Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Thinking 'bout Parsifal . . . again (and again)

I’ve been in some interesting discussions, thoughts and reactions to Parsifal - perhaps my favorite opera of all (in actuality it’s a permanent “toss up” between this Grail story, Elektra, Wozzeck, Pelleas & Traviata . . . an odd mix, yes?) but it’s definitely my favorite work from Herr Wagner. From the moment I first heard the opening Vorspiel (I was, I believe 14) I've been under its spell (Good Friday or otherwise!) ever since.

One of the comments was that the work is too sad – unrelievedly so. I have to agree; few operas other outside of Parsifal (Don Carlos and Wozzeck come to mind) possess such an ineffable sadness and this fact seems to disturb and even alienate many. As a child surrounded by a lot of death, I long ago discovered sadness to perhaps be the most complete and honest realization of "beauty.” Sadness isn’t necessarily “hopeless” (though some would see it only this way); it doesn't scrimp or pretend the ugliness and pain away but rather shows it is inherent in all truth and beauty. In sadness one tends to recall things – to hearken back and reflect on more than mere joy – but on everything. I find this to be one of the chief strengths of Parsifal’s magic.

While the work is of course illusory, it presents no illusions, and in its artifice not a false moment shows. Wagner, gives us a handful of truly remarkable characters – almost the entire panoply of humanity. Parsifal, Kundry, Gurnemanz, and Amfortas are all immensely flawed, yet all good people trying to find their way. Even the “evil” Klingsor coveted membership to the Grail Knights, and his sin – egregious and ultimately damning as it was – was done to help him achieve this. Interestingly, Amfortas' own wound was a direct result of his own dalliance and broken vow, (and fraught with symbolism that STILL can confound one’s reason!) It’s always been fascinating to me how Amfortas remains Grail royalty, while the same “sin” keeps ol’ Klingsor out of Ye Ol’ Boys’ Club.

All of these characters seem to be wandering endlessly (in Kundry’s case, literally), almost as though spirits of one realm endlessly longing to belong to another.

As I moved through my teens and young adulthood, Parsifal was always (always!) made fun of, e.g., “I just got the best seats for Parsifal – they’re at Fiorello’s” (restaurant across the street from the Met”), etc., always dismissed as too static – “five hours of nothingness,” etc., etc. I never got that (even when I didn’t understand the opera) having always been fascinated by totality of Wagner’s achievement, his application of its music to his own borrowings of various Grail legends. Nonetheless, I accept that this is an opera more of ideas than one of action, and those who need love scenes, sword fights, crossed-identities, etc., and other (perfectly desirable) operatic trappings, simply will never cotton to it, and I’m okay with that. (I, years ago, gave up my juvenile and slightly creepy mission to make everyone adore it as I do; you’re welcome!)

Wade mentioned how there seems to be no relief or release in Parsifal but I find that Wagner DOES offer it – particularly (and repeatedly) through the outer acts.

I find this the perfect opera (for me) for so many reasons because while it is an entertainment, it also offers what I desire most: a great ol’ brain scrambling allegory mixing variations of ancient legends, elements of spirituality both primeval and modern, and music that is frequently beautiful beyond adequate verbal description.

Yes, this is an opera that demands to be paid attention to and those who find it boring are merely torturing themselves unless willing to pay that attention. Doing so, reveals Wagner at a level of text setting that, though frequently achieved in other works is rarely sustained as well as it is in Parsifal (at least in my estimation – which of course means nothing to anyone else – nor should it).

Wagner is accused of bastardizing the grail legends, and that is a little, if not entirely correct. Wagner of course changes Amfortas’ parentage (Titurel is actually his grandfather, not his daddy), and while Herr Wagner does acknowledge Parsifal’s mother to be Herzeleide, he obfuscates completely the fact she is also Amfortas’s sister – and therefore Parsifal his nephew! (I told you I was a grail nerd!)

Still, if we accuse Wagner of bastardizing the legend, so then must we also damn Wolfram von Eschenbach, Chretien de Troyes, De Boron, Malory, et al., for their doing the same with these ancient legends (and who is “right? in such matters? The first? I don’t’ think so.) In changing up the story, Wagner gave us libretto that perfectly fits the drama he bestowed us with, just as his raiding of various Norse and other myths suited his purposes for his “Ring of the Nibelung,” and just WHO is going to dare complain about THAT?

Parsifal will always hold a special place in my heart. While others of my favorite operas offer catharsis (Elektra) or tragic romance (Traviata) in no other opera does the music bring me back so completely to the innocence purity and ultimate tragedy that is childhood. In this score Wagner paints amazing life-sized murals filled with shadows and fog lifting from countryside streams, scenes in which one can all but smell spices from the far and near east; view misty shafts of light beaming throughout a hidden, secret mountain temple, ceremonial martial music that itself seems bathed in mystical, celestial light, brings hope out of sorrow and ends with the possibility of redemption for all.

Of course when can cite Klingsor as “irredeemable” – in the sense he plays the “devil’s role” in this drama. Nonetheless, one can have (as I discovered as a child) a genuine “sympathy for the devil” – even this devil. Still, Klingsor needs no redemption since Wagner sees fit to conveniently dispose of him once he’s served his purpose and moved the story forward. But what is so marvelous about Parsifal is – that outside of Klingsor – everyone is redeemed, including (as the text tells us) “The Redeemer,” - \Oh, how those words when sung in that final chorus, stir and move me.

When people speak of the power of art (in all its guises) and its ability to move us, nothing comes to my mind more instantly than Wagner’s glorious Grail legend.

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