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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Parsifal


Parsifal
Metropolitan Opera
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:

Act One:

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)

Act Two:

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."

Act Three:

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 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.


 I'm not that famiiar with Parsifal productions but Francois Girard's production had striking, intelligent use of imagery and symbolism: the river of blood in Act One also looked like wounded flesh (Amfortas'). But there's also one bit that no one else agrees with but I think is obvious: at the end of Act One, the River of Blood opens up. I thought this was a nice allusion to the Biblical Exodus, in which there is mention of the River of Blood, and also Moses parting the Red Sea. Foreshadowing that Parsifal will eventually become a religious leader who leads his people to a better place.

In Act Two, 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's bleak wasteland also leant a sense of gravitas to the conclusion of the opera -- I guess desperate times call for desperate measures, and if that means a new supreme leader, uh ... ok let's face it by Act Three I had mostly tuned out and was just following the action onstage, listening to the music, wondering why the audience around me was rapt with attention and I Just Was Not Getting It.

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 disgust for the opera that much stronger. Parsifal goes against everything I believe in. 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 danger of Wagner -- he dresses up a hateful religious screed with this music so angelic that as I'm writing this, it's still stuck in my head.

22 comments:

  1. I think you could argue that the opera rejects Western religion entirely. That was the premise of the Baden-Baden production, for example. You could argue that as the opera ends Parsifal is leading the grail knights and Kundry out of the age of religious psychopathy.

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  2. Hi, Ivy:

    Re: Your last sentence--that's exactly what Jon Vickers said about the incest in "Die Walkure." He said that Wagner's genius was kind of diabolical in that he could make the most heinous situations acceptable.
    I am religious, and there are parts of "Parsifal" I find incredibly moving, so I don't say this as someone who finds religion repellent. But if a person has this kind of feeling toward religion, then I think he/she would have problems with "Parsifal" no matter what kind of production was being offered.

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    1. I don't mind works with a religious parable such as Lord of the Rings. But Parsifal is really IMO promoting a certain brand of religiosity I find repellant.

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  3. I'm afraid you betray your religious roots by calling this an overtly Christian work. True there are references to Christ, the grail, etc. but one could argue Christianity is just a front to explore other more universal ideas about humanity. I'm not religious either though culturally I am Hindu. I found the work fascinating. There are many ideas here that are universal - not Christian. It's unfortunate that you view this with such a parochial lens. I guess I just don't carry a lot of Judeo-Christian baggage around.

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    1. I'm afraid I don't see how you can separate Christianity from the work. It's absolutely steeped in Christian symbolism, Biblical allusions, and Christian dogma. The Christian symbolism is spelled out and repeated over and over again through the course of the evening. I guess I just feel to embrace this work, you must embrace the tenets of Christianity that Wagner set forth in Parsifal. I don't embrace them, so I couldn't connect.

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    2. You don't have to embrace them at all. You just have to watch an opera about them. There's a world of difference.
      A Buddhist who loves Parsifal

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  4. I find it interesting that you see this as that tied to Christianity (though I see it as a valid opinion and realize it is not uncommon; it does strike me as uncommon (but still valid) coming from a non-religious standpoint). When I was young and religious (conservative Protestant) I expect I would have found the work to be laughable or offensive, not Christian. Mostly because the message is off and also because I never associated all this extra-Biblical stuff (the Grail, the spear, etc.) with Christianity.

    I am no longer religious and try to proceed with caution. I believe it would be easy (and textually supported) to have a production of Parsifal that would leave me uncomfortable, but this was not such a production. There were no crosses, the setting was Amfortas and not anything church-like, the Grail ceremony was done by ritualistic gestures and the ending suggested that the old order of separation, piety and chastity was being overthrown.

    But, again, this is largely an artifact of my personal associations. And because I am weak enough that I don't want to avoid everything steeped in religion. Everyone draws their own lines.

    As your complaints seems to be more about the text in that it is ritualistic/religious at all no matter what the tradition (and various other issues with regard to gender and race that I will not even attempt to defend) it is entirely understandable that you choose to stay away.

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    1. Strangely I don't have issues with The Ring, even though I know that there are various messages about a "master superhero race" in the text, mostly because I feel like The Ring is much more character-centered. The "heroes" are flawed and have moments of self-awareness and doubt and the villains have complexity as well. Parsifal I disliked I think because of every character seemed to represent a certain dogma and that ambiguity is not there. It reminds me of a stark medieval morality play, even with Girard's production.

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  5. "It's absolutely steeped in Christian symbolism, Biblical allusions, and Christian dogma." - I know NOTHING about Christian dogma or the Bible. I'm not religious and don't care about the religious traditions I was born in, forget Christianity. As the other reviewer said - you don't have to embrace it (I'm not going to convert because I saw some Christian symbolism on stage, just like I didn't embrace paganism after I heard the Ring). You have to know it to recognize it - that's why I said that your apathy/dislike (whatever you may want to call it) towards your religious/cultural background affects the way you view this opera, and also underscores your lack of knowledge of other religious traditions. You are projecting your own baggage onto it - which is unfortunate, because I think this is a very affecting opera.

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  6. Ivy, You're in good company. As a prologue to seeing "Parsifal" at the upcoming HD broadcast, I re-read Nietzsche's "The Case of Wagner". According to the Kaufman's Translator's Preface, it was written, in part at least, in reaction to "Parsifal". My favorite bit:

    "If Wagner was a Christian, then Lizst was perhaps a church father! The need for redemption, the quintessence of all Christian needs, has nothing to do with such buffoons: it is the most honest expression of decadence, it is the most convinced, most painful affirmation of decadence in the form of sublime symbols and practices. The Christian wants to be rid of himself. Le moi est toujours haissable.

    Noble morality, master morality, conversely, is rooted in a triumphant Yes said to oneself . . . ."

    I think N, at the end of the day, was more or less disgusted by W's cynical exploitation of Christian "redemption" for dramatic and emotional effect.

    Nevertheless, I find that I can fall under the spell of "Parsifal", and am looking forward to this production and cast. No ubermensch I, I reckon.

    O.

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    1. O, always good to hear from you! I think the production is excellent. It's the opera that didn't speak to me.

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  7. One word: Schopenhauer. Read his "World as Will and Representation," or at least relevant excerpts. Wagner was not a Christian. He was not advocating Christianity in "Parsifal." But he was damn well obsessed with Schopenhauer and he considered himself Schopenhauer's foremost evangelist. In "Parsifal," Wagner is teaching Schopenhauer through Christian myth. He is using a religious story his audience knew well to advocate Schopenhauer's philosophy.

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    1. I just googled Scopenhauer. Wow. Thanks for the reference. Fascinating.

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    2. Instead of reading Schopenhauer, you can just listen to Tristan/Isolde's Act II long duet. It's all there, but in musical form.

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  8. Just to clarify on thing: original sin is usually considered to be Adam and Eve's disobedience of God's instruction not to eat from the tree of knowledge. Both Adam and Eve committed it. It's not sexual, per se. Granted, Man was given the fruit by Woman (who was tempted by Snake/Devil), but he wasn't lured by sex (which, prior to the Fall, was natural, not forbidden, and not shameful). They were tempted by knowledge, and that if they knew good and evil, then they would be like God.

    I agree that Parsifal has little to do directly with Christianity. It uses Christian symbols, images, and themes to discuss a completely new philosophy. Any orthodox Christian would find the theology of the opera to be a Christian heresy.

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    1. Anonymous, in Catholic school back in the '50s we were taught that the apple offered by the serpent, leading to knowledge that God did not want Adam and Eve to have, represented sex. Surely that was part of the massive Catholic paranoia about sex, but it also squares with snakes serving as phallic symbols in art. And it was useful for the nuns and teaching brothers to warn us against any sex before marriage, or for pleasure instead of procreation in marriage. But sex and "The Fall" were closely and repeatedly linked.

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  9. I think you might look at Kundry and Klingsor a little more closely. Montsalvat exists in what was Muslim Spain near the border to Christian France. Wagner saw a Moorish watch tower on the estate at Rovello on the Amalfi Coast where he vacationed and decided it should be Klingsor's lair on stage. He thought the Moorish garden at its base should be the Magic Garden. Kundry travels through the air back and forth between Arabia (to get balsam for Amfortas) and Montsalvat/Klingsor's lair. Yes, she's been Herodias but she has also been several other women who weren't Jewish. She works out of the Moorish Magic Garden to lure and disable Christian knights. The characters in literature and opera she most closely resembles are Muslim sorceress-seductresses in operas by Handel and Rossini: Alcina and Armida, both from Tasso's Crusades epic, Gerusalemme Liberata. I believe that whatever "message" Parsifal may have, the setting of the story is in the Christian/Muslim struggle for domination and does not include any overt Jewish condemnation.

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    1. But what about her being baptized at the end? Wagner advocated that as the only acceptable path for Jews and in fact tried to get Hermann Levi the original Parsifal conductor baptized,

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    2. Catholics try to baptize anyone they can get their hands on and recognize no other religion as being valid in any way. They sent missionaries everywhere in the world to convert the local populations, by force if necessary, a kind of religious Imperialism. They especially forced Spanish Muslims to convert and threw out those who refused. It wouldn't matter what religion Kundry was.

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  10. I see your point about Kundry as the emblem of all that 19th century misogyny and perhaps anti-Semitism but it smacks somewhat of p.c. dogma to dismiss the opera solely on those grounds. What you say may be true but the character of Kundry and the environment in which the opera is set, swathed in all its misty Christian symbolism and subtle now-ascetic, now-seductive music, fascinates me (even if it goes on too long). Kundry is in my mind the most interesting character in the opera. Her Act 2 disintegration can really come alive in the hands of the right singing actress (e.g., Waltraud Meier). I suppose the more interesting question to me is why despite what we've been taught in school about distrusting and even possibly rejecting colonialist, sexist, racist, etc. works of art, they continue to absorb us on so many levels. Perhaps because they rise above those limiting categories? As for the possibly offensive Judeo-Christian overlay, I think I've just learned to ignore all that stuff (lapsed Roman Catholic, who can't shake the disease) and focus on the spiritual aspects. But I could see how someone from outside the tradition or a lapsarian sort could find it too much.

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  11. Thanks for the review, Ivy. Having never seen Parsifal, I was excited when I saw it would be part of the Met's HD broadcast series, but I'm not wild about what I've seen and read of the staging, and I may just listen at home Saturday.

    Also, not to deny the manifold sins of the Christian church, but I distinguish between Christendom and Christianity, and don't blame the latter for things completely contrary to the teaching and example of Christ. American Catholics and Evangelicals, by the way, began an ecumenical dialogue in the 80's, and signed a document affirming many articles of agreement in '94.

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    1. Ken, well, I actually find the staging to be quite beautiful in many ways. It was the libretto that bothered me. It's not that he uses such heavily Christian symbols, it's the way he uses them to promote a certain kind of philosophy that I find misogynistic and disturbing.

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