5. Opera – Richard Wagner, Parsifal
Richard Wagner, Parsifal (1882)
On the 12 of March 2011, I fulfilled an ambition to see Wagner’s Parsifal; the production was that of English National Opera, at the London Coliseum. Sung in English (as is ENO’s practice), this was in a production first staged by them in 1999, and directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff (this production has also been staged in various cities in Europe and the United States).
Wagner’s conception of the work seems to have originated in 1845, when he read Wolfram von Eschenbach’s (medieval) poem Parzival, though his conception was much influenced by studies of Buddhism, and oriental philosophies, in the mid-1850s. Only in 1857 did he specifically connect his understanding of the story’s themes with Good Friday, but it was 1865 before he took up the project again, completing the libretto (“poem”) in 1877. It was a further five years before the opera was produced, at the Bayreuth Festival of 1882.
While the work borrows various ideas from Buddhism and Eastern thought (particularly renunciation) – the spelling with an S instead of Wolfram’s Z was supposedly derived from the Arabic Fal Parsi, “holy fool” – as it emerged, Parsifal was an essentially Christian work, or “ein Bűhnenweihfestspiel” (“A festival play for the consecration of the stage”), and the setting within the specifically-Christian-derived grail legends (as Wolfram’s story), and the repeated references to the Lord and Good Friday, make it, in my view, a story whose Christian “centre” cannot reasonably be denied (despite our necessary acknowledgement of the non-Christian ideas that contributed to its genesis).
Lehnhoff’s production almost explicitly attempts to de-Christianise Parsifal; “This production of Parsifal does not seek to stage a sacred drama – a ‘Bűhnenweihfestspiel’” – says Wolfgang Willaschek, in his article in the ENO programme (“Endgame in the WasteLand”, p. 27). Original productions set the hall of the grail knights (in which the mass/communion-like ceremony of the grail’s uncovering is performed) beneath the cupola of a cathedral (normally identified with Siena). The significant act of destroying evil and its forces was Parsifal making the sign of the Cross with the recovered spear of the Crucifixion. In this production, the grail and its shrine, the grail hall – and the making of the sign of the Cross – are omitted. The de-Christianisation of Christian art is something I regularly complain about (the reason for it, in most cases, is that secularists/materialists can’t produce their own art, so they have to distort religiously-inspired art to fit their agenda; besides, they can’t write as good music). The problem, with this production, is that though the old settings were radically replaced (and Wagner’s stage directions ignored totally), the director went only half-way, retaining the words (complete with references to the Lord; I quite thought not to hear those), and, of course, the music. Thus, the libretto explicitly refers to meadows and flowers, etc. (throughout the work), but here, we were stranded in a sort of builder’s junk yard, with fragments of concrete replacing the sung-about flowers; waste land indeed. If the stage directions were going to be ignored, why not doctor the words, to at least try to get the whole thing to make sense?
The community of knights, at Montsalvat castle, northern Spain, have charge of the grail or cup which collected Christ’s blood at his crucifixion. The spear (used to pierce his side) has been captured by the grail community’s “rival”, the sorcerer Klingsor, whose magic castle and garden are nearby, and whose ambition is to steal the grail also. Ancient lore predicts that evil can only be defeated, and the grail community restored from its current decline, when a “holy fool” comes along, and destroys Klingsor’s realm, and returns the spear.
Parsifal (after an unimpressive start) turns out to be the “holy fool” long waited for; but central is the curious female character Kundry. She is one of the most complex figures in literature (indeed, if we would find a character of such inner-contradictions, we might need to look to the characters of Shakespeare, rather than the world of opera). Kundry is a mixture of both the desire for redemption and the need to dominate and degrade those possessed of innocent virtue (particularly, that is, the holy fool Parsifal); she is both penitent and seductress, and as such is typical (or perhaps the prototype) of many late-nineteenth century femmes fatales. She laughed at Christ on the way to his death, and seduced various grail knights (including Amfortas, leader of the community), and she seeks, in Act 2, the redemption that she knows only Parsifal can bring her … but urges him to spend just one brief hour in her embrace – which (they both know) will destroy them both eternally (and the grail knight’s community also).
The notion that the barrier to redemption and virtue, is, supremely, sexual sin, is an idea crucial to many understandings of Christian thought, particularly, perhaps, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and maybe formative of the ancient Christian traditions of asceticism. Thus, we have the dualist understandings of the opposition of matter and spirit which – deriving, one suspects, from Neo-Platonism – fuelled the search for spiritual purity in the renunciation of sexual physical life. From this ancient stream, surely, derives the idea that sexuality and holiness might be warring incompatibles. Of course, this is a distortion, mis-conceived, and while we might not require the total rejection of celibacy, we must urgently promote the Christian valuing of physicality (whose acceptance might take centuries) when we have established a true distinction between distorted, degraded sexuality and the (perhaps hidden) virtue of its true, holy, nature. The real opposite of virtue is not sexual vice, but the rejection of the ultimate purpose of human existence (abandoning our pride before the reality, and experience, of God’s love for us), which inevitably degrades our valuing of individual people, and thus ineluctably leads us to the materialist adoption of a vicious dehumanism, which is the source of everything totalitarian and evil.
At the end of Parsifal, Wagner’s stage direction makes clear that finally, the spear and grail community restored, we see Kundry sink into lifelessness (redeemed, but dead). In the secularist understanding, of course, this is a very bad thing, since this present life is all, and there can be no kind of redemption that involves termination. In Lehnhoff’s production, we see Kundry not expire, but rise and walk, with Parsifal, up a damaged railway track towards strong light (ie. walk off-stage). I found it rather beautiful, and, curiously, as authentically Christian as Wagner’s original idea.