The first act of Wagner’s Parsifal is long.
Really, really long.
Or perhaps, just seems that way….
We saw Wagner’s magnum opus yesterday in a local movie theater, my friends Maggie and Emma and myself. Maggie and Emma were completely new to this work, and loved it. (I have good taste in friends.)
On reflection, Act One needs to be as long as it is, in order to get the listener/viewer into the proper frame of mind. This would be: fascinated first, then immersed, then amazed, and finally, if you’re lucky, transported utterly.
Here’s how it begins:
The absence of corresponding visuals is deliberately chosen. In my (admittedly inexpert) opinion, opera productions are becoming increasingly strident, calling attention to themselves sometimes at the expense of the music. For me, nothing – NOTHING – should take precedence over the music.
So – Is this new production of Parsifal, the creation of François Girard, guilty of the above besetting sin of distracting stagecraft ? Alas, for this viewer, it was – at least, to an extent. Definitely to the extent of the second act, where the stage is literally awash in blood, which the performers are forced to wade through and which ultimately gets all over everything (a real housekeeping nightmare, although in an interview, one of the stage managers revealed that shaving cream got it out quite handily).
You can see where the flower maidens would have their work cut out for them:
Fortunately the sheer force of Jonas Kaufmann’s vocalizing (Parsifal) more than compensates for the gore poor Kundry (Katarina Dalayman) was sloshing around in.
Rene Pape took the part of Gurnemanz, an elder among the knights of the Holy Grail. In Act One, he recounts the story of how the Grail and the spear that pierced Christ’s body during his crucifixion came to be placed in the care of these knights, and how their king, Amfortas, came by his wound. The wound, incapable of healing, causes Amfortas immense anguish. And I must say here that in this role, Swedish baritone Peter Mattei was stunning. Not only was his singing gorgeous, but his enacting of Amfortas’s suffering was utterly convincing, and moving beyond words.
Here is Rene Pape as Gurnemanz:
You can tell, but I’ll say it anyway: He is superb. (Ron and I Loved him in Boris Godunov.)
The story of Parsifal has some basis in the medieval epic Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, a German knight and poet who lived from around 1170 to 1220. That tale in turn has links to the Arthurian legends; these seem to have permeated the sensibilities not only of the writers and artists of medieval Britain (and earlier) but also those of their Western European counterparts. The mention of Gawain in Act One fairly leaped out at me – especially since I’d just read a fairly detailed retelling of the story of Gawain and the Green Knight in James Lasdun’s book Give Me Everything You Have. In fact, I found that various associations were coming at me fast and furious in that first act: Kundry bringing a ‘balsam from Arabia’ for the easing of Amfortas’s pain put me in mind immediately of Lady MacBeth’s sleepwalking scene: “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” In fact, this blood soaked presentation bore a more than passing resemblance to ‘the Scottish play.’ At one point, MacBeth exclaims: “”I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, /Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” (There’s that word “wade” again….) Then, of course, there’s this, once more from the anguished MacBeth: “It will have blood; they say, blood will have blood.” (Maggie and Emma also reminded me about the Three Wise Men from the East, who attend upon the baby Jesus and give him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.)
The killing of the swan first put me in mind of Lohengrin. I’ve always loved the scene in which Elsa’s desperate entreaties are answered with the arrival of the knight Lohengrin, son of Parsifal, on his swan boat.
(And I recall my delight upon my first visit to Boston , when I saw the swan boats on the lagoon in the public garden. Are they still there? Yes! Click here for their history, including their connection to Lohengrin.)
The act of shooting the swan, for which Parsifal is so roundly chastised, immediately made me think of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. There is much speculation as to the source of the strange and haunting tale told by the mariner. One is that it ties in with the legend of the Wandering Jew; another connects it to the legend of the Flying Dutchman.
There are, of course, numerous other associations. Anyway, while I had trouble warming to the staging – why must it be so dark, I wonder? – I loved, deeply loved, both the music and the mystery.
Click here for an essay on “Wagner’s Grail Studies.” The study of Wagner’s operas is a vast discipline I’ve only covered a small corner of it here. In 2009, I had my own close encounter with Wagner and Parsifal at the Villa Rufolo, amid the amazing, unearthly beauty of Italy’s Amalfi Coast.
So…what about that popcorn? I simply can’t go into a movie theater and not have popcorn. It’s one of the few indulgences I’m permitted nowadays. I was munching happily away before the opera got under way, but once the slow moving majesty commenced… I tried a few kernels, and I sounded to myself like I was firing a cap gun!
I waited until the first intermission to finish my little treat.