I already knew what to expect from the music. During the Wagner frenzy during the 2013 Proms, I'd gone to hear a concert performance of the opera with Mrs Specs and, of course, our regular classical music consultant David (*offstage applause*) - ceaselessly patient as ever in the face of my interval questioning. It was a fantastic evening - Sir Mark Elder conducting the Halle, and featuring leading Wagnerian performers Sir John Tomlinson and Katarina Dalayman - and concert versions of opera allow you, as the mood takes you, to follow the libretto without the fear or guilt of missing anything visual, or just immerse yourself in the music.
The flipside of that, though, is that loving a concert performance just makes you more desperate to see a fully-staged version - especially of a work as strange as "Parsifal", set somewhere so alien to the real world that it already seems something of a feat that anyone would attempt to visualise it at all. Luckily, the Royal Opera House were rounding the year off with a new production, so the three of us re-assembled to tackle it.
Famously, Wagner wrote this, his final opera, specifically for his purpose-built venue at Bayreuth, and it wasn't performed anywhere else for years. In what was becoming a habit by this time, Wagner didn't even describe it as an opera (he preferred alternative terms like 'music drama'), and he subtitled "Parsifal" a 'Bühnenweihfestspiel' - a 'festival play for the consecration of the stage'.
The action revolves around the legends of the Holy Spear (the weapon which pierced Christ's side) and Grail (which was filled with his blood). Klingsor, a renegade and arguably unstable magician - he castrates himself after proving too lustful to join the order of Knights who guard the Grail, so, you know, watch him - wages a campaign against the Knights by deploying sirens to entrap them when they leave the relative safety of the castle environs. Amfortas - son of the Knights' aged leader Titurel - falls prey to their allure and not only loses the Spear to Klingsor but suffers a terrible wound from it, which won't heal. Klingsor has his sights on the Grail too, and as he works his way through the Knights, the castle society falls into decay and disarray.
All of that, though, happens before the opera opens. Three more key characters drive the action forward: Gurnemanz, an elder Knight who generally acts as a compassionate chorus and helpfully explains the backstory during Act 1; Kundry, a mysterious woman who travels far and wide seeking remedies for Amfortas for reasons unknown; and Parsifal himself, who first appears as a simple, reckless youth, making an unpopular entrance into the Knights' orbit by shooting one of their swans just because he quite likes shooting things.
The way these folk jostle and settle give the opera its unconventional shape. Wagner is not really concerned with twists, turns and surprises in terms of action or plot - instead the drama comes from within, emerging from the characters' decisions and identities. Act 1 is concerned with establishing the Knights' apparently hopeless situation. By now a physical wreck, Amfortas has had a vision that only a 'holy fool' can cure him. Since Parsifal (whose name means 'holy fool' - not a coincidence) is at this point an idiot - a kind of moral slate needing to be wiped clean - it's clear to us that his destiny is to provide this healing. Again, the opera does not seek to create plot suspense in this way. However, Gurnemanz only sees a glimmer of the truth. On instinct he invites Parsifal to join the holy communion Grail ceremony (which sustains the Knights), but irritated at the youngster's blank incomprehension, sends him on his way.
In Act 2, everything goes mad. Time has passed and Parsifal, wandering on, is about to walk straight into Klingsor's lair. He deftly hacks his way through Klingsor's guards and even resists the group of flower-maidens, but his toughest battle is with Kundry. She is in fact in Klingsor's thrall and reluctantly acts as seducer-in-chief. Act 2 is like a high-octane dramatic opera in miniature. The serenity of Act 1 is replaced by faster, more intense exchanges. Parsifal, on the point of succumbing, instead suffers an extraordinary moment of realisation and sympathy. (This video shows the superb tenor Jonas Kaufmann perfoming this section in concert. In the music leading up to his vocal, you can hear how close to success Kundry gets - but then: "Amfortas! The wound!" Listen to the power, the echo. Wonderful.)
Parsifal pulls away from Kundry and grows up, recognising and re-calibrating himself, in that instant. Klingsor makes the mistake of attacking him with the Spear, which Parsifal calmly confiscates. He disappears as Klingsor's palace collapses.
But then, in Act 3, the serenity and mysticism return. More time passes - a lot more - before Parsifal finds his way back to the Knights' castle. It's Good Friday. Gurnemanz, by now probably the oldest military man in history, brings Parsifal up to date (Titurel has died as Amfortas has refused to give communion from the Grail) but realises that the Spear is back where it belongs. Amfortas has lost all hope and wants only to die, but instead, Parsifal touches his wound with the Spear and it heals. However, Parsifal, rather than Amfortas, takes his place as keeper of the Grail. The libretto has Kundry - present but near-silent throughout the act - sinking "lifeless" to the ground.
"Parsifal" has its roots in Arthurian legend, but Wagner wrote his own librettos, and will have devised the structure himself. I don't think, then, that it can be an accident that this 'consecration' is like an altar triptych, with Acts 1 and 3 mirroring each other with long passages of recitative and epic, heady instrumental passages that lead to a closing ceremony. These acts also both contain sections highlighting Gurnemanz' empathy and Amfortas's suffering. Equally, Parsifal - despite the surface change and self-realisation - actually comes full circle: he always was the holy fool, but didn't understand. Gaining self-knowledge is his route back into Grail society (it was ignorance that made Gurnemanz kick him out) but in effect, Act 3 brings him back to where he started, in some ways a kind of cipher, like he was at the start.
Whereas the almost stand-alone central act feels beamed in from another work - it has its own new micro-cast (Klingsor and the maidens) who don't feature in the 'Grail acts' and it contains the true climax of the opera - Parsifal's mid-seduction awakening. It's hard not to link this with the sexual climax Parsifal rejects, as though Wagner is underlining the moment where his protagonist becomes genuinely sacred as the key turning point of the opera.
As a result, the most fascinating and truly enigmatic feature of the whole opera is Kundry. In Act 2, we learn that she is an immortal of sorts. Cursed for laughing at Christ on the cross, she endures a kind of double slavery - physically in Klingsor's power, but also compelled by the resulting guilt to try and help the Knights. Arguably, she alone travels through the opera in a straight line: wild, witchy and unpredictable Grail ally in Act 1, femme fatale in Act 2, redeemed in Act 3. While it seems to be generally accepted that Kundry is released through death, there is an argument that "lifeless" is ambiguous (she could collapse or faint without dying, in theory) and some productions let her live. This one, for a start.
The Royal Opera House production, directed by Stephen Langridge, featured a fantastic cast - Simon O'Neill as Parsifal, Rene Pape as Gurnemanz, Willard White as Klingsor, Angela Denoke as Kundry and for me, a stand-out performance from Gerald Finley as Amfortas. The staging wore its otherworldliness on its sleeve. There was a representation of a forest, but within that, centre stage throughout, was a huge, transparent cube. I was impressed with how versatile this proved to be - on a more practical level (but still visually arresting, and a neat idea for newcomers to the opera), images of events from before the Act 1 timeframe were projected onto it while characters sang the 'flashback' passages. (And I won't forget the tableau of Klingsor's self-castration in a hurry.) But it was more flexible than that - it housed a bed, for example, that could show Amfortas seduced on it one minute, lying sick in it the next, allowing all sorts of chilling connections to be made.
The glowing white of the cube also, I assume, must represent the power of the Grail, which is kept inside it. This gives rise to possibly the most controversial element of the production, where instead of a chalice, the Grail is revealed in Act 1 as a young boy. So far, perhaps so innocuous, but because it's a communion service, the boy is carried around the congregation of Knights, who touch his leg or foot to draw strength. Whether informed by the post-Yewtree fallout or not, some reviewers have expressed acute discomfort at this. I'm not so sure. While it would certainly be risky, the director could be trying to evoke a response to this taboo partly to symbolise the sickness and decay among the Knights - since their de facto leader is in medical and spiritual turmoil and the rest of them go wandering about and get seduced at the drop of a helmet.
But I think really that it simply means Parsifal is a personification of the Grail. Parsifal must grow through self-awareness and human understanding into the holy man who will rescue the fellowship. His inertia in witnessing the Act 1 ceremony shows that he cannot comprehend that it's a version of himself that he is seeing, still a child, I suspect, because he is on the very start of his pilgrimage. The fact that Parsifal, alone of those on stage, cannot bring himself to touch the boy supports this. By Act 3, when Parsifal returns, the Grail is shown to be a teenager - that is, on the cusp of maturity - but the cube closes. Finally, when Parsifal has healed Amfortas and assumed the appropriate level of holiness, he ascends the steps towards the cube, which opens: empty. I take this to mean that the boy-Grail and Parsifal have merged. I also think this is a good way to engage with Parsifal's enigmatic parting words to Kundry in Act 2, which I've thought about over and over: "You know where you can find me again." Kundry is found at the castle as Act 3 starts, well before Parsifal gets there.
In a way, I found Langridge's decision to let Kundry live more problematic. The fact that Wagner's intention appears to have been for her to die may be tricky for modern audiences (the fact that the male characters' 'salvation' allows them to endure while Kundry's 'release' is the opposite possibly won't surprise anyone familiar with Wagner's catalogue of unsavoury ideas and opinions) and I might have warmed to the idea of Kundry attaining a kind of catatonic, but non-fatal bliss. This version has her leaving the stage as a companion for Amfortas. I think if you looked hard you could get the inspiration for that from Kundry's efforts to find cures for Amfortas - but if you do bring them together, you risk implying that Kundry cannot escape the carnal instincts forced on her by Klingsor. Quite a bleak interpretation and I really don't think Wagner regarded the ending of this one as bleak in the slightest.
That aside, it feels like a production bursting with invention. Parsifal sings of his blindness - generally thought, I think to be metaphorical, but Langridge takes it literally - blinding Parsifal in the explosion of Klingsor's palace and foreshadowing that in Act 1 as Gurnemanz blindfolds Parsifal when first escorting him to the castle. The Act 2 flower-maidens are decked out in a dazzling array of glizty nightclub colours which let us know straightaway we are in a wholly different world from Act 1.
I now realise that the ideas and characters in "Parsifal" are so involved and involving that I've hardly scratched the surface with the music - but that's ok. When I saw the Ring cycle at the Proms (helpful link), I talked about Wagner's recurring motifs that allow him to break away from the 'aria' format into what he intended as more evolved, complete artworks, or music dramas. As his last work, "Parsifal" if anything moves this technique further up a notch, with recognisable ear-worms mutating and combining with even greater sophistication. Add to that, though, the feeling that he really thought he was on a mission to purge the stage of its secularity, and it's no wonder the music goes deeper into harmony, serenity and sheer beauty. The stage consecration is achieved partly through the resolution of the drama, but also a unique sound that blends that most earthy and passionate musical form - opera - with the meditative and hymnal, without falling apart. Even though you might be in bits - in a good way - by the end.
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The image is the Royal Opera House poster for the live cinema relay of "Parsifal", so I assume it's their copyright, and I found it in a search on the Opera Magazine (NL) website.