Yesterday morning I got up at 6 a.m. to be ready to leave the house by 8 a.m. in order to attend a screening of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD theatrical telecast of Wagner’s Parsifal at the Horton Plaza Cinemas in downtown San Diego. This version of Parsifal was a new production by French director François Girard and conducted by Daniele Gatti — a name that concerned me because Charles and I had previously watched a KPBS showing of his Met Aïda and he slow-poked his way for 2 ½ hours through a score Arturo Toscanini dispatched in two (and he moved so slowly through the big arias I feared for the leading singers’ ability to hold their breaths for that long). Because of its spiritually themed subject matter, including a 45-minute scene at the end of the first act that is essentially the Christian communion ritual overlaid with mythological and spiritual trappings both from ancient German mythology (Wagner based Parsifal on a medieval German epic by Wolfram von Eschenbach, whom he’d previously depicted as an on-stage character in Tannhäuser) and Wagner’s readings about Eastern religion in general and Buddhism in particular, and because Wagner himself made watching Parsifal seem like a spiritual quest in itself — he called it, not an opera, but a Bühnenweihfestspiel (which literally means “stage-consecrating festival play”), and insisted that it be performed nowhere else but at his own theatre at Bayreuth — it tends, even more than Wagner’s other works, to get performed very slowly. It’s the sort of score that, especially since relatively little actually happens onstage, tends to get conductors who believe that spirituality = profundity = slow tempi, so they crawl through it on their hands and knees and make an already long, draggy opera seem even more boring.
Charles had desperately wanted me to go to this Parsifal even though he couldn’t — yesterday was his last day of work before his vacation — and partly as a consolation prize for him and partly as a point of comparison for me I’d run Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s 1982 Parsifal film for us last Thursday night. The comparison itself turned out bizarrely and not always in the ways I would have expected: whereas Syberberg cluttered up the stage with various bric-a-brac — including flags (one of them from Nazi Germany, which was a jolt even though not altogether a surprising one, since Syberberg’s two most famous films before Parsifal were the extended documentary Our Hitler and a multi-hour interview with Winifred Wagner, the composer’s daughter-in-law and an outspoken supporter of Hitler and the Nazis even before they took power), standards, decorations and photos, many of Wagner himself at various points in his life (and the stage set that opened to reveal the interior of the Grail Temple was a giant-sized replica of Wagner’s death mask) — Girard designed a production that quite literally had no buildings at all and precious few props of any kind. Girard also did Parsifal in modern dress, a bit of foolishness which in an interview shown during one of the intermissions he justified by saying it helped make the story “relevant” to modern times. I’d like every director who believes in that particular idiocy — the idea that a medieval quest narrative, or a 19th or 20th century adaptation of one, needs to be recast with the comparatively dull clothes and physical reality of our own time to be made “relevant” to today’s audience — to look at the box-office figures of the three films of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and see the evidence, literally in black-and-white, that modern audiences not only can accept a mythological narrative of olden times but that sometimes they can find that more “relevant” than it would be if it were shoehorned into the physical appearance of now.
What Girard’s ideas meant in practice is that the Knights of the Grail in Act I were all dressed in white long-sleeved shirts and black pants — ironically the same “drag” that Charles has to wear at work (indeed, when I told him about it afterwards he said, “You mean the Knights of the Grail all work at Vons?”) — and while they start out in full suits and ties, they take off their jackets, ties, shoes and socks during Wagner’s gorgeous Act I prelude so they can walk with bare feet around a set that looks like a mud flat (“cracked earth,” the stagehands who had to set it up called it). When Amfortas, the son of the ruling knight Titurel, turns up, his wound — inflicted by the spear with which the Roman soldier Longinus stabbed Jesus during the Crucifixion, which Titurel picked up in the Holy Land along with the Holy Grail (the golden chalice Jesus supposedly used during the Last Supper, though it seems way too fancy to have been a table fixture at a meal of 13 homeless missionaries in Palestine 2,000 years ago), only Amfortas let it get stolen from him by the magician Klingsor and his ally (sometimes) Kundry, whom Klingsor assigned to seduce Amfortas — isn’t directly visible but it’s bleeding all over the front of his white shirt, and it’s also getting blood onto the two Grail Knights who are standing on either side to help him move. The effect is like looking at a bunch of waiters attending to a cook who’s had a really bad accident with a meat cleaver. It also didn’t help that the Gurnemanz, René Pape, outside of his usual elaborate operatic costuming and makeup and in modern clothes bears a striking resemblance to San Diego’s current mayor, Bob Filner.
I already wrote a long comment on this opera in my post on the Syberberg film (see below) but just to give the quick-and-dirty recap: in Act I the Knights of the Grail are waiting for the “innocent fool, made wise by compassion,” who can enter Klingsor’s castle, resist its temptations, get back the spear and heal Amfortas’ wound. He is Parsifal, whom they catch outside after he’s killed a swan with a homemade bow and arrow (and Wagner, a real-life animal-rights activist and militant vegetarian about a century before that was cool, stops an already undramatic plot for five minutes so Gurnemanz can give Parsifal an animal-rights lecture), and he watches the whole Grail ceremony, says nothing afterwards, and gets sent off on a long journey by a disgusted Gurnemanz. In Act II Parsifal shows up at Klingsor’s castle, fights off a squad of knights conjured up by Gurnemanz’ magic (though we don’t see this — we only hear Klingsor describe the battle as he watches it, which seems a shame because in a modern-dress production Girard could have staged this action and had Klingsor, and us, watch it on a giant TV monitor), wards off the lubricious offerings of Klingsor’s Flower Maidens, and is about to yield to Kundry when he suddenly remembers Amfortas and his wound (indeed, in Wagner’s text it’s made clear that at that moment Parsifal has a sort of sympathy pain at the part of his own body corresponding to the location of the wound). Klingsor throws the spear at him but it hovers magically in mid-air over Parsifal, who grabs it, waves it, and thereby makes the entire magic castle disappear (presumably taking out Klingsor but not Kundry, who reappears back at Grail Central in act three, though she only gets to sing two more words, stand around a lot and croak mysteriously at the end). Act III takes place on Good Friday, some years later, in which Parsifal finally shows up back at the Grail castle, Gurnemanz doesn’t recognize him at first, but then hails his presence as miraculous; Parsifal finally touches Amfortas’ wound with the spear, heals him, takes over as king of the Grail knights, and everyone in the order who’s still left presumably lives happily ever after.
In addition to setting Parsifal in (more or less) modern times and giving the Grail Knights singularly boring costumes to wear (when I briefed Charles afterwards, he pointed out that the Grail Knights were essentially a monastic order and even if you were doing the opera in modern dress, you should still dress them in the kinds of robes monks wear now), François Girard really let out his demented imagination in Act II. As I should have been able to guess from Girard’s previous credits — he directed two movies about classical music, Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Red Violin, the latter, most relevantly for this discussion, being a multigenerational story about an antique violin which supposedly sounds especially good because blood was used as an ingredient in its original varnish — Girard came to Parsifal with an obsession with blood and a determination to seize on every time the word Blut (“blood”) appears in the libretto, which is quite a lot. (Indeed, it’s the persistent references to blood that usually get cited by the anti-Wagnerians who regard Parsifal as an expression of Wagner’s racism only thinly veiled as a paean to brotherhood and spiritual salvation.) While his settings for Acts I and III were basically dull — that same mud flat, only in Act III seen with holes in it supposedly representing the graves awaiting the main characters (particularly Amfortas, who between Acts I and III stops leading the Grail ceremony because he’s in so much pain he just wants to die — and he thereby kills his father Titurel, who apparently had already died but had been brought back to life by the Grail) — for Act II he came up with a lulu: a shallow pool of blood, a few inches thick, covering the entire stage floor and making both the singers and their costumes more and more bloody as they moved about during the act. Parsifal’s and Kundry’s scene together occurs on a bed borne in by supers, and they and the Flower Maidens (the six Wagner designated to sing and even more extra ones than the 10 Syberberg added in his film) stand holding metal rods and stay there during the entire attempted seduction — which one would think should have been staged with Parsifal and Kundry alone on stage and Klingsor off to one side, literally waiting in the wings until his reappearance at the very end of the act. By the time Parsifal is finished resisting Kundry’s charms the bed looks as if at least three babies have been born on it, and in an interview with the head of the stage crew shown between acts II and III he explained that they had found shaving cream was the best sort of soap with which to wash the fake blood (a mixture of water, glycerine to thicken it, and food coloring to make it red) off the performers’ feet.
By the time of the third act, the stagehands have had to pump the pool dry so it can be removed and the mud-flat set returned — this time sprinkled with white dust to represent snow (the fact that in Wagner’s text Gurnemanz spends a lot of time hailing the arrival of spring didn’t seem to matter to Girard) and pockmarked with holes that, as I noted above, were meant to represent graves and intimidated the cast members so much that after the opera ended they started their curtain calls from the back of the stage and only later gingerly advanced down the raked set to the front of the stage to acknowledge the audience’s approval. What’s even worse, the entire opera is played with the lighting (if you can call it that) at a continuous level of murk; even the Good Friday Spell in Act III, in which Wagner lightens his orchestration and therefore virtually demands that the stage lights be turned up as well, goes by without any visible change in the dimness of the stage. (Wagner had already written a similar effect for the moment Siegfried breaks Wotan’s spear with his sword in Act III of Siegfried, and most modern productions ignore that one, too.) No wonder The New Yorker classical-music critic Alex Ross called Girard’s production “nearly as inexplicable as the work itself.” The basic problem with a modern-dress production of a legendary or mythological work is that the characters and their behavior patterns are so remote from our reality that to try to shoehorn them into our reality only makes them seem more distant and less credible. Parsifal resists updating in ways operas like Traviata, Carmen and Bohème — all of which were originally set in the time periods in which they were written, and dealt with realistically drawn people in believable real-world situations — do not; as the makers of the Lord of the Rings movies realized and François Girard did not, works set in a legendary (past, future or entirely fantastic) period can sometimes speak more strongly and powerfully, and seem even more “relevant,” if they’re left alone than if they’re shoehorned into a “modern” context in which the conceits of the director become more important than the insights of the original author.
So what parts of the Met Parsifal did work? In two words: the singing. Every cast member was stronger than their opposite number on the soundtrack of the Syberberg film, and while I wouldn’t necessarily call this a “dream cast” for the work (but then the “dream cast” for Parsifal as far as I’m concerned would consist entirely of people who were active in the 1920’s and 1930’s: Lauritz Melchior as Parsifal, Frida Leider as Kundry, Friedrich Schorr as Amfortas, Alexander Kipnis as Gurnemanz, Eduard Habich as Klingsor, and Emanuel List as Titurel), it would be hard to imagine a much better cast being assembled today. Alex Ross dismissed the Parsifal, Jonas Kaufmann, as “fluid but disappointingly indistinct” — whatever that means — but I thought he gave an absolutely gripping reading of the title role even though the makeup people overdid his age makeup in Act III. (Maybe he was stronger in the world telecast performance than he’d been on the opening night, February 15, which is what Ross reviewed.) At least we got a lot of nice look-sees of Kaufmann’s bare chest — that’s one good thing about doing it in modern dress — and though he’s not exactly a hunk to die for he did a lot more for me aesthetically than the twerpy Michael Kutter did in Syberberg’s film. More importantly, Kaufmann sang the role with the kind of Heldentenor richness it needs and which Syberberg’s soundtrack Parsifal, Rainer Goldberg, didn’t (Goldberg was one of those people who thought he was a Heldentenor and really wasn’t, as he proved not only in Syberberg’s Parsifal but on a Laserlight compilation of Ring excerpts in which he vainly tried his hand at Siegmund). The duet with Kundry that takes up the last half of Act II was the best part of his portrayal — he and his Kundry, Katarina Dalayman, both tore into this part as if they were looking forward to the scene in which Parsifal’s plot and situations come closest to normal human actions, desires and emotions. Dalayman also deserves credit for coming as close as anyone can to bringing the two halves of Kundry’s character — the self-abasing servant of Acts I and III and the seductress of Act II — into a consistent whole. (It’s so hard to make Kundry a consistent character that in a 1961 production at the Vienna State Opera, conductor Herbert von Karajan, decided not even to try; instead he cast Kundry with two different singers, Elisabeth Höngen as the servant and Christa Ludwig as the vamp.) Peter Mattei was excellent as the tortured Amfortas and René Pape, despite almost inevitably looking like a prominent local politician in his white dress shirt and black slacks, handled Gurnemanz’ long monologues as vividly as possible. Evgeny Nikitin came out as Klingsor in a 19th-century suit (so much for modern dress) and a shirt that was stained, ripped and red all over — though one got the impression, in line with François Girard’s production, that his shirt hadn’t started out red but had been stained that color by repeated immersions in the blood pool in which he lives. He too sang with power and authority, proof that the Met can still assemble an excellent cast and give them their heads despite conducting and (especially) staging that doesn’t do them justice.
I did briefly ponder the irony that a work Wagner wanted to be performed in only one theatre in the world (Wagner authorized one performance at the Munich Opera so his patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, could see what he was paying for, but only on condition that Ludwig be the only member of the audience — and by that time Ludwig was such a recluse he didn’t mind that at all!) was being beamed by modern technology to movie houses all over the world. Alas, there was a glitch in that modern technology; before the opera started we got a notice that “solar interference” was affecting the telecast from North America and would result in periodic blackouts — which did occur, and were sometimes annoying, but fortunately they were confined to the visual portion and did not affect the music (which would have been far more disconcerting). This was my first experience at a movie theatre watching a Live at the Met in HD telecast —though I’ve seen a few of them before when they were being rerun on public television — and overall I enjoyed it even though a shorter, less “difficult” opera might have been a better choice for my maiden voyage. I was amused that when I came out of the theatre the ticket-takers I passed by on my way out seemed dumbfounded — I said to one young woman, “You’re probably encountering a lot of people with glazed looks on their faces and thinking, ‘Oh, they just came out of the opera,’” and she said, “I’m just amazed that you people could sit through six hours of opera!” (Charles was amused, when I told him that story, by the phrase “you people.”)