Friday, March 18, 2011

The Pure Fool

Parsifal: via a misunderstood Persian etymology, chosen by Wagner as the name of his ‘pure fool’.
Parsifal: sublime and confusing. On the sublime end, we have the extraordinary music of Wagner’s last opera, powering on through over four hours of music, played by a huge orchestra, sweeping us up into the myth. On the confusing end, there’s the, er, plot. Or lack thereof.

Parsifal is based, rather loosely, on one of the medieval myths of the Holy Grail. It is set in the mountains at a castle where the Knights of the Grail guard the Holy Grail (in this case, epitomised by the chalice used at the Last Supper and by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood of Christ) and the Holy Spear (used to wound Christ on the cross).  If that’s not enough Christian imagery for you, we also have a fallen woman washing the feet of a redeemer, a massive Good Friday ritual, a lot of stuff about the sins of the flesh, and a character we might mistake for Christ himself. However, we also have plenty of Buddhist mythology, in particular a woman who is caught in Samsara, the cycle of eternal rebirth, because of some very bad karma; a big theme of renouncing selfishness (and also plenty of other pleasures), some serious ascetics and a moment of Enlightenment. Then there are a lot of Schopenhaurian themes, especially a view of the world as endless suffering and the elevation of compassion to the one great goal. Add in some dubious sexual symbology, plenty of outright magic, and some even more dubious racial purity stuff, and you have the ‘story’ of Parsifal.
One thing you cannot call it is a straightforward medieval story. You also cannot really call it a Christian myth.  Whatever it is, it is cerebral in the extreme; and the combination of the highly mythologised play with the genius of Wagner’s amazing music could easily be overwhelming.

In the production staged by the English National Opera (sung in English instead of German) the director and designer have gone for the Waste Land look. Admittedly, the Knights of the Grail are in rather a bad way when the story opens, their king Amfortas having lost the Holy Spear to the self-castrated (what to make of that?) magician Klingsor. Amfortas is left with a ghastly wound that won’t heal, but which seems to be magically and agonisingly renewed with some kind of strange blood-swapping ritual every time he reveals the Grail to the Knights. He thus wants to die pronto. However, the ritual of revealing the Grail is what ‘feeds’ the Knights, not so say his ancient father who spends his days in a funeral crypt, kept alive only by the Grail. Everybody has an agenda.

The ‘pure fool’ Parsifal appears, having shot a swan. This is apparently very bad, though it is not absolutely clear why. He seems to be particularly foolish, with no knowledge of good or evil, but kind of sweet and bear-like in a dopey way. His arrival has also been prophesied as the saviour of the situation (are you following? Is Parsifal Christ the redeemer?)

But we haven’t yet mentioned the female interest, Kundry, who made the mistake of laughing at Christ on the cross (Christian); has since been left to wander the world through history being constantly reborn into suffering (Buddhist); who is a wild woman slave to the Knights in the first act (who knows?); an evil seductive temptress working for Klingsor in the second act (general misogynism); and a silent repentant woman in nun-like wrappings washing Parsifal’s feet in the third act (a bit of everything).

Parsifal himself manages to avoid the dangers of the magician’s evil Flower Maidens (extraordinarily beautiful singing), Kundry and her weird Oedipal appeal to his memory of his mother in her seduction attempt (proto-Freud), a curse that leaves him to wander for twenty years (wanderers are big in Wagner), only to eventually return to the now pitiful community of Knights where everything is the same only worse. Here he is revealed as “the saviour of the saviour” or the “redeemer of the redeemer”, depending on the translation. And what that means has been endlessly debated.

Exhausted? Let’s turn for a minute then to the performances, and the first amongst these at the ENO must be Australian Stuart Skelton as Parsifal. His mighty, pure tenor voice was able to ring out with the big orchestra and carry Parsifal’s part wonderfully. Parsifal is on stage for a great deal of the opera, but actually sings for only about 20 minutes in total. The really big role for singing is that of Gurnemanz, the elder of the Knights. This is a massive bass role, sung in this production by Sir John Tomlinson. He has been singing the role for more than 20 years, but this is the first time he has sung it in English. He says it took him months to get it straight, having to excise the German from his memory. Apparently he did suggest a few tweaks and revisions to the English translation (by Richard Stokes). And Kundry? What a performance by Jane Dutton! She really gave it her all, from crazy wild woman of the woods, to agonised cursed one, to spooky mother-ghost, to evil seductress, to pious repentant. And in some pretty crazy costumes too.

Parsifal was Wagner’s last opera, although the ideas for it germinated over many years. For decades it was performed only at Bayreuth, and there it became a tradition (probably based on a misunderstanding) not to applaud between acts – a tradition you may come across even today at The Met in New York. Nietzsche (who had a bit of Wagner complex, since he was an adoring fan in his youth, but a great critic as he matured) ranted against Parsifal in his Genealogy of Morals (discussed in my Birkbeck class last week), principally on the basis that it was a Christian apologia and advocated suppression of ‘the drives’. It is generally thought, however, that this was rather a knee-jerk reaction to Parsifal, ignoring some of the deeper implications. At base, indeed, Wagner and Nietzsche may both have been considering the same thing: the post-Christian world which seemed the future in nineteenth century Germany. Nietzsche, with his vision of ‘the death of god’, looked right beyond Christianity to what would or could come next. In Parsifal, Wagner could be said to be considering the post-Christian world but with the retention of Christian symbolism. Much of Parsifal is obviously about myth, ritual and ceremony, and is actually a very interesting exploration of the role of these things.

Alain Badiou, a contemporary French philosopher and Wagner nut besides, has some interesting things to say about this aspect (and others) of Parsifal. He quotes Mallarmé: ‘Magnificence, of one sort or another, will unfold, analogous to the Shadow of yore.’ ‘The Shadow of yore’ is a reference to “the exhausted nature of nineteenth-century Christianity” (as Badiou puts it); and ‘magnificence’ refers to what might be sublated through ceremony. As to what Wagner does with ceremony in Parsifal, consider the substitutions, the formality of the action, the fulfilment of prophecy; the substitution of Parsifal as celebrant of the ceremony from Amfortas and his half-dead father (the passing on of powers). There are a lot of themes here that are far from being medieval – in fact, they are essentially nineteenth century European, that seething maelstrom of a century when science and romanticism and the enlightenment and religion and nationalism and art imploded into what became the rather hideous twentieth century.

Uh-oh. Sounds like I have been reading too much Nietzsche and hearing too much Wagner.

Let me round off with some quotes from Badiou’s comments, which may leave you intrigued, whether you have or have not ever seen a performance of Parsifal: have to admit that playing Parsifal is very hard, a real bear, as a rule, especially when the singer is a big tub of a 65-year-old. He has an even harder job of it than a fat Siegfried, and that is already hard enough to pull off!
Directors, incidentally, often alter the setting: they present the castle in ruins, or even a dilapidated old blockhouse with abandoned railway tracks, or other things of the sort. Such changes are indefensible unless they are in service of the Idea itself.

Badiou has apparently seen the production presented by the ENO, or one very like it, where the ruined blockhouse and the disused railway tracks created a suitable end-of-time ambience, but were otherwise a bit puzzling.

Now, however, music has become a solitary religion. At big rock concerts the yearning for ceremony is blatant. You feel it intensely when you see how young people of all stripes share this deep yearning for ceremony. Except that it is parody; it never get beyond parody, yet that is what it is clearly attempting to do. Music was once the ‘last and most complete human religion’, but it has turned out to be a religion in as sorry a state as the Brotherhood of the Knights in Act I of Parsifal. It has ended up being about having earphones in your ears – portable music players! Obviously nothing could be further removed from ceremony than a portable music player. The ceremony is a meeting in a specific place; it is the constitution of a place, whereas the portable music player is music devoid of place.

And so, as I firmly believe, ceremony is necessary. It is probably both necessary and impossible today, but that is not a serious problem; that is the way things often are. Genuine problems are like that, both necessary and impossible. And possibility arrives right when you no longer expect it. That is what an event is...

Badiou’s concept of ‘event’ is a central idea in his own philosophy, but you won’t find that being studied in the hotbed of analytic philosophy that is London, where the “S knows p if and only if” crowd hold sway. But now I’ve strayed rather far from Parsifal. Or have I?

Alain Badiou, ‘Five Lessons on Wagner’ (Verso, 2010)

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