Wagner’s Parsifal

I have loved Wagner’s Der Ring cycle since high school and have listened to it often. I particularly love Götterdämmerung and what Wagner does throughout the entire opera. The music is spectacular and really enhances the feelings the characters have. I don’t much care for the story itself, finding it hokey, unrealistic, and horribly sexist. Yeah, Brünhilde gets to win in the end, but why the hell does she just get passed around like some prize? Siegfried is full of stupid arrogance, so obviously he’s going to get easily caught with some elixir that makes him forget. It’s lazy storytelling. More interesting would have been for Siegfried to have been naturally attracted to Gutrune and have a morality play about men’s weakness at sex. The elixir is a pathetic excuse to justify his actions, and honestly, if he truly forgot his past, how could he be held accountable for taking on Gutrune?

This is the same dislike I have for Tristan und Isolde, another fantastic opera with amazing music. But, jeez, the same tired trope, some spell makes them fall in love. If it is a spell, then it isn’t real. Their love is fake and it cheapens the music. A better approach to the use of spells can be found in the film, Willow. The little pixies hit Madmartigan with their silly love spell, and he falls for Sorsha. She doesn’t fall for him, at least not at first. It’s funny, and the spell wears off, so they’re back to hating each other. However, a seed was planted and they chose of their own free will to let it grow into sincere, real love.

Then we get to Parsifal, Wagner’s final opera, performed first in 1882. I’ve read all the accounts of various contemporary composers who went to Bayreuth for the yearly performances, and who have left feeling they’ve achieved nirvana. The Wikipedia for Parsifal has a bunch of the contemporary accounts. My favorite, though, comes from Mark Twain, because that’s closer to my feeling:

“I was not able to detect in the vocal parts of Parsifal anything that might with confidence be called rhythm or tune or melody… Singing! It does seem the wrong name to apply to it… In Parsifal there is a hermit named Gurnemanz who stands on the stage in one spot and practices by the hour, while first one and then another of the cast endures what he can of it and then retires to die.”

Mark Twain is acting his part as an old codger, because there is obviously decent singing in the opera. However, the story just befuddles me. You got this weird white supremacist group whose leader lost some spear, and who doesn’t go to a nearby hospital to get better but hopes bathing in some lake will do the trick. There is some weird prophecy about a fool, some young dolt, who will be the hero, and lo and behold, some young fool of a dolt kills a swan. They chide him, let him watch their orgasmic adoration of Jesus’s cup, and then promptly kick him out. I think I read the libretto correctly, but they didn’t even give him any mission. Like, really, WTF was that first act all about?

Also to this point, the music is slow and ponderous, far too slow. I hated the first recording I heard, conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch. It’s not a bad recording, but it takes its damn slow time. It is 4 hours and 10 minutes long. On Twitter, someone said I should try Boulez’s version. I checked and Boulez clocks in at 3 hours and 39 minutes. That’s more like it. I read this article from The Guardian about Boulez in which he discusses why he chose to cut through the ponderous grime: Boulez’s aim was, he says, “to free Parsifal from the pompous and funereal ritual with which it had been weighed down”. Yep!

However, speeding the music along still doesn’t help my attraction or lack thereof for the opera. Yeah, there are some great spots. For instance, I love the Flower Maidens at “Komm, Holder Knabe!” Wagner gives them a beautiful Eb9 chord that fits just perfectly. But still, the problem is that character motivations don’t make sense. Kundry’s character doesn’t make sense. She’s apparently like 2000 years old, because she apparently mocked Jesus on the cross and was cursed for some reason. Klingsor indicates she can be free of her curse if a man can spurn her advances. And that’s kinda odd, because, well, didn’t like every character in the first act spurn her? Just doesn’t make sense. I guess it must be sexual. So she tries in Act II to get it on with Parsifal. She tries to get in by discussing more details about his mother (again, another plot point that doesn’t make sense, how exactly she knows about his mother or his father). She does eventually get him to kiss her, but that triggers the white supremacist power in Parsifal and he spurns the woman’s love, sort of breaking her spell, I guess. But she doesn’t disappear until the third act. Again, it doesn’t make sense.

Parsifal and Kundry, two paintings by Rogelio de Egusquiza, 1910 and 1906

And the whole plot point with Klingsor makes even less sense. Wagner tried to create an antagonist, but, again, what happened to him? Parsifal had taken that spear Klingsor threw and made the sign of the cross. Apparently that caused Klingsor’s castle to collapse. I guess Klingsor dies? Kundry curses him to lose his way. Again, why? Didn’t she want to be spurned, so she could be free from the spell? Wasn’t she happy that Parsifal killed Klingsor who held the spell over her? Just makes no sense.

For the third act, it is now, like, decades later. Gurnemanz is still just sitting there, moping. Like seriously, what the hell is the point of these knights? Guarding the grail? From whom? Who even bothers with them? It’s just a group of has-beens who reject modern society for some racist version in the past.

So Parsifal does make it back and he does heal the silly old king of his spear wound that is now decades old. Seriously, how the hell has he not died from that wound or had it heal up naturally? Again, never cleared up. Parsifal baptizes Kundry, and heals the king. And then, wait for it, yes, the one female character, Kundry, fucking dies! Who could have seen that coming? Sorry for the curse. But what is it with these homoerotic male centered stories in which the female character constantly dies? I ask again, why did Isolde need to die? Why did Melisandre need to die? Why did Wozzeck have to murder his wife? Why did Bluebeard…well, capture and imprison so many wives? Serious WTF territory! Why did Kundry have to die? So the men could feel better about themselves? It’s pathetic.

With regard to the music, Wagner uses his typical style with various leitmotifs, one for the cup, one for the spear, one for Parsifal, etc. You can see them show up often throughout the opera. Harmonically, Wagner gets more adventurous, now that it is more accepted to push the boundaries of tonality. He still loves his Tristan chord and uses it often. I simplify of course. I don’t mean the harmonic progression of the Tristan chord, but rather the half-diminished seventh chord. It is his constant go-to for where bad things happen.

If you want to listen or watch this opera, I do recommend the Boulez version. To watch, check out the following which is available on Youtube.

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