by Sam Juliano
One of Western culture’s most famous contradictions is an oddity that broaches but never solves one of life’s greatest mysteries. Richard Wagner, celebrated creator of a brace of philosophically complex “music dramas,” and most influential composer who ever lived, was also a well-known anti-Semite, and a mean-spirited and abusive family man. That such a person could write what is quite possibly the most ravishingly beautiful and spiritually infused music of all-time is a testament to to the concept that beauty can emanate from the most unlikely sources, where the most soulful kind of artistic expression takes no sides in choosing its creator.
But the composer’s final work, Parsifal, which premiered at Bayreuth in 1878, yields further incongruities connected to its reception and political standing, both of which seem to suggest that Wagner purged himself of his demons and embraced ideals that were in diametric opposition to his inner self. Adolf Hitler, whose adoration for Wagner’s previous work -especially his monumental Die Ring der Niebelungen and Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg- was infamous, banned any performances of the opera in 1939, presumably because the work’s message of pacifism and its seeming promotion of the Christian ideal of suffering ran counter to the ideologies of the Third Reich. Hence, Parsifal has never been a work to attract tame response, and the opera has been variously described as sublime, heinous or decadent, which specifically some critics have simultaneously embraced its epic wonderment while still judging it as “a profoundly inhuman spectacle, that glorifies a barren masculine world whose ideals are a combination of militarism and monasticism.” (Peter Wapnewski) Considering the suggestive allegory Wagner designed for what he called his ‘last card’ and ‘farewell to the world’ the controversy is hardly surprising. However, whether Parsifal is a sinister militant fantasy about the redemption of an Aryan Jesus from Judaism or just a feeble Armeggedon cocktail with a strong twist of Shopenhauer, critics of its supposed humanity will never be able to solve the magisterial beauty of its score nor account for the fact that aggression is completely contrary to the opera’s central idea. Indeed, the opera’s first act overture is among the most sublime passages in all of music with it’s slow tempo mid-way coda, one of the most ravishing themes ever heard by the human ear. The theme is encored generously through the work, and basically serves as it’s musical identification, with it’s majestic sweep and melodious flow evincing an unusual but indellible blend of bliss and melencholy.
The opera is invariably based on the concept of compassion as interpreted from the work of Schopenhauer, but in the end shaped with Wagner’s sensibilities and philosophical variations. Shopenhauer and Wagner shared the same view of compassion as applicable to the violent chaos of the world, where they found their common ground in a moral response. The opera is fundamentally a cathartic ritual that unfolds in three cycles, each more intense than the last. The melancholy history of the Grail community, however, which has taken place before the action begins, slowly asserts itself too as the work progresses. Parsifal is by no means just a comforting vision of a possible future state of grace. The gradual fullfillment of the prophecy announced at the start – the coming of the redeemer made wise through compassion – is also precariously balanced against irrevocably painful memories of the past. The action takes place in Spain in two contrasting worlds on the same mountain range. To the north on the Christian side lies Monsalvat, the castle of the knights of the Grail, which was built by Titural as a shrine for the chalice used at the Last Supper in which Joseph of Arimathea caught the blood of Christ on the cross, and for the spear that pierced Christ’s side. Only those who are chaste through spiritual self-examination may take part in the live-given ritual of the unveiling of the Grail. (i.e. the chalice) by Titurel’s son Amfortas, the present king. On the southern slope facing Moorish (heathen) Spain is Klingsor’s castle. Once a pious hermit unable to suppress sinful desire through reflection, Klingsor castrated himself and was spurned by the Grail community. Determined to possess the chalice and the spear for himself, he turned to paganism and magic in order to lure the Grail knights into his magic garden where his seductive flower maidens trap them with the very power they have learned to suppress. Linking the two worlds is Kundry, who once laughed at Christ on the cross snd is condemned to live for eternity, both as a decoy and prostitute in Klingsor’s castle, and as a repentant slave in the kingdom of the Grail. Klingsor has absolute power over her, as only he knows of her history and her tormented double existence, from which she seeks in vain to be delivered through death. On his orders she once seduced Amfortas, who had set out with the holy spear to put an end to Klingsor’s threat. Klingsor stole the spear with which he seriously wounded Amfortas in the side. Amfortas was led home by his trusty knight Gurnemanz to administer the unveiling of the Grail. But his wound refuses to heal with the consequence that the ritual has become a torture and his kingdom increasingly desolate.
In the first act an innocent youth named Parsifal wonders from the forest to the Kingdom of the Grail, where he meets Gurnemanz, who takes him to the castle housing Amfortas and the other knights. Without participating or understanding, young Parsifal observes the unveiling of the Grail and the rite of communion. Hanging out around Monsalvat is Kundry, but here she appears as a wild maiden, unkempt and sullen, with a wholly different personality, who serves as friend and messenger of the knights. The knights send Parsifal away–with just a late fleeting thought that he might be the innocent fool, made wise by pity, who can cure and redeem Amfortas. When Parsifal wanders into Klingsor’s woods, he’s tempted first by teh seduction-minded lovelies and then by Kundry, now again in the role of a beautiful enchantress. In this realm she’s the slave of Klingsor, under his evil power because of her own past sins. Her assignment is to seduce Parsifal, thus rendering him helpless. As there is lust in the youth’s heart she nearly brings it off, but Parsifal is of stern and unyielding even after sharing the kind of sensuous kiss that brought Amfortas and a brace of the knights to their knees. He recoils from the kiss, recalls his mother, understands now what has caused Amfortas to sin, feels compassion for him, becomes “wise through pity,” and recognizes that he has a redemption mission to perform, which is gain possession of the spear, find his way back to the knights, and touch-and-heal Amfortas. Kundry, unaccustomed to losing in these “sex scenes” calls on her master Klingsor for help. Klingor responds by throwing the magic spear at Parsifal, but it is mysteriously suspended in midair over Parsifal’s head. Seizing it, he makes the sign of the cross, Klingsor’s realm disintegrates, and Kundry is freed. After years of wandering (Kundry has cursed all paths back to Monsalvat), Parsifal returns to Grail country as a knight in black armor, carrying the sacred spear. It is Good Friday. At first the aging Gurnemanz chides the strange knight for being armed on this sacred ground, but he then recognizes both Parsifal and the spear, and knows that redemption is imminent. Returning to favor, Kundry baths Parsifal’s feet and dries them with her hair. After Gurnemanz names him new king of the Holy Grail, Parsifal’s first act is to forgive and baptizr Kundry. They join wounded and weary Amfortas, who has wished for death ever since events that pre-dated the opera, and who urged other knights to kill him. But when Parsifal touches Amfortas’s wound, with the sacred spear, the wound is healed instantly. As the knights pay homage to Parsifal, he holds up the Grail, and Kundry, now forgiven for her sins and at rest, dies peacefully.
In addition to the aforemention Act I Overture, Parsifal contains exceedingly beautiful music throughout. In Act I the mysterious ‘transformation music’ ushers in the Grail Castle from the previous forest primeval. In Act II the Flower Maiden chorus underlines Parsifal’s temptation, while in Act III the magnificent and trademark “Good Friday Music” makes it’s initial appearance after Parsifal, as the newly annointed King of the Grail, baptizes Kundry. This tone painting is one of Wagner’s best-known and most beloved themes. From the baptism till the end of the opera, the music is sumblimity incarnate. As in all Wagner operas (in the day they were known as “music dramas”) the massive orchestra is what fuels the entire presentation, overriding the singers and vocal music.
In the tradition of maverick Peter Sellars, German director Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, brings a radical new approach to the opera that is consistent with the avante garde application he employed in his great masterpiece Hitler: A Film From Germany, that may well have resulted in the most elaborately executed opera in film history. With a Brechtian aesthetic at work, and an acute focus on historical and cultural elements, Syberberg’s Parsifal brings together cultural and historical elements in a surrelistic design that often brings in contemporary context through the use of allusion and recurring motifs. Syberberg is true to the Christian messages of compassion. Syberberg wants to re-invent the viewer’s relationship with the material by bringing attention to certain obstrusive elements in the filmmaking process. Syberberg’s meticulous attention to detail and deliberate pacing are joined with an exceeding sense of theatricality to enhance the film’s universal themes. But Syberberg is fiercely loyal to the opera’s narrative arc and the music, as well as he should be. It’s actually an opera that would have intrinsic appeal to the erstwhile enterprising director, what with it’s fascinating blend of puity, paganism, madness and Christianity brought together with an air of acute uncertainty.
Taking his cue from his own Hitler: A Film From Germany Syberberg initially presents Amfortas with puppet theatre visual designs, which segues into on on stage mythical tableux and then an abstract profile of Wagner that suggests the wood-cut design in picture-books It’s no conincidence that a scarlet swastika is then seen is among the flags in the hall of the Grail, as Syberberg’s idea was to accentuate the longtime association of composer and dictator, wven with the marriage in disaray in the instance of one opera. Both Syberberg’s mise en scene and Parsifal himself begin to mutate, and there is preponderance of castration imagery, fog everywhere and caricatures of Wagner are showcased with more than a satirical application. Similar to the way the narrative morphed in Hitler, Syberberg spends the visualization of the Act III in Parsifal examining Wagner’s believes and prejudices, much as he did with the fascist dictator in the earlier film. As a result, the film ends up encompassing far more than just Wagner, but in addition Nietzsche, Marx, Schopenhauer, German art, and even silent cinema from Murnau and Lang. By offering up a comprehensive visual survey of Western culture with allusions to literature, painting, politics, philosophy, music, theatre and the cinema from the perspective of a German scholar, the director is able to properly frame an opera that was created with a similarly vast array of artistic and cultural reference points, but even more importantly to unmask a work’s inner essence, which has never been readily apparent to even the most avid Wagnerians. Time transition and movement in procession are two elements that dominate the cinematic landscape of the film. Wagner’s score actually dictates the procession of knights and Syberberg gives that aspect added heft, beginning when Amfortas is followed down to the lake and back again. In the Grail Temple, the knights march with their weapons and relics, such as chalices and even a statue of the young Parsifal, and the pages bear the bleeding wound. Then in the third act, the march becomes a procession of the living dead. Syberberg introduces other processions too, which are not required by the stage directions, such as the pages with the dead swan, or the group that searches for and brings back the Grail, and enormous rock in the shape of a platonic solid. Where a stage production of Parsifal is normally far more standard and tame, Syberberg introduces purposeful movement, with the camera also moving with the procession. In the transition scene of the first act, we follow Parsifal and Gurnemanz through a maze: moving in space, they seem to move backwards in time from the present, passing through the Nazi era on the way. In the transition scene of the third act, the path to the Grail Temple seems to pass through the sky.
Aided by cinematographer Igor Luther and costume directors Veronika Dorn and Hella Wolter, Syberberg practically reinvents the studio shoot with his unique interpretation of the great masterpiece as a confirmation of a decaying Europe, envisioned with the rotating time frame and an equal balance of the mythological and the real. Of course, Syberberg’s more subtle observations and settings are surrounded by his most visually spectacular idea-having the entire production staged within an enormous set of Wagner’s death mask, and he is assisted by some exceptional performers, some of whose singing is understandably dubbed. First and foremost is Edith Clever as Kundry, whose singing is negotiated by Yvonne Minton, but Armin Jordan as Amfortas, Michael Kutter and Karen Krick as Parsifals 1 & 2 and Aage Haugland as Klingsor are all most fine. It seems like a match made in heaven, or maybe in Haides: Syberberg and Wagner. Two of the most radical artists of their eras joining hands in a procession that weds the allegorical with the metaphysical, the literary with the theatrical, the political with the theological. It dares to bring added meaning to one of art’s most unassailable treasures, and that’s no small achievement.
How Parsifal made the ‘Elite’ 70″
Sam Juliano’s Number 6 choice
Allan Fish’s Number 36 choice