Parsifalling: I fell for the Met’s Parsifal (part the first)

I call this “Parsifalling” because I certainly have fallen completely under the spell of that wily wizard Wagner. The music I loved first, but always found the story problematic. This production’s cast, direction, conducting, choreography, design–everything, really–moved me, excited me, and challenged me. I’ve been looking forward to it since I saw pictures and read a review of the original performances in Lyon last year, and not only did it not disappoint, it wildly exceeded my hopes.

It’s hard to explain what is so special about Parsifal. The music, first. But you don’t go to a performance of Parsifal: you experience Parsifal. It’s like a trip–you take a deep breath, the music starts, and you’re on a journey. Surrender to the music and you go Somewhere Else for almost six hours. And you know what? The time flies by.

"Here time becomes space"

“Here time becomes space”

This particular Parsifal journey, directed by François Girard, begins with a very dark hazy reflective screen across the stage. In the original production, it reflected vague images of the opera house audience, but it only reflected the house lights from the three different places I sat in the Met, and the HD production chose not to show it, instead focusing on the orchestra for the first part of the Act One Prelude.

But it is an important idea that explained, at least for me, some of the staging that puzzled me: the audience is on this journey and is part of what’s happening on stage. Sometimes when I thought characters should be interacting more directly with each other, they seem to be interacting with us, the audience, instead. We are on the journey the characters are taking.

The reflective curtain disappears, although the haziness remains, and we see people very much like us: rows of men and women, dressed as if for the opera–the men in black suits, white shirts and ties, and the women in little black dresses or pantsuits–sitting opposite us. A reflection of us, in fact. A community; an audience; a congregation?  Slowly a young man in the center stands up. He’s not wearing a suit, but a sort of worker’s jacket and no shirt. He’s not in the community. He watches as the other men and women slowly stand. Then, as the Grail theme is heard, the men step forward to form a new community of men only. The women cover their heads with black lace veils and move towards the back. Are they mourning the loss of the community? Are they outcasts?

The young man is puzzled. He turns to watch the women leave. Meanwhile the men have ceremoniously removed their jackets and ties. The young man has no jacket or tie to remove but continues to watch the men’s gestures, even though he can’t participate. The men neatly stack their garments, remove their watches and cufflinks, and give up their cellphones. They remove their shoes. Are they standing on holy ground?

Then the men turn, gather up the chairs in which they had been sitting at the beginning of the Prelude and move to the right side, where they sit in two concentric circles: inward looking. The women move to the left, standing in a loose group. A single man, a woman–some look at each other, as if not believing that they are really being separated. The young man has disappeared.

The last hazy curtain rises (were we seeing through a glass darkly?). The men in their group have begun wonderful slow movements that have been described as a flower opening and closing. Oddly the first thing it made me think of was film I’ve seen of Orthodox Jews praying at the Wailing Wall. Their entire body is involved in prayer as they rock back and forth. So I assumed that these men, who are indeed the knights of the Grail, were praying as they swayed from side to side in their chairs.

Suddenly you are aware there is a crack in the earth, a small stream dividing men and women. No one crosses it. The ground is barren and a vivid sky full of lowering clouds appears in the background. Is it the Waste Land?

And so the story, and the journey, has begun.

Our future? An alternative reality?

Our future? An alternative reality?

Girard has said the setting is the present; others have said in an environmentally destroyed Earth of the future. I myself like the idea of a parallel universe or an alternative reality, if only because it helps me not to mind the way Wagner uses elements of the Holy Eucharist  in the story, and not to mind his wonky theology (I know wonky theology since I have a pretty wonky theology myself). Maybe it’s on another planet in the future? Maybe Christianity in a parallel universe, or a thousand years from now might look like this?

The choreographed movement was a complete surprise but made me love the production all the more. I’m an Episcopalian who’s been serving at the Eucharist for years, so I’ve observed all the liturgical gestures that are involved (they differ slightly from priest to priest and from country to country with visiting priests). The movement in Parsifal, while not specific to my brand of Christianity, was worshipful and somehow visually related to Christianity, while incorporating (I’m told) some Buddhist gestures and even yoga poses–I’m sure Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal) was pleased that his years of yoga practice finally paid off on stage ;-).

A tone of grave and stately beauty is set in the Prelude by the music and the production. Parsifal is not an action opera. There are no duels, no mad scenes, no dying lovers, no bullfights. Instead it’s the story of a journey from innocence to knowledge, gained by learning compassion, and of healing.

The first person we meet in Act One is Gurnemanz (René Pape). He’s an older knight who literally tells us the story of how things got to the barren state that they’re in as Parsifal begins. There’s a lot to tell. Fortunately Pape is an absolute genius at this role. I was almost leaning forward as I hung onto his every word–like a child listening to a story: and then what happened? and then what happened? It doesn’t hurt that his German is so precise that I could take dictation. Which is not to say that he sings choppily or without expression: he’s a wonderful actor and a very lyrical bass.

We learn via the time-honored device of questioning from some younger knights and squires that the knights were given the task of guarding the Grail (cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper) and Spear (which pierced his side during the Crucifixion). In turn these holy relics provided the knights with spiritual and physical sustenance for their duty of service. Titurel founded the order, and only those called by the Grail can find the knights and join the community. (Yeah I know, spear and cup, holy fertility symbols, Batman! Get out your From Ritual to Romance!)

However, the Grail must have called a wrong number, because at some point Klingsor (Evgeny Nikitin) wanted to join the knights but was deemed unworthy. Powerless to stop the desire with which he was constantly afflicted, he…uh…did himself an injury. Everyone knows he castrated himself, but all it says in the libretto is that he turned the frevlerhand upon himself (the wicked or sinful hand). PS I love the word Frevler. It appears several times in various ways in Parsifal. Parsifal is called a Frevler when he kills the swan. Kundry is called a Frevlerin. But I’m getting ahead of myself!

Klingsor set up shop across the valley from the Grail knights. And what he lost in human lust, he gained in evil power, so much so that you could say he was a sorcerer or an evil wizard. Someone in one of the many interviews I read about this production even called him the devil. I’d be more likely to call him a tool of the evil that he’s given himself over to.

Nikitin is a heavy metal guy. I'm sorry we couldn't see more of his tattoos, which work well with this character!

Nikitin is a heavy metal guy. I’m sorry we couldn’t see more of his tattoos, which work well with this character!

You can see that Klingsor at one point was also dressed in a white shirt and dark suit. He never got to take off the jacket and become a knight. The white shirt is now drenched in blood, as is his entire world. Klingsor’s world is a dark reflection of the Grail kingdom; his gestures mock and parody those of the Grail service. His blood is the blood of selfish passion, of evil, of death, of sickness. The blood in the Grail is healing and sustaining. (These two kinds of blood are contrasted in Amfortas’ first monologue.)

Meanwhile, the aged Titurel passed the leadership of the knights to his son Amfortas (Peter Mattei). Being a little beset with the sin of pride, I’m guessing, Amfortas decided to go big or go home, took the holy Spear itself, and determined to put an end to the Klingsor threat. Unfortunately, Klingsor knew from personal experience the weakness of men. His evil powers enabled him to ensnare and ensorcel Kundry (Katarina Dalayman)–more on Kundry later–to use her for his purposes. She appeared to Amfortas as an irresistible seductress and while he was drunk with passion* in her arms, Klingsor seized the Spear and wounded Amfortas with it–a wound that cannot be healed. (Hello Fisher King)

[SIDEBAR*] Amfortas is described as “drunk” with passion in the libretto, no matter what the English subtitles say–and this important word explains why Parsifal spends the early part of his time in Klingsor’s realm staggering around like he’s just come home after a hard night on the tiles. But I’m getting ahead of myself again!

Gurnemanz, who was Amfortas’ right-hand knight, helped him escape back to the kingdom of the Grail but irreparable damage was done, not only to Amfortas, but through him the community (and the land?), which has since begun to deteriorate.

Titurel prayed before the Grail for some sign of how the wound could be healed and learned in a vision to wait for a pure/innocent/ignorant fool* who would learn compassion/sympathy through suffering (Mitleid = mit + leid = withsuffering = sharing/experiencing the suffering of someone else). This enlightened one would be able to heal the wound.

[SIDEBAR*] Why so many slashes? Because one of the ‘problems’ of Parsifal is that there is no simple one-to-one correspondence with an English word for many of the important concepts in the story; and Wagner invested these words with his own philosophical/religious ideas. I tend to go for the simplest explanation that moves the plot along and that fits with my own wonky theology or at the least doesn’t offend it. So while “Mitleid” is translated as pity, compassion, or sympathy–something you have FOR someone from the outside–to me “suffering WITH” or “EXPERIENCING the suffering of someone else” is much more active–and makes the whole “Amfortas die Wunde!” monologue make more sense. Keep in mind, mit + leid may have nothing to do with the actual etymology of Mitleid, I just had a little epiphany. Works for me!

So, that’s the “Previouslies” for Parsifal.

I’ve just read that blog posts should be much shorter than this already is, so I’ll divide my reactions into separate posts. Part 2 will follow!

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One Response to Parsifalling: I fell for the Met’s Parsifal (part the first)

  1. Katherine You says:

    I am really enjoying reading it, and amazed how much details you observed and insight, truly amazing, and its inspiring, I have been huge fan of Wagner’s opera for many years, and actually my favorite is Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, seen many times at Met production,but None moved me as this Girard production, It took me a while to get it all digested and all understood, of course start with Wagner’s music, its long legato and sublime music really speaks all, and Wonderful singers who can sing and act to bring to life and Director who has vision to bring this such a moving experience, Yes, Parsifal is Experience, like GIrard said, its Mission, I can’t wait to read rest of your blog of Parsifaling experience, and thank you for sharing.
    I am going to see Parsifal HD encore tomorrow and I will think about what you wrote, I miss Terribly this production, HD and Live at opera house are two different thing, while we can have more encore HD showing or watch DVD probably comes out later, but nothing can compare seeing in Live! Thank you again, and waiting for next!

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