17 March 2013

A screening of the Met Opera’s wonderful production of Parsifal leaves me pondering whether too much Wagner is as bad as too much Prosecco at the interval. 

Continuing my Wagnerian education, this weekend I strapped on a horned helmet and gave up my Sunday to see the Curzon’s encore screening of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2012 production of Parsifal, described by the New York Times as “among the most metaphysical, ambiguous and profound, if inexplicable, operas ever written”. I like a challenge.

My friend Patrick was fairly easily persuaded to come, though he explained to me that he can only bring himself to see Parsifal once every five years, a position he assured me I’d understand better once I’d seen the opera. Like me, Patrick was excited about seeing German tenor Jonas Kaufmann sing Parsifal. We’d both been impressed by the gorgeous quality of Jonas’ singing in the Met’s Die Walküre in 2011, and even more impressed by the beefiness of his biceps in Sigmund’s fetchingly form-fitting chainmail vest. Patrick mentioned something about Jonas-as-Parsifal wearing a loincloth at some stage, which clinched the deal. We had to be there. Patrick even offered to do the catering, composed of leftovers from his Saturday lunch and a couple of his killer lime and pomegranate cupcakes, which he assured me were virtuous and calorie-free, on account of their being baked for Red Nose Day. I was skeptical about the calorie count, but otherwise delighted.

Like the opera itself, getting there proved to be a bit of an operatic marathon. The encore screening was at the Curzon’s newish matchbox-sized cinema in Richmond, starting at 2pm and ending just after 8pm, with two intervals in between, meaning it was going to be an all-day affair. My journey took me back onto the seemingly endless westbound District Line, which became an impromptu nostalgia trip: I’d spent a good deal of my time in 2003 travelling back and forth from housesitting in Wimbledon and Putney in the early days of my life in London, usually with a massive Walkman in tow. South West London was much as I’d always remembered it, like a postcard from the pre-war 1930s: quiet, bucolic, smog-free air, red-bricked and with that aura of well-insulated affluence that the English middle-classes do so well. Poor Patrick had a much more trying journey, coming from the wilds of somewhere called “Zone 4” in South East London, and had to contend with no trains due to engineering works and standing in the rain at a bus stop. “It’s Sunday”, he said with a shrug when he finally arrived, neatly encapsulating what Janet Malcolm refers to in The Silent Woman as “English passivity and its attendant moral superiority”.

Though we were both alarmed by the lack of brown people and the high numbers of Bugaboo pushchairs and tasselled loafers, we agreed that Richmond was rather lovely. The cinema was down a cobblestoned lane, seconds from the riverbank, where we went for a pleasant stroll at the interval, Prosecco glasses in hand. There’s something vaguely liberating about working through the heart of Middle England with a Prosecco glass, and Patrick and I committed to doing it more often, though to increase the eccentricity next time by donning eyepatches and velvet capes. As it’s still winter here, the riverside was largely empty but for a few horsey types in Barbour jackets walking their terriers. I attempted to describe for Patrick’s benefit the horrors of the riverside on a summer’s day, in which every square of grass is packed with Hooray Henrys in coloured chinos and tasselled loafers drinking Pimms and comparing the size of their yachts.

The cinema itself is delightful – just a single auditorium, with comfortable high backed seats, well-appointed loos (always important for a six-hour show) and a huge screen with crisp HD pictures and a great sound system. “I won’t be coming back, of course”, Patrick said, still rather flummoxed by the rigours of his journey, though we agreed later that it was the perfectly sleepy venue for a langorous day-long contemplation of Wagner.

Parsifal itself was remarkable – like a beginner’s guide to Buddhism as choreographed by Leni Riefenstahl. The plot, which Patrick advised I study up on beforehand, was surprisingly simple. Parsifal is a wandering fool who shoots a swan, bringing him to the attention of the existentially depressed Knights of the Grail, whose leader Amfortas is still bleeding from a stab wound inflicted by a vengeful wizard. Parsifal is despatched to recover a lost spear, said to be the weapon used to pierce Christ’s body on the cross and containing a vial of the holy blood, in the hope that its return will restore the Knights to their former glory.

Though it sounds straight out of Chaucer or Morte D’Arthur, Parsifal’s journey owes as much to Wagner’s reading of the Bhagavad Gita or Steppenwolf as it does to the Norse sagas or Arthurian legend. Director François Girard, who made the wonderful 33 Short Films About Glenn Gould, picks up on the Eastern spiritualist vibe, setting the action in a post-apocalyptic gloom, with mostly barren treeless landscapes, framed by huge, stunning digital projections of volcanic sunsets and ominous looking orbiting neighbourhood planets. Rather than going for traditional swords and sandals garb – which now, post-Monty Python and Spamalot, can’t really be taken seriously – the Knights were in nicely cut black business suits with white shirts, and barefooted, which was very corporate Zen. Parsifal himself was, disappointingly, not in a loincloth, though he did have a very nice navy blue tunic that was split to the waist at strategic moments, displaying Kaufmann’s impressively toned cleavage. “Given the outfit, we’re lucky it’s him and not Pavarotti”, Patrick observed.

Parsifal was, I subsequently learned, the equivalent of graduate school for Wagnerians. Had I been a Wagner virgin, I expect I would have found this production ponderously long and frustratingly obtuse, despite its arresting visuals and Jonas’ abs. Fortunately, my almost three years of slow-burn Wagner training, watching cinema-streamed performances of the Met’s new Ring cycle – Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung – has limbered me up and attuned me to the strangely hypnotic pace of Wagner’s musical-narrative style, and given me a taste of the masochistic pleasure derived from submitting to such lengthy works. Parsifal‘s first and third scenes are extraordinary for the deliberate stealth of the narrative, and the serene beauty and almost total lack of urgency of the music, which is gorgeously rich, subtlely textured and happy to play out on its own terms, sending you into a kind of meditative trance. Girard’s austere staging, at least in these scenes, emphasises the melancholy and slight chilliness of the piece, placing you in a world which seems familiar and otherworldly at the same time, but never less than compelling.

Wagner takes an extreme change of pace and adds a big dose of Crazy to Scene Two, where Parsifal enters the wizard’s enchanted garden to retrieve the spear, dallies with some seductive Flower Maidens and finally has the Mother of All Oedipal Mummy Crises with the witch Kundry, who attempts to fuck him into forgetfulness and make him abandon his quest. What’s fun about Wagner is that there’s very little need to be a clever clogs and apply a psychoanalytic reading to reveal the sexual and narrative tension in his work – the perversity and repression and fifty foot tall sexual symbology is all there, centre stage. Girard decided, boldly and wisely, in my view, to dispense with any form of subtlety and just play the sexuality of the action full throttle. The enchanted garden became a blood-red gorge with a massive vaginal cleft down the middle, in which characters waded around onstage in a pool of soupy looking blood. (At the interval, we discovered this was a mixture of glycerine and cochineal, which Patrick found most reassuring, especially after I’d pointed out the huge vagina). The Flower Maidens were less seductive than homicidal – clutching javelins which they writhed around like pole dancers, dressed in formless white shift dresses and floorlength black wigs, like the killer she-spirit from Hideo Nakata’s horror film Ringu. The dresses get mighty blood-splattered after a while – the Met’s laundry bill must’ve been enormous. Klingsor the wizard looked like a late night stand up comedy host – Dara O’Briain perhaps, or Derren Brown gone very, very off the rails. Though it all looked insane, as if Ken Russell had been commissioned to redecorate an ante room in Hell, the scene worked brilliantly, and provided a striking contrast with the pale colours of the first scene.

In the climax of the scene, some of the stronger, gym-going Flower Maidens carried on a double bed, on which Kundry attempts to seduce Parsifal. “Is Kundry the world’s first cougar?” I asked Patrick rather too loudly, causing some of the decidedly non-cougar like ladies sitting behind us to wrinkle their noses disdainfully. Hey lady – blame Wagner, not me! He’s the one having his hero make out with a woman old enough to be his mother! The sexual politics of the scene are indeed very strange. As with Die Walkure, where Wagner makes us feel passionate sympathy with lovers who are actually brother and sister, the Parsifal-Kundry MILF sex scene seems designed to invoke an ambiguous reaction of horror, lust and curiosity. Kundry immediately repents her wrongdoings and is converted into a Mary Magdalene-type penitant, whereas the kiss awakens Parsifal from his childlike stupor and transforms him into a man. It seems that a little transgression with a buxom Mummy substitute is good for the soul, and just what’s needed to help you man up and become a Wagnerian hero, and save the day in Scene Three, which is pretty much what happens.

Patrick, who has an prolonged and unfortunate attachment to 70s feminist theory, sniffed a bit at Wagner’s sexual hypocrisy in having Kundry repent for her sins while Parsifal is hailed as a stud. Patrick has a point, but what’s interesting about the scene is how Wagner (and Girard) suggest sex less as a sin requiring the wrath of an Old Testament god, and more as a Buddhist/tantric ritual that opens up possibilities for spiritual enlightenment – a concept that comes to fruition in wonderful ways in Scene Three. That being said, Girard seems aware of the feminist critiques of the male dominated Parsifal, and complicates things by putting groups of women in almost every scene, as a reminder of who is being left out. As New York Times opera critic Anthony Tommasini wrote in his review, the women onstage are “always nearby, silent but ready and able to aid in the resurgence of the community, if only the knights will let them.” They mostly don’t get their chance, and only Kundry gets any agency in the piece, though by the end she’s penitently washing Parsifal’s feet with her hair, no doubt in homage to the prostitute from St Luke’s Gospel.

But back to Sex and Zen. In Scene Three, Parsifal returns to find the Knights decimated and wandering in a devastated World War One-type no man’s land. Like most onstage apocalypse-chic, it looks ghastly to move around in but fabulous to watch. Parsifal heals Amfortas with the spear and then leads the faithful in a revelation of the Holy Grail. On the page, it reads as terribly earnest and po-faced, and probably ripe for a French & Saunders parody. But it’s here that Wagner pulls out the heavy artillery and writes his most astounding and sublime music. As staged by Girard and sung by Kaufmann and a remarkable cast, it becomes a moving and transcendent finale, that finds its authority through the intense sincerity of the performances and the serene beauty and sheer gorgeousness of the music.

By the end, I was, much as Patrick predicted, exhausted but exaltant – though unlike Patrick, I wanted to arrange for a rescreening of the Met broadcast immediately. As with most long-form art forms, Parisfal leaves you with a sense of emotional satisfaction and an insight into something profound and glorious that you don’t quite understand but that lingers in the mind for days afterwards. I even forgave Patrick for the misleading promise of seeing Jonas in a loincloth.

Postscript: My delays in finishing this blogpost allowed me to read a marvellous article by Nicholas Spice in the London Review of Books, who provides a masterful analysis of why Wagner’s music continues to enthral his audiences, even when we don’t quite trust his motives. His title, “Is Wagner bad for us?” is a not-entirely tongue-in-cheek response to the long-standing view of Wagner as an evil magician, whose music makes is a guilty pleasure at best, and dangerous propaganda at worst. Spice reels off a long list of Wagner’s critics, starting with Nietzsche, who called Wagner “a great corrupter of music” who “made music ill”, to Conrad who described Wagner’s music as a “drug” inspiring “a delicious listlessness”, Brecht claiming that Wagner’s art “creates fog”, Tolstoy comparing listening to his music to getting drunk or smoking opium, through to contemporary British composer Thomas Adès who calls Wagner’s music “fungal”, suggesting, Spice says, “infestation, decay, sickness and a tendency to spread uncontrollably”. Added to the many stories of opera singers crashing and burning under the strain of performing Wagner’s vocally taxing and physically exhausting marathon length opera, he seems at least as dangerous as his evil wizard in Parsifal.

Spice writes with great perception and insight into the emotional experience of listening to Wagner’s music – “I am interested in the way we take in Wagner’s music, or the way it takes us in”, he writes – and he provides some well-informed explanation of how Wagner’s compositional style and manipulation of narrative works “take us in”. Spice sidesteps the most common argument that’s made about Wagner’s “badness”, as a crypto-Fascist whose celebration of an Aryan ideal and the role of conquering supermen laid the foundations for the rise of 1930s Nazism. He points out that music is “a promiscuous and adhesive medium”, that “jumps the gap” and attaches itself to words, images and ideas, and warns against literalist readings of Wagner’s music as a “sinister prolepsis” of the Third Reich. Restricting himself to a musical analysis of listener-response, he nonetheless points to Wagner’s arsenal of tools of emotional manipulation that provide evidence of “music’s amenability to exploitation for political purposes”.

Spice argues that Wagner’s power lies in his “quite exceptional feel for the way our brains take in musical and dramatic information”, and his structuring of music and narrative to create an alluring emotional experience. Spice points to Wagner’s deliberate integration of his operatic music within his narratives, in which “the listener is given only rare opportunities to bail out of the musical and dramatic argument”, and his habit of slowing down his narratives to follow the pace of his music, introducing musical leitmotifs and themes slowly and carefully to allow us to “metabolise” the music without confusion. This results in what Spice calls “the authentic Wagnerian experience”: the simplicity of the music, he writes, “allows us to feel that we are at the controls of this infernal machine, its drive our drive”.

Which is all well and good until, as Hans Keller points out, we find ourselves (sic) “identifying with feelings which we experience as bad, evil”. Wagner was, Spice writes, an expert breaker of boundaries, in his personal and musical life: “Transgression he took in his stride”, Spice argues, pointing to the theft, adultery, incest, lies, disobedience and cowardice that peppers Wagner’s narratives. “Wagner’s work is everywhere preoccupied with boundaries set and overstepped, limits reached and exceeded”. Wagner also seems to have been comfortable with wanting his audiences to break boundaries too, and so wrote music with the aim of making audiences “abandon themselves unresistingly to the work”, Spice writes, so that, in Wagner’s own words, they “involuntarily assimilate even what is most alien to [their] nature”.

This seems to explain the ambivalence with which Wagner’s audiences respond to his work – seduced into bed by his alluring, strangely intelligible stories of perversity, then waking up the next morning with a headache, a bad taste in the mouth and an over-arching feeling of guilt about the nasty musical one-night stand they’ve just lived through. No wonder he’s so often branded a magician or sorcerer (or, in modern parlance, a Rohipnol-fueled date rapist), as we rush to shrug off our own moral culpability for enjoying his music and engaging with the perversity of his narratives.

Spice eventually acknowledges the “danger” of this kind of artistry-as-propoganda that entices people to enjoy breaking the rules. “[W]e might observe that much harm comes from failing to acknowledge boundaries and that a music that seeks to overrun boundaries in some sense models other invasions, other grabs for power.” Though it’s something of an understatement to describe the horrors of the Second World War as “a grab for power”, it’s a point well made.

Spice concludes on a note of unusual ambiguity: with typical British puritanism, he concludes that “[i]t’s surely up to us to manage Wagner’s charisma, up to us to maintain the ‘and’ in our relationship with him”. He concedes, though, that it may not be possible to “keep Wagner at a distance without losing something essential in our experience of his work”, which seems a much more honest and less emotionally constipated reading of the Wagnerian experience. Whether we like it or not, Wagner gives us the big, intense, transfixing, emotionally abandoning experiences that we hunger for or secretly wonder about, despite it’s entirely good for us or not. It is, after all, only an opera – watching Wagner is no excuse at all to go and invade Poland.


  1. Ritual remains a central feature of this production. Yet Mr. Girard also builds a poignantly human story through the principal singers. As Gurnemanz, the éminence grise of the grail knights, bass René Pape was magisterial and warm, with a penetrating delivery that enlivened his long monologues. Baritone Peter Mattei seemed to be living the agony of Amfortas, both in the fierceness of his singing and his halting, excruciating attempts to walk. Jonas Kaufmann made Parsifal complicated and vivid, from the adolescent shrug with which he conveyed his initial lack of understanding to the pure, messianic authority of his final transformation. Evgeny Nikitin was a properly brutal, slashing Klingsor, and Katarina Dalayman brought controlled passion to Kundry, expertly crafting the seduction scene. Mr. Girard has her lift the Grail for the final ritual, as the women and the men mix together onstage for the first time. Wagner might not have approved, but the gesture of reconciliation, overriding the libretto’s misogyny and obsession with male purity, fit the music and completed Mr. Girard’s moving, modern vision.

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