FYP Letters — Parsifal, or, The Space Between

FYP Letters — Parsifal, or, The Space Between

FYP Letters is a series of non-curricular notes to keep us in touch over the next days and weeks. They are a combination of original writings and archival ones, including some re-printed FYP News items. — Dr. Susan Dodd, Interim FYP Director.

(Ed note: The Metropolitan Opera in New York is streaming some of their most popular operas for free these evenings. Right now, they’re showing Wagner. Here is Roberta Barker’s review of Parsifal which she saw at the Met, directed by the Canadian Francois Girard. As always, it is pure fun to consider Roberta’s reflections on opera).

Parsifal, or,
The Space Between

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

These celebrated lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” seem at first glance as far removed as possible from the titanic certainties that pour forth from Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. Wagner’s final opera begins with the mystical call of the holy grail and ends with the absolving chords of the Dresden Amen: “Miraculous salvation! The Redeemer is redeemed!” Eliot’s threnody for alienated humankind falls away from such dreams of transcendence into an exhausted admission of failure: “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” There can be little shared ground, surely, between one of the nineteenth century’s most sublime statements of hope and one of the twentieth century’s most searing expressions of despair. Still, it is on that shared ground that Quebecois director François Girard’s production of Parsifal is set: in the shadowy space between idea and reality, desire and disillusionment, beauty and pain.

Roberta Barker in the Duchess of Malfi (by John Webster, first performed in 1614, and here, by the KTS). Photo courtesy of Roberta Barker.

When I booked a flight to New York City in February 2018 in order to see Girard’s Parsifal live at the Metropolitan Opera, I was walking into that space with my eyes open. I had first encountered the production in 2013, when I saw it in a Halifax movie theatre via one of the Met’s ‘Live in HD’ broadcasts. Trained as a singer, I have loved opera since childhood; I have also spent many years preaching Wagner’s importance in classes on modern performance history. Nevertheless, until seeing Girard’s work onscreen I had always been a secret Wagner skeptic; the grandiosity and egomania of the great composer’s vision (at least, as I perceived them) simply hadn’t appealed to me. Then, sitting in the bowels of Park Lane Mall, I encountered the marriage of his music and poetry with Girard’s simple, wrenching theatrical vision and fell in love—with Wagner’s opera, with Girard’s staging, and with the performances of the superb cast. So I waited for the privilege of seeing this opera, in that staging, with those singers, live: of sharing a room with that much beauty.

As a student (and sometime maker) of live theatrical performance, however, I knew there was a good chance that this dream would prove disappointing. Things looks and sound different in the house than they do on the screen. Sightlines and acoustics fail us; props and costumes age; singers get sick or tired; audiences cough, or fidget, or feel hungry after a hundred minutes of unadulterated Wagner and simply stop paying attention. As Eliot writes,

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

So, too, is Parsifal.

Wagner’s opera—or as he called it, his Bühnenweihfestspiel, or “festival-play to consecrate the stage”—tells the story of the eponymous “pure fool,” who saves the Knights of the Holy Grail from the disaster precipitated when their king, Amfortas, succumbed to sexual temptation in the arms of Kundry, an ageless woman cursed to endless cycles of suffering after laughing at Christ on the cross. Attacked by the sorcerer Klingsor with his own sacred spear, Amfortas sustains an incurable and supremely painful wound whose effects blight his life, the community of the Grail knights, and the health of their holy wood. Act One stages their agony; Act Two explores the epiphany of the youthful Parsifal, whose compassion for Amfortas enables him to resist the temptations of Klingsor and Kundry; and Act Three shows Parsifal’s apotheosis as he not only heals Amfortas’s wound but also baptizes Kundry, releasing her into a peaceful death. Compassion, forgiveness, and faith triumph over pain, wrath, and sin. It is a work of great beauty—and at five hours of ritual music-drama, also a trial of endurance for its characters, its performers, and its audience.

When Wagner first staged Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1882, those five hours were adorned with such lavish spectacle that the scenic transformation from the sacred wood to the grail knights’ temple in Act 1 outlasted the music Wagner had written to accompany it and nearly brought the whole performance to a halt. Those who grew weary of the master’s score could turn their eyes upon one beautiful stage vista after another. Girard offers no such concessions. His Parsifal is set in the desiccated world of Eliot’s “Hollow Men”:

This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star

As the production begins to the overwhelming strains of Wagner’s Prelude, the audience is faced with a reflection of themselves onstage: rows of men and women dressed in formal, contemporary black and white. As if hailed by some divine voice or epic disaster, they rise, divest themselves of their finery, and separate into two groups: the men, now barefoot and garbed only in the plainest shirts and trousers, retreat to a triple circle of chairs to one side of the stage, while the women, covering their heads in black veils, are banished to the other. As the lights rise, we see that the ground upon which they stand is barren and cracked, moistened only by a thin stream whose line divides the women from the men. When Amfortas bathes in it, the stream turns to a rivulet of blood. At the back of the stage, dark clouds rush across a projected sky, relieved at intervals by images of planets passing by. The Holy Grail, when we finally glimpse it, is a rather tawdry gold-plated chalice: a prop from a middle-school play. For the whole 110 minutes of the first act, this is almost all the spectacle Girard will grant us.

At the act’s end, the true nature of that spectacle becomes clear. When Parsifal, fascinated and appalled by the rituals of the grail knights and the suffering of their king, peers down into the thin stream that divides the stage, the crack begins to glow red, widens, and splits open as if to welcome him. The second act, which Wagner set in the wondrous gardens of Klingsor’s magic castle, Girard sets at the bottom of this terrifying crevice. The Flower Maidens sent by the sorcerer to tempt Parsifal dance ankle-deep in blood, which covers the whole stage. As Kundry strives to seduce the young man, they both become soaked in it. Some have read this image as misogynist: the temptation of Parsifal by the feminine body, riven and leaking, which must be rejected. To me, the meaning seemed the opposite. Girard’s imagery equates the female body both with the parched and abused earth and with the agonized Amfortas: all suffering, all simultaneously exploited and anathematized by the grail knights, all in desperate need of dignity and reconciliation. This Parsifal takes place at the site of the wound: a site of pain, horror, and abjection that is also a site of transcendence, longing, and hope. It takes place in Eliot’s space “between.”

The full realization of this vision in live performance depends not only upon sets, costumes, and staging choices, but far more crucially on the singers, whose voices and bodies must give flesh to Girard’s vision of the human suspension between agony and beauty, desire and despair. In the 2013 Met production, the great tenor Jonas Kaufmann fit the bill perfectly as Parsifal. His famous matinee idol looks combined with his intense, effortful stage presence and his dark, covered sound to embody a beauty born from suffering and self-denial. This year, Klaus Florian Vogt—blond, boyish, and slightly blank, with acting as straightforward as the silvery sound of his tenor—cut an altogether simpler figure: one more appropriate to Wagner’s “pure fool,” but ill-matched with Girard’s ambiguous production. As Kundry, on the other hand, Evelyn Herlitzius surpassed 2013’s Katarina Dalayman as Girard’s collaborator. Her sometimes audible struggles with the role’s demands—her raw-edged sound, occasional wobbles, and uncertain high notes—fused with her no-holds-barred, fervent acting to tell the story of a woman whose existence was both a self-loathing slog through eternal punishment and an endlessly hopeful fight for redemption. As for bass René Pape as the noble grail knight Guernemanz, in both Met incarnations of the production his task has been to embody compassionate understanding of such struggles, both through his restrained acting and his rich, burnished singing. Live in February, his beautiful voice showed occasional signs of strain and was at times overwhelmed by the vastness of Wagner’s orchestration. A delightful New York operagoer sitting next to me, who had seen the production live in 2013, bemoaned the fact that “Pape is getting old.” For me, however, time’s inroads on his portrayal brought it that much closer to Girard’s vision, in which all greatness—even the wisest and best—coexists with pain and failure.

No singer could embody this conception of Parsifal more perfectly than the incomparable Swedish baritone Peter Mattei as Amfortas. His, above all, was the performance that converted me to Wagner in 2013. Seen live, his achievement was almost incomprehensible. Mattei is widely celebrated for his beautiful, velvet-grained voice, which seems to flow out of him so effortlessly that one can easily underestimate the scrupulous artistry of his work in operas like Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Nozze di Figaro or Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. In Parsifal, such misjudgments were rendered impossible by the intense relationship—half continuity, half contradiction—between Mattei’s singing and his physicality. His Amfortas was unable to stand upright, leaning constantly upon two long-suffering grail knights for support. His wound gushing blood down his white shirt, he seemed to clench every muscle in constant spasms of physical and emotional agony. Even so, throughout Amfortas’s two great arias of unremitting suffering Mattei’s voice poured out of this tortured body with a sound so even and plangent that it could almost have passed for that of a stringed instrument. At the peak of his Act One monologue, that sound enveloped the whole cavernous space of the Metropolitan Opera House; the effect was reminiscent of another great passage of Eliot, this time from The Waste Land: “Yet there the nightingale / Filled all the desert with inviolable voice.” “Erbarme! Erbarme! Du Allerbarmer!” (“Have mercy! Have mercy! You all-merciful one!”), cries Amfortas at this climactic moment. Mattei’s voice spoke first torment, then rage, then a kind of despairing reverence in the face of the divine compassion that lay just out of his reach. Expressing the depth of human abjection and the height of the human desire for transcendence, this was the sound of Girard’s Parsifal.

At the end of the production, Mattei’s Amfortas, finally healed, seemed so full of awe that he hardly knew where to look or what to do. As the stream through the grail lands began to run freely again, Parsifal not only baptized Kundry in its waters, but also invited the women of the community, heretofore segregated and disdained, to cross over its dividing line into fellowship with the knights. Defying Wagner’s instructions, Girard gave Kundry—rather than any of the men—the task of raising the grail in a final, renewed ritual. Parsifal plunged the holy spear into the grail, uniting male and female principles in a somewhat heavy-handed image of reconciliation. But the final moment of the production renewed Girard’s sense of the simultaneous wonder and precariousness of human existence. Amfortas rose unsteadily to his feet on one side of Parsifal, while a young woman rose to hers on the other. In the live performance, a spectator could just barely glimpse Parsifal’s head turning toward the woman before the curtain fell. Would he go to her, accepting relationship and unity, or would he tell her to get back down? Would the restored Amfortas join the grail knights, or would he walk out of the holy wood into an altogether different existence? Would everyone live happily ever after, or would the cycle of agony begin again? In the end, as he had done throughout the production, Girard both payed homage to Wagner and subtly contested the master’s vision. The great last chords of the opera spoke resolution; Girard’s final image remained shadowed by hope and fear. It left us in the same realm into which it had ushered us at the beginning: the space between possibility and anxiety, where beauty and pain are one.

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