by Chris Bertram on December 14, 2003

Out to see the Welsh National Opera’s magnificent performance of Parsifal last night in Bristol. It was brilliantly conducted by Anthony Negus who brought out the shimmering beauty of the music. There were — as there always are — problems with the production, which both accentuated the specifically Christian aspects of the libretto and included absurdities such as Kundry towering over Parsifal in an enormous red dress (about 10 feet high!) in Act 2. But that shouldn’t diminish what was a very powerful experience both musically and dramatically — I’d single out, despite the red dress — the sexual tension of Act 2 as especially well done. As for individual performances: Sara Fulgoni as Kundry and Alfred Reiter as Gurnemanz both shone. (Spotted in the audience: Bryan Magee.)

I’m going to avoid much comment on the religious, symbolic and generally ideological content of the work here (partly because I want to post a longer essay on Wagner on CT soonish). Plainly the contrast between a life of religious devotion and one of sexual indulgence is at the centre of this work as it is of Tannhauser (for example). But whether there is, in the end, coherence there I’m far from sure. Plotwise it isn’t promising and, on the way home I played a little game with myself devising an update:

bq. Act 1. A band of jihadis are in their mountain training-camp. An apostate turned brothel-keeper has stolen a holy relic from them but each jihadi who is sent to retrieve it is easily seduced by one of the brothel-keeper’s prostitutes and abandons the true religion.

bq. Act 2: One jihadi, more insensitive than the rest, gets the relic back after ignoring the leading prostitute’s charms and killing the apostate.

bq. Act 3. With the relic restored, the training camp gets back to normal.

A travesty, I know – and lacking Wagner’s wonderful music which in this opera consists of layer upon layer of interweaving sound – different from any of his others.

Recommended recordings. I have three: the most modern recording in my collection sounds on the face of things pretty unpromising – Armin Jordan, with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic (!) – but is probably the one I listen to most. The sound is good, the tempi about right and Robert Lloyd is a terrific Gurnemanz; I also have Knappertsbusch 1951 on Naxos (a real bargain!) and Knappertsbusch 1962 on Phillips. The performance is better in 1951 though the mono sound is pretty dry. I’d recommend all of them though I don’t think I’d want the early Knappertsbusch as a first or only version: for that I’d prefer a modern recording. Of others, I’ve listened to both Barenboim and parts of James Levine’s second attempt, but I wasn’t tempted to splash out on either.



Vinteuil 12.14.03 at 11:15 pm

Speaking of Naxos bargains, don’t forget Mark Obert-Thorn’s *astonishing* transfers of Karl Muck’s Act I prelude, Grail Scene, Flower-maidens scene, and almost complete Act 3, recorded in Bayreuth and Berlin, 1927-8. As close to the horse’s mouth as any of us will ever get. Featuring the unforgettable sound of the bells of Montsalvat, cast according to Wagner’s personal specifications, but now lost forever–melted down for bullets by the Third Reich.

And no–Naxos isn’t even paying me for this. Why pay for what you can get free?


TomD 12.15.03 at 10:54 am

I thought the point of the red dress would be *precisely* the sexual – Oedipal – tension. Kundry’s seduction makes powerful use of Parsifal’s relationship with his mother, so perhaps the enormous red dress was meant as a womb-symbol.

Your travesty fails not because it’s about jihadis, but because it leaves out Wagner’s central character Amfortas, (at least the one with which he most identified) and the central motto “Through pity knowing”.

The climactic moment of Act 2 isn’t so much about Parsifal’s relationship with Kundry as that with Amfortas.

Unfortunately this psychological point is difficult to bring out on stage. The ‘womb-symbol’ would have to become a ‘wound-symbol’, which a ten-foot red dress isn’t really in a position to do.

Also, the music of the second half of Act 2 is for me somewhat disjointed, lacking continuity and logical progression. My guess is that Wagner was relying on the music to deal with the entire, highly-convoluted psychological situation, but to judge by the usual misunderstanding of why Parsifal doesn’t go for Kundry it didn’t really work.

Tristan act 2, by contrast, works musically 100 percent, but again usually fails to explain its highly complicated philosophy and psychology to the audience. Wagner’s instincts as a composer were much better than his attempts at being a philosopher, and I think Parsifal has a bit too much of the latter.

The point of Act 3 is not that the camp gets “back to normal” but that its religion is *reformed* – away from the rather hearty belligerence of the Act 1 hymns and the self-flagellation of the interim to – well, what? It’s not quite clear, but for the opera to have a point, something has to have changed.

The symbolism of a spear being used for healing should be a powerful one, but Wagner doesn’t really tell us what the Knights will be getting up to in the future. A mass wedding of Knights and Flower-maidens would be a good start, methinks.


tim 12.15.03 at 2:57 pm

I appreciate the CD recommendations, but opera is for watching, not just listening. Any recommended DVDs of this work?


Vinteuil 12.15.03 at 5:22 pm

The Armin Jordan version mentioned by Chris Bertram is the soundtrack to a 1982 film directed by Syberberg which is available on DVD. Visually striking at times, but definitely odd. Nazi paraphernalia, two different actors playing Parsifal (one male, one female)–that sort of thing.

The only video competition is a more traditional Met production from 1993 directed by Levine. Some good singing, but there’s nothing in the staging that you’re likely to want to sit still for more than once.


Chris Bertram 12.16.03 at 6:10 pm

Thanks very much for the comments here. Especially to Thomas Dent – your thoughts on Act 2 will heighten my appreciation next time I listen.

I’ve never seen the Syberberg film — and I’m not sure I want to — I suppose the actors are miming to the pre-recorded sound of Jordan & co because the singers don’t play the parts in the film.


Michael Otsuka 12.19.03 at 11:38 am

‘Ms Arafat’ is virtually an anagram for ‘Amfortas’. (What you actually get is ‘Amfartas’, but close enough.) So, in the jihad version, Amfortas should be depicted as a suffering Arafat under house arrest and forced by his Western persecutors to wear drag.

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