parsifal has to suffer a period lost in the wilderness before acquiring the complete knowledge that will lead to him becoming keeper of the grail.
Kundry’s role is much more complex and important than being merely seen as a half catatonic mute presence whose only words are ‘To serve! To serve!’ which is how Slavoj Zizek’s describes her in the final scene of the opera. This is in the second half of this book.
I loved the cover, a great depiction of Kundry. I’m not sure that Michael Tanner would agree with Slavoj, but I found the ideas he explores under the sub- heading Kundry’s Laughter….. very stimulating. The main sign and weapon of Kundry’s subversive irony is her laughter; having been condemned to eternal life after laughing at Jesus carrying the cross, she laughs at all of the masters she serves, Klingsor, Gurnemanz, Amfortas, Parsifal. She undermines the position of each of them by means of the surplus knowledge contained in her hysterical laughter that reveals the fact that the master is impotent, a semblance of himself…it stands not only for making a mockery of the Other but also for despair at herself.
He goes on under the sub-heading …and Her Kiss; The unique achievement of Parsifal is to unite in the figure of Kundry, the two traditionally opposite figures … the devastating seductress and the angelic redemptrix. When Kundry tries to seduce Parsifal as the evil femme fatale who intends to devour her victim he resists, identifying with Amfortas. At her second attempt she is a real desiring woman desperately in love with Parsifal and her outburst of rage is justified as the reaction of a loving woman deeply hurt by the cruel and cold rejection of her sincere offer.
I also attended a talk by Peter Bassett, a recognised Wagner expert who also contributes a short essay in the programme as well as an interview in two parts that is included on the Victorian Opera website (see the link above). He gave a terrific overview of the whole opera including video extracts of different productions illustrating different aspects. He also demonstrated what was revolutionary in Wagner’s approach to music in this work through different recordings of sections of it. As he says in the programme the whole theme of Parsifal is wisdom through compassion. He too emphasises the Grail ritual is not a service of Holy Communion but an adaptation of medieval legends. Ultimately the opera’s central theme, once identified, is straightforward: Human salvation is to be found not in the satisfaction of selfish desires but in compassion.
Tanner describes this musical approach as the use of blocks of orchestral sound, dramatically contrasting and imposingly hieratic, in a way that had no precedents. He quotes Debussy as saying of Parsifal’s music, that it was lit from the inside. It is incredibly beautiful and moving music. It was played by the Australian Youth Orchestra who were extraordinary under the leadership of conductor Richard Mills. They received a tumultuous response from the audience. Deservedly so.
Everything else about the production was as good. The set was terrific. Director Roger Hodgman says in the programme they rejected the idea of a ‘conceptual’ production – setting the piece in some specific time or place. And so it was. We are in an anonymous time and place. Everywhere. Any time. Very abstract. Very simple. Very effective. Very modern. This is actually the final scene, but it shows the stage setting well.
At the start of the performance we were advised that Peter Rose as Gurnemanz was suffering a respiratory infection but would still sing but asking for our indulgence if he failed to hit all the right notes. We had no need to indulge him. He was terrific. And it is such a crucial role with many long explanatory pieces. Here he is upbraiding Parsifal for killing the innocent swan; a very lifelike creature! Burkhard Fritz was wonderful as Parsifal although I would have liked to see some variation in his costume. It was okay in the first and second acts as seen here; although with a bit of an army disposal store vibe.
James Roser was Amfortas. He sang beautifully and garnered our sympathy in what can be a difficult role. Michael Tanner calls him a man prone to self pity which is true. And he brought his suffering on himself by succumbing to Kundry’s seduction. Nevertheless Roser played him as all too human and deserving of the compassion that Parsifal finally delivers. His costume was good, the white striking enough to show his never healing wound dramatically enough. Much better than some of the outfits we saw in extracts from other productions in Peter Bassett’s talk (lots of flowing robes and even cumbersome crutches).
Teddy Tahu Rhodes played Titurel. A very spare role as the father of Amfortas kept alive by virtue of the grail ritual. Seen only as a face against a black backdrop, demanding the grail be revealed in order that he might live. Despite the pain it causes his son. Very effectively done. He has a wonderful deep voice perfect for the part. Later he was carried on stage in a coffin. Not a very rewarding part! The choral work during the grail ritual was beautiful, with singers positioned above and in rows to the left and right of the stage. Nicely done.
The most dramatic act is the second where we have the evil Klingsor and Kundry as his enslaved seductress. The staging was fantastic. Derek Welton as Klingsor looked terrific -red haired, white faced, silver besuited – and sang and acted the part with gusto. Difficult, but he delivered with great panache. Having seen Kundry as the bedraggled beggar in Act One, here she is all svelte sophistication. A friend suggested she should have been more overtly sexy, but I think this worked. Here she is in the great dialogue with Klingsor who is demanding she seduce Parsifal. Tanner calls this the most powerful expression in art of the hateful bondage in which one person can be to another. These two performers carried it off with the requisite drama and nuance. Fantastic.
Parsifal is on his way to Klingsor’s enchanted garden and the foolish flower maidens who all looked terrific done up like nineteen twenties flappers. They besieged the bewildered Parsifal; crowding around him, pulling at him, mocking him. Perfectly portraying what Tanner describes as languorous sensuality … indolent sensuality, and attempt to reduce man to his merely animal element – not vicious, but mindless. Until with a contemptuous flourish Kundry banished them from the stage.
There follows the scene between Kundry and Parsifal that Tanner calls the most complex, exhausting and difficult scene in any of his works. A big claim when you consider one of those works is The Ring. Kundry attempts to seduce the innocent boy, first by forcing on him ‘loves first kiss’ the dying kiss of his mother at which Parsifal finally understands and empathises with Amfortas. He then resists her further attempts to seduce him in order to save herself; he understanding what she does not; that to do so would damn them both. All sung and performed with great clarity.
And so we come to the final act and the return of Parsifal to the ruined brotherhood of knights. He has brought the spear that will save Amfortas. It’s here that he could have had a costume change; he’s meant to return clad in black armour. It would have been good if he’d had a change of costume to indicate his newly attained maturity. Never mind. He returns. Gurnemanz and Kundry are there to receive him. Kundry looking more like a serving maid than the wild woman on the cover of Slavoj Zizek’s book!
It takes time, we have to be told by Gurnemanz about what has befallen the knights followed by the anointing of Parsifal, the washing of his feet, and then the return of the knights and Amfortas. But finally Parsifal achieves what was foretold; the pure fool cures Amfortas.
It takes longer for Kundry to finally achieve her desire, which is to be released from her perpetual life; that is, to die. For a while I thought she might not which would have been disastrous. Bassett told of a production where Kundry and Parsifal, hands joined, left the stage to enjoy conjugal bliss. As he said, that director seems to have missed the point of the opera. Not so here, everything was quite satisfactorily resolved in accordance with the composer’s intentions. The music at the end is really sublime.