Monday, June 24, 2013

Parsifal: Wagner's Secret Gospel

In Parsifal Richard Wagner was massaging his hemorrhoids, whilst resting one cheek on a Cosima embroidered pillow and applying Schopenhauer’s lotion to the throbbing wound within, when he cried, “Cosima, Crikey! I will use the suffering of the sex obsessed wounded king on the one hand and a pretty boy on the other, and have my devil woman laugh at Jesus then die! It’s not about racial purity and how impure races have infiltrated us, the idea is the World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung) -- it is Schopenhauer!!!!” “Master!” Cried Cosima as she slipped to her knees….

Actually, I’m joking. But how many idiots write in that style and can tell you just what Parsifal means? I see perfervid defenses of what, taken literally is indefensible, all the time, written by morons such as Stephen Jay Taylor (among the biggest idiots to hold forth) who uses his Dictaphone whilst playing ‘hide the gopher’ with the preposterously stupid Richard Garmise (also from Opera Brittania.)

So many people feel they must share their thoughts of Wagner the Man or No he really didn’t mean it as though they know anything, as though there really were such a thing as table turning and they could talk to “the Master”. Meanwhile, their thoughts on what we can actually know about his music and it’s execution in a particular piece are banal, unperceptive and so moronic they are probably deaf – presumably the reason other idiots from up the food chain hired them.

I’m no longer amused by the Wagner industry; he was writing entertainments and Parsifal has all the sex and religion one would expect in Thais, for example. If Massenet perforce must forego all of Anatole France’s wit about Christianity, the pretentious worship of the Greek masters, even the twisted psychologies of his leading characters (a pagan whore converted to The Christ by a Christian nut job named Paphnuce in the original – Massenet had enough sense to change the name to Atanael!), the result is at least not a pretentious farrago. Parsifal is not a work of philosophy – Nietzsche saw through that with priceless wit. Its libretto is a libretto, period. Did Wagner mean it, do you think? Actually the writing is less pompous and self regarding than most of “the Master’s” work, he uses free verse, easy rhymes, many exclamations, old fashioned recitative now and then, and only some of that ringy dingy nonsense known as Stabreim (pardon, ringy dingy is an old person’s reference to Laugh-In, though a good many recent productions of Parsifal, not an opera but a Bühnenweihfestspiel, are rather like Laugh-In). 

That long word means a “Sacred Stage Festival Play” and there is a pun contained in the word “weihen”, which means a “consecration”. How does the word sacred relate to Schopenhauer, an atheist, who was part of the first intellectual group to actually discover how contradictory, illogical and obviously much edited after the fact the Gospels were? How does the notion of “consecration” relate to The Buddha, supposedly another influence on the story? How could The Christ have been Aryan when even in Wagner’s time scholars such as Ludwig Feuerbach understood that if there really was a Joshua (Jesus is the Greek version of the name, a language a poor Jew would not have spoken, but since Aramaic was the language spoken most widely at the time, The Savior was probably called Yeshu) he would have been a small, dark, Palestinian who very likely never saw a blond person in His life!!! He might have thought one was the devil!!!

(Jesus as he very likely looked)

One may feel inclined as a perfect Wagnerian to screen these things out as we do in entertainments that we are legislated to enjoy and settle back and enjoy the music. But still the pretentious posturing out there, the automatic assumption that mere operas are “profound”, “searching” or even particularly revealing of what their creators really thought about complex issues irritates the Widder.

Certainly as a dramatic text, Parsifal is preposterous. It relies on endless exposition; its symbols are embarrassing, its point confused on the surface but stemming from the bigotry for which Wagner was famous. Its view of women is ludicrous; the odd sex scene that forms most of act two has -- like the entire work – to be hedged when described by the Wagner Industry, explained in contradictory ways that reflect nothing that would actually ever occur in life. But there’s no question that in Wagner’s plan Kundry the eternal whore must die – redeemed by the beautiful Aryan boy who has declined her favors but baptized her into – what? Schopenhauer? Buddhism? Is it to be taken at face value, do you think?

It’s really all nonsense, modern directors try very hard to minimize the composer’s own explicit directions. Kundry lives nowadays, sometimes she takes over in contemporary Konzept productions. They must ignore The Master’s contemporaneous hate filled writings, and even worse, the snippets of colloquial bigotry to be found in Cosima’s million word diary around the time of his composing Parsifal where The Jews are likened to a swarm of flies in the wound of a horse. Or, Cosima records a “capital” joke of Richard’s, “All the Jews should be burned….”. God help anyone who is not white and doesn’t join an all male society that believes the myth called Christianity, “a human being who is born black, urged upwards to the heights becomes white, and at the same time a different creature”. (these edifying quotes and more of the same can be found in Cosima Wagner’s Diaries, February 9, 1882 and December 18, 1881)

But most of the people hired to write or talk about music can’t. So they refer constantly back to the prolix, pretentious, bizarre texts, which can only be tolerated not because Wagner was a great thinker, psychologist, or good heavens, a dramatist. He was, more often than not, able to write music of remarkable power. Unless there is something else going on in Parsifal, as some Theologians of the seventies thought there was a secret Gospel to be pieced together from hints and oddities in the familiar canonical writings.

I was able to get a video of The Salzburg Parsifal this spring, telecast on March 28. Led by Christian Thielemann, the cast includes Johan Botha, Stephen Milling, Wolfgang Koch and Michaela Schuster. The production is by Michael Schulz.

(Thielemann as a Karajan assistant)

There was some controversy because the Berlin Philharmonic had gotten a better offer from Baden-Baden and decamped with their leader, Simon Rattle. Very late in the game, Thielemann jumped in and brought “his” orchestra, the Dresden Staatskapelle.

But he also made a decision to do the work with an attention to details of orchestration and harmony that is often lost in standard performances, no matter how well played and rehearsed. To achieve this lighter weight; and to support rather than war on the singers, he raised the pit and urged the orchestra to listen to the singers, and the singers to “locate” themselves within the orchestral fabric. He emphasized the vocal lines and how they were set and how musical details colored and enriched them.

The result is amazing. He achieves an astonishing range of colors effortlessly, without needing all the tricks of slowing down, sudden speeding up, inserting pauses or italicizing phrases. Rhythms have a wonderful spring and immediacy but are varied subtly to increase both the songfulness of the writing and also, when needed, to add intensity without the heavy-handed rhetoric one is used to. Above all, he has ignored the lexicon of mannerisms Parsifal has attracted at least since the fifties; there isn’t any of the faux “spiritual” stretching of phrases, there is no forcing of climaxes. Nothing is dragged for effect, there are no oddities of balance or showy sudden shifts in sonority in the orchestra, and there is no playing with phrases, extending or contracting them, deliberately creating instability of movement in search of mystical hypnotism.

Instead, the score sounds – well -- new. The colors are Wagner’s, the balances are honest. I have my own suspicions about why Thielemann made these choices; the emphasis here is on what matters most, the composer’s extraordinary musical invention, seductive, challenging and above all, in its time, original. His singers all are exact, prompt, musicianly. Though this cast in general is not a parade of vocal marvels, it is rewarding to follow with the score because the singers have been coached so carefully to operate within the musical framework.

If this was much or part of Thielemann’s strategy, it is entirely understandable here. No one in their right mind would want to see what is transpiring on stage in this production. Though Wagner’s psychological “insights” and philosophical pretension are worthless, this particular attempt to make them palatable is grotesque first to last – not amusingly grotesque just fun house nutty.

Whether I am right, Thielemann has actually followed the composer not the story teller. In Parsifal the motives flow up from the orchestra, rather than from the vocal line or (with a few exceptions) by being generated by dramatic events. There are fewer “obvious” leitmotifs; instead, there is a remarkable free flowing musical invention where the composer uses, with evident spontaneity, musical material from the first act effortlessly changed, reharmonized, differently colored to create remarkable effects, imitations of which will be heard well into the 1920’s. For my taste it is the most astounding and stimulating of Wagner’s works musically, a work of infinite musical resource and originality. By avoiding the usual inflation and pomposity, the all too familiar stasis, Thielemann and his virtuoso orchestra allow the results of the composer’s imagination to flower. Whatever one thinks of the work’s text or dramatic concerns, the odd beauty, the shock of the music is evident in every bar. Sad that there are words too, or at least, these words.

Anyone who looks at a score notices that Wagner has quietly created a new kind of modulation that carried further would weaken and undermine the importance of tonality. The beginning of act two, “the sorcerer’s lair” is a version of the serene beginning of act one – but in act two the stability of the chord underlying the start of the opera is destroyed by the introduction of a tritone (“the devil in music”). Throughout much of the opera, diatonic harmony is always on the brink of extinction. Wagner continually bases his key relationships not on the expected tonic/dominant mode of modulation in tonal music, but on thirds, constantly shifting one’s sense of a firm tonal center. Even the more obviously diatonic stretches have unexpected resolutions or shifts that call established keys into question. Everything in Parsifal evolves, shifts, twists. This is most obvious in the highly chromatic, for its time very daring and for us, fascinating, act two. But even in the first and third act “classical” progressions harmonically can never be taken for granted.

Is it possible that the harmonic instability of the work, its experimentation, its oddities (often smoothed out by the standard performances) contain a secret? Does the music suggest that Wagner himself doesn’t really believe this story either? Is it possible that the old man, writing what was certain to be his last work, decided to make Christological textual references(after all both his terrifying wife and crucially his patron, King Ludwig, had to be convinced of the probity of Wagner the man, something he was conspicuously lacking in his real life), while calling all meaning into question? It is nice to believe in redemption, but is it real? Can we be sure? Perhaps this is why in the Good Friday Spell of act three the typical emphasis on suffering quickly gives way to the beauty of nature renewed every spring, perhaps the only life after death we humans can be sure of. And maybe that is the secret underlying what seems forced, hypocritical, weird or pompous on the surface.

Just a few words about the production: The enormous Johann Botha is dressed all in green throughout the entire opera, with a big and tall style bargain store jacket that once seen will haunt one’s dreams for life. The equerries and helpers of Gurnemanz are dressed in white uniforms. When the music tells us Kundry is riding up ferociously, they form a circle around Gurnemanz and jump up and down. They look like Woody Allen’s version of anxious sperm in his version of All you Wanted to Know about Sex. Amfortas looks very hearty to be in agony from a wound that won’t heal, and during the Grail ceremony (whatever the Grail is, it is in a box picked out of a back alley) two Asian women who appear to be topless entwine themselves around him. And oh, yes, we’ve already met Jesus crucified. He appears shortly after Kundry does, “shadowed” by what appears to be a ninja. This Christ is very taken with Kundry, and walking like a crippled mime he follows her around. But then Parsifal has appeared with a troop of boys wearing green t-shirts and white jackets (I thought he was wandering alone fighting his way through the world? Guess not).

In act two, the setting is a museum with white statues that suggest cheap antiquities though I thought one giant head looked rather like Wagner retching. The real villain is a little person (let’s be un-PC and call him a dwarf). This dwarf is a virtuoso mugger, twisting his face into astonishing shapes – even at his curtain call! Klingsor is sung by Amfortas (actually the music of both is chromatic and to a degree related, maybe the director reads music). But it’s the dwarf who “conducts” the action, sitting atop a big head. Kundry has doffed her trench coat, dragging it behind her, revealing a tattoo sleeve and she has put on shoes. Her dress looks like it was gotten from a dumpster but that trench coat will come in handy.

In scene two, the girls wear cute burlesque style uniforms that come off to reveal filmy dresses, but some of their number wears white 70’s disco attire with big boots, the Jane Fonda Barbarella look. Parsifal enters with his troop, this time a bunch of – twinks – I think is the colloquial word in some circles. Twinks and girls whirl around each other and make out while Parsifal watches – a bi-curious pure fool? This goes on through the seduction scene. Parsifal and Kundry stay as far apart as possible. He sits through most of the scene. She lolls on a statue of what might be the Buddha, making out with it, since Parsifal doesn’t seem interested. The Crucified shows up here too and naturally, Kundry and he are mighty attracted to one another (the “Tristan” chord appears right after Kundry says, “sein Blick” in her narrative of laughing at The Christ, maybe she was turned on, too – that’s certainly Wagner implication. Again, maybe this director actually read the score. Although whether The Master wanted us to see The Christ and the whore of Babylon ogling one another is a question).

Act three is bare planks, dead bodies, Parsifal in green suit but holding some kind of home made mask made from a wire clothes hanger in front of his face to start. Soon enough boys and girls in green show up to demonstrate nature’s renewal. And here’s Christ again but this time he falls dead. The Ninja strips off his black shinobi shozoko and – it’s another Christ. Only he’s handsome, young, and aroused by Kundry. But he has bad luck, at the very end of the opera, though Parsifal has redeemed everybody (even Amfortas still strong enough to drag those two Asian dancers on with him, and to hurl his dead father, a plaster of Paris mummy, far behind the stage), this new Christ is crucified again just as he and Kundry appear about to conjoin. She is forced to her knees at the foot of the cross. Black out.

This is a wonderful performance to listen to. Thielemann’s balancing of chords and pointing of details and the instantaneous response of the orchestra is magical throughout. His ear is a keen as Boulez’ on his recording, but Boulez’ orchestra is not on this level and he has no feeling for the romantic gestures in the music, often rushing through. His great scene is the Klingsor scene, fantastically realized, but Thielemann with a somewhat riper sonority matches that. When the music should expand or have a highly colored quality Thielemann provides it without ever making a meal of anything. Boulez does not or will not expand. Armin Jordan who conducts the sound track for the once crazy but in comparison to this production interesting Syberberg film has a similar feeling for the flow and inevitability of the music and for its frequent changes and odd modulations. But again his orchestra is not as good or as responsive, and his male chorus, though they make an impressive general sound, doesn’t really sound prompt and idiomatic.

Koch, Amfortas and Klingsor is a virtuoso; he sings the magician’s very hard line with it shifts in key and easy to miss notes precisely, and his rhythm is superb, as is his elocution. As Amfortas he is hamstring by the production, but his phrasing and specificity musically are very rewarding. He has a fine voice, but not the glamour of tone Peter Mattei demonstrated this spring at the Met, the gorgeous ease of the younger Jose Van Dam on the Karajan performance, or the impact of George London on the first Knappertsbusch (1951). And for a real experience of agony and grandeur one can find Hans Hotter’s stunning early account of the third act monolog live from Vienna.

Milling is a good Gurnemanz, not wobbly or hoarse, always in tune, with clear words and an eloquent feeling for his phrases. It’s a good, dark, somewhat high set voice without the gorgeousness of Kurt Moll (first Karajan), or the immense abandon of Ludwig Weber (Kna, ’51) or the verbal magic of Hotter in the 1960 Kna, where his singing is variable and he wobbles but the impact of his performance is magnificent.

I adore Michaela Schuster, I loved her as the Nurse in Frau from last year’s Salzburg Festival (that is another great musical performance accompanying an odd, distracting production, available on a Decca DVD) and I’ve seen her be a thrilling Ortrud. She holds back here, concerned with staying in tune, and also keeping her tone focused as the line gets higher in act two. It’s a very intelligent reading of the role, but her singing is modest in impact. Physically she is not well cast, and thanks to the TV close ups, often looks uncomfortable (since she has to stare with lust at a hunky young Christ one can’t blame her).

Opera ‘Net scum, like the stupid fool, Stephen Jay Taylor, make fun of Botha. Of course, he’s badly cast physically. At the same time the role was being sung at the Met by the handsome Jonas Kaufmann and in Berlin by the very Aryan looking Klaus Florian Vogt. Both are good actors, Kaufmann particularly, and both were in more supportive productions. In a different time Botha would have shown up in front of the designer and cut that suit to pieces. Even in a different time though, Botha would probably have been thought better cast in concert. But especially on TV there is no winning for him. Close ups show emotion in his face but he really can’t move, and doesn’t. To hear him, though, is another experience entirely. Far more than Kaufmann or Vogt he is really a heldentenor. He has abundant, effortlessly produced tone that is both commanding and when he wishes, lovely. In act three where his singing is splendid throughout, he has a wonderful piano which is fully attached to his voice, not a croon, not separated from how he produces his tone, he can vary dynamics with skill and to fine effect and his grand “Nur eine Waffe taugt” is really thrilling.

Even though one can find a better performer of this or that role, I hope this is released as a recording. It’s a phenomenal Parsifal and a curative one and maybe a subtle demonstration of Wagner’s secret.

I should note that I don’t care about regie or off beat productions. Some work really well; I’m something of a fan of Peter Konwitschny and Hans Neuenfels. Both have profound, disturbing, powerful ideas about the operas they direct. Of course some productions in this school misfire and others are amazingly bad like the Salzburg Parsifal. But exactly the same can be said of “conventional” approaches, which often settle for the most obvious and tired images and sometimes miss the point of the opera in question just as much as a demented regie production. Loren Maazel, last week, was hostile to these “new” sorts of productions (not so new, in fact) and bragged that he got a huge positive response. He is a man of great general culture and intellect who also ran The Vienna State Opera; all the same, one has to go by the particular production and the kind of sense it makes of that senseless form, opera. Generalizations, even by someone as experienced as he, rarely have value in any large sense.   


  1. Well thought out and it echos the same feelings that I have had for some time (especially about the nonsensical plot and attempts to interpret it). I did see a Parsifal that attempted type of musicality back in 2000 in Washington with Domingo. It was conducted by Heinz Fricke who was the music director at the time (and an undervalued one at that; I suspect he was not better known in the West because of his ties with the East German government but cannot be sure). The production was traditional and static so that when one closed his/her eyes the music shown through bereft of the 'action' on the stage. Of course the Washington National Opera orchestra was really nothing special at that time (and still is sub-standard) but Fricke has obtained every last drop from them on that evening.

    It was also quite special to hear Thomas Stewart singing Titurel in what was probably his last role on an opera stage (of course you couldn't see him and he was in retirement back then).

    There is a 1997 Simon Rattle recording from Amsterdam that Mike Richter released on one of his Audio Encylopedia CD-ROMs that is also quite special musically.

  2. Thanks, Alan. Hearing Parsifal is always better than seeing it, although having seen Jon Vickers in the role was an exception. But usually the silliness trips up even the charismatics and one carries away with how much was made of the musical substance rather than the entire situation. Though "Kna" took the "drama" seriously and literally, I like both commercial recordings. He is slow but he knows how to move the music subtly and inevitably (as Levine never did) and the singing quality he gets from the orchestra is quite wonderful, even if in the first recording there are mistakes, occasional short losses of control and a less than virtuoso orchestra). From what I've been told Wieland found ways to make sense of the plot that were powerful or haunting (through light, and his ability to get the chorus to act as though their lives depended on it. Also, as regards to singers, he had no problem with posing them and letting them sing, rather than trying to impose actions on them that they could not execute easily or naturally. (I think he fell for Silja not only for the obvious reason but because she was a "natural" actress rather than a stage wise opera singer and really could impersonate characters through movement and gesture.) But the opera in Bayreuth is a special experience, more works there than elsewhere because of the configuration of the house, the acoustic (ideal for hearing Parsifal) and the sheer conviction of many of those involved. I saw one of the Boulez Parsifals and should have mentioned Franz Crass as a great Gurnemanz above, but there was a discord between the conductor's icy, objective though highly sophisticated approach and the work itself and the behavior of the singers, who were a strong stage case, including G. Jones (better to see than hear) and Thomas Stewart. Good hearing from you.

  3. This is an amazing post. I recently gave Parsifal a try this February and here was my response:

    I can't believe the amount of hate-mail I got for finding the pseudo-Christian symbolism of Parsifal distasteful. At the same time I could never express the themes of Parsifal (musical or dramatic) as well as you. Brava again, this is required reading. Great job Mrs.JohnClaggart!

  4. Thank you, mein Hivychen (Ivy and I go back to a group she founded when still a child, called Krakatoa-L on Yahoo. It's still the best opera group I've ever seen on the 'Net -- it's gone now. But the people in it besides being nice -- except for me but baby Ivy kept me in line -- were passionate, really well informed but enjoyed each others company as we have to do too often now in these 'Net-days.Time has not improved the remaining groups. Then it was new, novel. Now it's too often a bunch of ill informed or agenda driven nuts holding forth in ignorance and activated by bias.) I remember the on line hatred sent Ivy's way for simply making common sense points about Parsifal, and admitting that she didn't respond (not a condemnation in eternity for those who do love the work). The ignorant intolerance of people who couldn't begin to make their case as well as she had made hers was sickening. I recommend reading her comments on her great blog.

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