Thoughts on Parsifal

Peter Mattei as the wounded king, Amfortas(Photo:
Peter Mattei as the wounded king, Amfortas(Photo:

The Metropolitan Opera’s live HD presentation of Wagner’s Parsifal last Saturday may be the greatest performance I’ve ever seen.

The work itself has always moved me. I stood through it several times in New York during my younger days. This weekend it made its full affect when seen up close, with titles.

The cast was superb: Jonas Kaufmann, Rene Pape, Peter Mattei, Katarina Dalayman, and Evgeny Nikitin conducted by Daniele Gatti. The production is by Francois Girard. Men in white shirts and dark trousers. Women in black (mimes). Flowermaiden in white sheaths.

Here’s what struck me seeing this performance “up close.”  Rene Pape has the most beautiful voice I’ve encountered in a long time.  Peter Mattei  exhausted the audience with Amfortas’ agony but his voice was in no way infirm. Jonas Kaufmann turned his movie star looks into a touching naivete and nothing about the role troubled him vocally.  Daniele Gatti conducted with the expansiveness of a great musician who has this score down with just the right touch of Italian passion. I have a special admiration for Italians conducting Wagner. De Sabata’s Tristan is especially powerful — yearning times 100.

When this performance ended I turned to the friend next to me and said “Remember, the Holocaust was going on just over fifty years after this premiered.” How is it possible? I know that Parsifal was banned during the Third Reich. Perhaps Hitler and the composer’s wretched family in Bayreuth couldn’t countenance “The Perfect Fool” among German manhood. Was it the music or the megalomania of Wagner’s art that Hitler admired?

I don’t know if Wagner had any sincerity in his Christianity. I’ve read he wasn’t a churchgoer. This opera is not steeped in religion but in Christianity. A Christianity steeped in wounds and blood. Wagner’s Christianity? Was the sacred a vehicle for Wagner to write the music he wanted? (I never get the sense that Wagner HAD or needed to write music.) I think Wagner thought himself BIGGER than Christianity, that the Deity should be serving Wagner’s art.

The sanctity expressed in Parsifal unnerves some people. It doesn’t bother me because I don’t think much about it. I get the allegories: speer, blood, grail, madness, sex. Parsifal as music holds me to the end. Nothing surpasses its beauty and emotional pull.

What impresses me most is the idea of male connections. Not homosexuality. That’s too easy. Not sex, but connection. Gurnemanz, as the stern but loving father, is especially touching in his old age. His recognition of Parsifal in Act III was another performance highlight. Parsifal doesn’t know empathy. Kundry’s kiss brings him into humanity, not to have sex, but to the suffering Amfortas.

Amfortas, the king of the Grail knights, in his pain and misery is still the king.  His vulnerability is what is most shocking to the others, more so than his actual pain. I do appreciate the male-male love depicted in these roles being elevated far above a sexual plane.

I still find a lot of Wagner, well…long.  And Parsifal is the longest. I could have sat through it again on Saturday. I left the theater not wanting to hear any more music, and three days later I still don’t.