Parsifal by Richard Wagner: Overture Opera Guides

Parsifal coverOverture Opera Guides in association with ENO: Parsifal Richard Wagner. Series Editor Gary Kahn, Editorial Consultant Philip Reed, Head of Publications-ENO. Oneworld Classics, London 2011. Order info

I am predictable. I usually give the seal of approval to all the new reissued and updated OOGs—I really like them, monotonously—but this one I found exceptionally helpful. To the non-German-speaker like myself, the central part of the book, the side-by-side German and English libretto (translation by Lionel Salter) will be the gift that keeps giving in the years to come. Added to that, every line of text is accompanied by the discreet markings of the recurring musical themes, each theme having been listed and numbered in the summary preceding the libretto.

Musical themes are discussed in greater detail in the three of the essays included that are most musicologically bent: “Parsifal: Words and Music” by Carolyn Abbate, “Experiencing Music and Imagery in Parsifal” by Robin Holloway and “Discursions into the Dramaturgy of Parsifal” by Gerd Rienaecker. The three chapters contain many insights that will add layers to the work (Why do Amfortas and Klingsor have essentially the same musical material; What is the difference between the Leitmotif, which Wagner uses more in other works, and sound-clusters or themes, which he employs in Parsifal, etc). But I have to admit I skimmed in these parts—sometimes the author goes literally line by musical line of the score interpreting the material and associating it with other material which preceded or will follow. Sometimes metaphors are used which you may or may not share. But these remain valuable sections to which you will return when you want to look at the mechanics of the work.

The essay by Barry Emslie, “Parsifal: The Profanity of the Sacred” is intriguing in a different way. It’s as if it asks: what if somebody took seriously Wagner’s intentions—a very old-fashioned thing that we don’t do any more, and for good reasons, but all the same, how could such a worldview have come into being and what was he thinking? Emslie (also the author of a recent book on Wagner, Richard Wagner and the Centrality of Love) researched Wagner’s letters and writings, looked at what Wagner was reading and what influenced him, and tried to identify the ways in which Wagner was consciously myth-fabricating or less consciously feeding himself off the mythemes* he absorbed into the project. In other words: yes Parsifal relies on a worldview that is a pack of lies and fantasies, but why and how do these lies and fantasies work? “Of course, none of this possesses a shred of intellectual rectitude,” Emslie writes in the part where he deals with Wagner’s racial discourse/fantasies, “but that is beside the point.” And it was beside the point, for many of those people who found in Parsifal a story of Germanic vs. Jewish blood, for instance.

Within this framework, Emslie’s main endeavour is to show that Wagner’s fundamental dichotomies in the work – chastity vs. desire, and the Germanic, pure and rooted vs. the uprooted and the wandering – are unstable and permeable.

The funnest part of the Guide, predictably, is the chapter on the milestone productions of Parsifal through its history, and the accompanying photos. Mike Ashman in “Parsifal on the Stage” begins with the records of Richard’s and Cosima’s original wishes and follows the work’s fairly dull production history until Wieland Wagner’s 1951 Bayreuth production. Here are a few highlights:

— Wieland was first to use film. He adored abstract painters and often cited Picasso and Jackson Pollock as influences. He continuously changed his own productions with each remount.

Ulrich Melchinger and his designers probably the first to de-Christianize the iconography and introduce the more sci-fi style which was about to take off in the years after 1970s.

Goetz Friedrich & comp likely the first to use the post-apocalypse setting (another trope which was about to take off far and wide in Parsifals). Also recreated some of the original ideas by Cosima about a multi-room, Babel-like, honey-comb Grail temple.

Joachim Herz & comp at the ENO in 1986 turned the knights into bishops wearing frayed regalia, trying to keep together a rapidly decaying world. Klingsor’s domain was an adventure playground in comparison.

Nikolaus Lenhoff’s 1999 ENO production completely got rid of the chalices and similar paraphernalia in Act 1. The set included fallen meteors and a railway tunnel.

Ruth Berghaus’s centenary production in Frankfurt was the first to be rid of the narrative, naturalistic interpretation of the work altogether; the signs floated more freely

Hans Juergen Syberberg’s film opera Parsifal sounds like an absolute must-see.

Peter Konwitchny’s 1995 Munich production was decidedly pro-Kundry! The redemption, he argues, means freedom from the loveless Grail society. He refuses to dispose of Kundry at the end, as opera usually does with its heroines.

Christoph Schlingensief’s 2004 Bayreuth production was the first to introduce a clear colonial context to the work, with Grail nights reminiscent of the white colonizers of a mainly African- but also Haitian- and south-east Asian-looking unruly Klingsor domain. His take has layers and layers of other stuff, and it had seriously upset Alex Ross, apparently, who criticised it as the avant-garde run amok.

Herheim and Bieito of course also make an appearance on this list. How come Herheim’s multi-layered production did not upset the conservative critics, whereas Bieito’s very much did?

The book of course also contains the section of notable discography & DVD recordings, plus bibliography and a wacky diagrammatic plan of the work by Wieland Wagner.

*I just invented this: myth + meme = mythemes.

5 thoughts on “Parsifal by Richard Wagner: Overture Opera Guides

          1. ach, no, that summer was Santa Fe. But Schlingensief generated a lot of column inches that year, even in the English language press.

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