Sunday, 3 March 2013


Live cinema transmission from Metropolitan Opera, New York
Cineworld West India Quay, 2 March 2013
The key moment in Act 2, as Parsifal first misunderstands, then understands, the true nature of Amfortas' wound.
In Syberberg's film version, this moment transformed the gender of the hero, an apt response to what is going on.

A powerful production of the most controversial music drama in the canon, and one that confirms Wagner's subversive, humane exploration of compassion.

Wagner’s last work almost too-neatly concludes the explorations of his mature supreme masterpieces but it is considerably more controversial than Tristan, the Mastersinger or the Ring. The wider controversy, over the artist’s extreme racial prejudice, seems to me to rely upon a more work-specific controversy – that this music drama is Christian, so that Parsifal is a non-Jewish 'pure' version of Christ.

I grappled with this second and broader controversy, first articulated by Nietzsche, while watching this beautiful new production by François Girard at the Metropolitan Opera screened live at the cinema. [But I mustn’t mislead by suggesting this was a central theme of the production.]

Perhaps prejudiced, I concluded that with great audacity and originality, Wagner directly uses, confronts, and ultimately subverts, Christian mythology in this work. So I believe Nietzsche is interestingly wrong.

Admittedly, in this drama the Redeemer exists, and his Eucharist is given uniquely powerful expression through the grail music, but astonishingly he must be also be redeemed, specifically by Parsifal.

The extreme sufferings of Amfortas and Kundry, so shatteringly portrayed by singers and orchestra at the Met, are not eased by the Redeemer, despite their heartbreaking pleas.

Indeed, for all its beauty the grail appears to be useless, possibly destructive in hands other than Parsifal’s. Its ambiguous knights are not shown doing god’s work. In this production they are depicted as sensitive ‘new men’ but focussed too inwardly, and effectively damaged by lack of femininity, with the women from whom they are divided standing invisible to them on the other side of the stage.

Crucially, Parsifal’s transformation into somoene who can redeem even the Redeemer is one that owes nothing to the Redeemer. In a sense, his discoveries in Act Two are a more successful version of Siegfried in the Ring Cycle, a free agent who can save others and transform the world without god’s help.

Quite how this self-enlightenment happens is described in words (and powerful music) during the second act’s long seduction scene between Kundry and Parsifal. It is hard to follow, even if we know the words beforehand, so it is enormously enhanced by seeing the close-up acting of both participants, as here. Here, actors, director and especially the director for cinema surpass themselves: we see the reactions of both characters as their complicated dialogue unfolds.

Following reflection, it may be hard to accept that Parsifal’s type of compassion – which is not intended to be magical, but relevant to you or me – can genuinely improve the way we live our lives, as it so evidently does for Kundry and Amfortas. But in the theatre, or here cinema, Act 3 marshals the most impressive music-dramatic resources imaginable to convince us that this is true.

Daniele Gatti’s conducting, impressive enough in the other acts though perhaps too slow, really fits the final act, as it should. Everything convinces us that Parsifal is learning how to genuinely help others, how to redeem them, and I couldn’t see why belief in Christianity is required at all here. 

It is true that as the act progresses, Parsifal adopts some of the outward symbols of the gospel’s Jesus, but this is shallow identification – in every significant way he is different, and he effectively usurps the Christian model with Wagner’s own. 

Surely a drama that concludes transcendently with the Redeemer being redeemed by a mortal cannot be Christian in any obvious sense.

A more plausible association with pragmatic Christianity is the focus on lust’s negative impacts. And this is easily the sexiest Parsifal I have seen, both Jonas Kaufmann in the title role and the production itself – the flowermaidens are finally genuinely seductive.

It can seem as if Parsifal is renouncing sex, especially when the seduction is as effective as this. But for Wagner, sexual desire represents all desire. And Parsifal claims that while desire need not be a bad thing, we err in thinking escape from states of extreme desire lies in sating the desire itself.

This review has gone far beyond the production but I hope it is clear I found it so impressive that I was able subsequently think of the deeper issues around this masterpiece.

Only some very great works of art are worthy of such reflection, and only some very good productions facilitate such thoughts. This is one of them.

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