February 18, 2013
During the first intermission a friend of mine that had encouraged me to give Parsifal a chance asked me how I was enjoying it. "I'm not," I said. "It's just too much religion. I feel like I'm in Church listening to a priest."
Another opera lover jumped in. "Forget about the religion," he said, "Just enjoy the beautiful music."
"But how can I forget about the religion? That's the entire opera."
There are people who are brought up in Christianity who I can imagine finding the story of Parsifal very moving. The libretto is almost six hours of talk about Christ's suffering for mankind, sin, redemption, the Holy Grail, and finally, the healing power of faith. But for someone like myself, brought up to distrust all forms of organized religion, this is what Parsifal sounded like:
Gurmenanz: "Amfortas' wound redeemer suffering blah blah blah blah blah ..." (1st hour)
Parsifal: "Oops. Sorry to have offended y'all by shooting a swan." (5 minutes.)
Amfortas: "Wah wah wah my wound wah wah wah." (30 minutes)
Gurmenanz: Amfortas' wound redeemer suffering Holy Grail blah blah blah ..." (20 min)
Klingsor: "Bitches do your thing." (25 min)
Flower Maidens dance. (A lot of fun, I lost time because this was fun to watch.)
Kundry to Parsifal: "Remember your mother. And fall into bed with me so you can suffer forever because you succumbed to weakness."(25 min.)
Parsifal: "AMFORTAS! SUFFERING! WOUND! COMPASSION!" Lightbulb goes off. (10-15 min)
Kundry: "I have sinned I laughed at Christ's suffering I fucked Amfortas and that's why he has the wound blah blah blah ..." (~25 min)
Parsifal: "I am going to be supreme leader now. Goodbye."
Gurmenanz: "Amfortas' wound redeemer suffering blah blah blah blah blah ... Oh hi Parsifal. Please become our supreme leader on the holiest day, Good Friday, where we celebrate Jesus suffering for our sins blah blah blah." (lost track of time, maybe 30 minutes of this at least?)
Parsifal: "Ok. Kundry, wash my feet. Wash my face."
Kundry: Does this, and is baptized. (30 min)
Amfortas: "Wah wah wah my wound wah wah wah." (Another 10 - 15 min)
Parsifal: "My magic spear has cured you. Now everyone shut up so we can listen to Richard Wagner's beautiful final chords." (10 min)
I tried and tried, but I just could not connect with the story on any level in Act One. In fact, I found all the religious pontificating to not only be a bore, but actually offensive. Amfortas' wound and Jesus's suffering on the Cross are fetishized to such a degree in Parsifal that if ever there was "victim art," it is Parsifal. But it's victim art dressed up as a Christian parable, and how can you criticize that, unless you want to criticize Christianity? Of course there is a huge elephant in the room. Kundry is Herodias, the woman who laughed at Jesus on the cross. She also caused Amfortas' never-ending-they-can-never-shut-the-fuck-up-about-it wound by seducing him. She's Jewish, folks. She's also a woman. And because she's a woman she has original sin blah blah blah men must resist temptation blah blah blah ... The misogynistic idea that there's this woman who has to suffer forever because she's a woman, and she laughed at Christ, and she's Jewish -- well that kind of wraps all my disgust for the Christian doctrine in one package.
In Act Two I felt like the opera really began. Klingsor's Magic Castle with the Flower Maidens' are ankle deep in this blood -- it's both a continuation of the Act One imagery and a symbol of female sexuality. The Flower Maidens are between two walls that opened up and looked suspiciously like a ... well, let's just say "Rosebud." I thought I would find it crass, but after all the religious pontificating in Act One I enjoyed the kind of blatantly sexual symbolism. The choreography for the Flower Maidens was perhaps my favorite moment of the evening. The Flower Maidens looked almost Japanese in their long black wigs and their dance had an Oriental flavor, and all of a sudden I heard the "Buddhism" strains that people told me were in Wagner's score. The spears made them look like a mix of Samurai and Geisha. It was odd, but I liked it. Exotic becomes erotic.
Act Three I found deeply moving, not because of the extra pontificating, but because of the music. That music near the end of the opera has to be the most beautiful music ever composed, or close to it. And the music speaks louder than the libretto. The libretto might still be caught up in issues like the Grail, the Wound, the Spear, etc. but the music takes you to a a place of hope and redemption. I finally got what Parsifal was about.
I can also recognize that the cast assembled was not just fine, but stellar. Jonas Kaufmann in the title role sang very softly, almost marking, in the first act. But when he rejected Kundry his voice suddenly burst out like a trumpet: "AM-FOR-TAS!" I've seen Kaufmann sing many roles and that moment when his dark-timbred voice all of a sudden turns into a bright, ringing trumpet never ceases to marvel. His interpretation of Parsifal was sensitive and nuanced -- even when he's anointed Supreme Leader, he moved with the hesitation of someone who was not quite sure of himself and his Supremacy. Rene Pape in the marathon pontificating role of Gurmenanz never parked and barked, but made every long-winded suffering-wound-redemption-blah-blah-blah monologue look and sound like a personal conversation. Peter Mattei was maybe the biggest shock of the night. I've heard him only in Mozart and never imagined his silky baritone in Wagner. But Amfortas, the whiniest most one-dimensional character of the opera has strangely some of the most beautiful music -- lyrical and dreamy, and after awhile I just learned to ignore the "my wound pain blah blah blah my wound" and enjoy the sound of his voice.
Katarina Dalayman as Kundry had some shrill high notes and the voice is serviceable rather than beautiful. Evgeny Nikitin was surprisingly subdued as Klingsor. I wanted more over-the-top mustache-twirling vocal fireworks from him. Instead he did just park and bark in front of the prompter's box and stared intently at the prompter's lips. Daniele Gatti made the Met orchestra shimmer and the horns were in tune. I don't know enough about Parsifal conducting (I've only listened to a few recordings by Kna and Levine) but the Met orchestra certainly sounded excellent. Unfortunately the rhythmic impulse that this kind of slow, ponderous score needs wasn't there, and everything always seemed to crawl to a close.
I will say that I thought the music (particularly the Redemption/Good Friday theme) to be some of the most memorable Wagner ever wrote. It's not often that I leave the theatre absentmindedly humming Wagner, but the Good Friday theme has been stuck in my head since last night. Which makes my concerns about the subtext for the opera that much stronger. I believe fixation on Jesus dying and suffering for our sins is the reason there are the Fred Phelps' of the world. I believe fixation on Jews killing Christ led to thousands of years of religious strife that still exists today. I believe the concept of women having original sin is ... I don't even want to go there. And finally, the concept that a Supreme Leader can perform miracles is cult-like and creepy. If this were, say, a crappy movie done by a crappy anti-Semitic director (cough, Mel Gibson, cough, Passion of the Christ) most people would rightly dismiss it as nonsense. But that's the Wagner experience -- his librettos may fail in their excessive length, barely disguised prejudices, and repetition, but his music always takes you to another plane.