Parsifal–Met Simulcast

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4 Stars
Parsifal poster
A nearby movie theater has started showing the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series: live broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera performances. I took the opportunity to see Parsifal yesterday.

This is a great production with terrific stagecraft. Visually it looked astounding. As for the music, well it’s Richard Wagner. Not, in my opinion, Wagner at the very top of his form, but even on an off day he was pretty amazing.

As for the story…OK the story, based very very loosely on the Arthurian legend of Sir Percival, is pretty bizarre. It’s very mystical and weirdly misogynistic. It makes the Ring cycle seem like the evening news.

The screen was actually smaller than I expected. This is basically a HDTV broadcast with a 16:9 aspect ratio. That may have been considered “wide screen” back in the 1980s when the HDTV standards were drawn up, but most movies today are shown in theaters with a significantly wider screen. Still it was a big screen and the sound system was vastly better than anything you’re likely to find in a home theater setup.

In any case this is not something I would want to watch at home. It is over 5 1/2 hours (including 2 half-hour intermissions.) I would never manage to sit though it if there were other things to do. You need to go somewhere and make a day of this. And seeing it in a local movie theater is a lot cheaper than going to New York for a live performance.

This will be rebroadcast on March 20, but if you aren’t up for that, here’s my summary.

Act 1

We start out with a bunch of knights in a forest that has a holy healing spring. (The knights are wearing modern clothes and we don’t see any actual vegetation, but this is all very allegorical so I’ll give it a pass.)

The chief knight Gurnemanz (René Pape) is very talkative (singative?) and he’s going to fill us in on the whole backstory.

It seems that King Arthur (who is called “Titurel” in this version) was given two holy relics. One was the Holy Grail, the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper. The other was the Holy Spear that delivered the coup de grâce to Jesus on the cross. Titurel set up an order called the Knights of the Holy Grail, with membership open only to men who were certified by the Grail to be totally pure.

A man named Klingsor (Evgeny Nikitin) applied for admission but was disqualified because of his lustful thoughts. Even after he castrated himself he was still rejected. Embittered, he went off and became an evil wizard. He built a castle is the desert with a garden full of beautiful flower-women who are actually demons. Whenever a knight comes to defeat the wizard they seduce and enslave him.

When Titurel became old and feeble control of the relics passed to his son Amfortas (Peter Mattei). Amfortas was fed up with the way Klingsor was corrupting knights so he decided to take the spear, go to Klingsor’s castle and finish him off. But when he entered the castle he was accosted by a beautiful woman who embraced him. While Amfortas was distracted Klingsor grabbed the spear and stabbed him in the side. Gurnemanz dragged Amfortas to safety but Klingsor kept the spear. A vision from the Holy Grail prophesied that the Holy Spear will only be recovered by a “pure fool, enlightened by compassion.”

Amfortas’s wound is causing him immense suffering so he has come to the sacred forest to see if the waters will heal him. Sir Gawain brought him a healing herb, but this was ineffective so Gawain rode off in search of another treatment and we never hear from him again. (This seems a shame since Gawain is the only Knight of the Round Table who has kept his name from the original story.)

A friendly witch named Kundry (Katarina Dalayman) appears. She can travel from place to place very fast and she has brought a vial of balsam extract from Arabia. The knights are suspicious of Kundry because she isn’t a Christian but Gurnemanz admonishes them, reminding them how helpful she has been in the past.

Amfortas enters, moaning and bleeding profusely. The waters and the balm have provided only limited relief. Generally in opera getting stabbed entitles you to one aria, but Amfortas seems determined to claim more than that.

The knights are shocked when a white swan is brought in that has been wounded with an arrow. The animals in this forest are supposed to be off-limits and swans are particularly sacred. They wonder who could have done such a thing.

In walks an odd-looking young man carrying a bow. He seems remarkably ignorant. He admits to shooting the swan but can’t explain why he did it. He doesn’t know his own name or who his father was.

Kundry, who knew his mother, recognizes him as Pasifal (Jonas Kaufmann.) (That name, at least in Wagner’s etymology, means “Pure Fool”.) He was the son of a knight and a noblewoman. After his father was killed in a tournament his mother determined to raise him in the wilderness with no human contact and no knowledge of knightly ways. However one day he saw some knights ride by and decided that he wanted to be like them. So he set off in search of them, equipped only with a crude bow that he had made himself.

At this point Titurel orders Amfortas to bring out the Grail. Amfortas doesn’t want to because he doesn’t think he is worthy to touch it. Titurel insists, so finally Amfortas takes the Grail out of its box and the knights celebrate a Mass. This seems to revive Amfortas though it doesn’t heal his wound.

Gurnemanz asks Parsifal if he understands what he has seen. Parsifal says that he doesn’t. Gurnemanz calls him a total fool and tells him to get lost. Parsifal wanders off and the audience is left to reflect that Gurnemanz is really pretty dense.

First Intermission

After some interviews with actors we go backstage where we get to see some genuine New York blue-collar types manhandling the sets into place.

“Hey, Aaron, send a couple of guys over here to help handle the blood!”

Act 2

We are now in Klingsor’s castle. It is supposed to look beautiful but that is an illusion. We know that it is an illusion because we can see that everyone is actually standing in a huge pool of blood, at least 6 inches deep.

Klingsor’s paranormal abilities tell him that Parsifal has just wandered up and climbed over the castle wall. Klingsor knows that this is the “pure fool” who can defeat him, but he has a plan.

He summons Kundry and orders her to seduce Parsifal so that while Parsifal is distracted he can run in and stab him with the Holy Spear. Kundry doesn’t want to but she has to obey Klingsor since as a eunuch he is the only man who is immune to her charms.

Klingsor sends his deluded knights to fight the intruder. Parsifal takes their weapons away and beats the crap out of them, so they all run away.

Parsifal enters the garden of the flower women. The demonesses are initially annoyed with him for chasing their lovers away, but they they notice how handsome he is. They twine around him, but then they start fighting over him, allowing him to pull free.

Time to call in the A Team. Kundry enters and confronts Parsifal. She tells about how his mother died of a broken heart after he left. While he is overcome with grief and guilt she moves in and kisses him. Klingsor is all set to run in with the spear…

But then Parsifal suddenly feels the pain of Amfortas’s wound, and realizes that is represents the pain of a man who desires a woman. A vision from the Grail tells him that true salvation can only be found in chastity. He pushes Kundry away and tells her to bug off.

Kundry has not given up on seducing him. She appeals to his sense of pity, telling him that she has been condemned to wander the Earth ever since she laughed at Jesus on the cross. (This seems like a particularly petty version of the Wandering Jew legend.)

Parsifal tells her that she can be saved only if she stops having sex, or even thinking about it. She curses him, saying that he will wander the Earth searching for the Knights of the Grail.

Klingsor runs in with the Holy Spear but Parsifal easily takes if from him. Klingsor drops dead and the castle vanishes.

By this point everybody is pretty much covered with blood. You have to admire a production company that is prepared to buy new costumes for every performance.

Act 3

Gurnemanz is alone in the sacred forest. Of course he will bring us up to speed. Apparently some years have passed and it is now Good Friday. Amfortas has refused to bring out the Grail again, hoping to die from his wound. He hasn’t died yet but Titurel, deprived of the Grail’s light, has just died. Feeling guilty, Amfortas has promised to produce the Grail for his funeral Mass.

Gurnemanz hears a moaning sound and finds Kundry asleep in some bushes. She almost looks dead but she wakes up when he calls her.

To their astonishment in staggers a mysterious cloaked figure carrying a spear. Gurnemanz indignantly asks why he is carrying a weapon in this holy place on this holy day. The cloaked figure does not answer but then Gurnemanz recognizes him as the boy who shot the swan, and realizes that he is carrying the Holy Spear.

Parsifal explains that he has had to fight his way back against numerous enemies, all without using the spear, since he knows that the Holy Spear must never be defiled with the blood of one’s enemies. (Think how much trouble would have been saved if Amfortas had known that!)

Parsifal collapses from exhaustion. Kundry offers him a drink from the sacred spring, but Gurnemanz says that he must be washed with its water. So Kundry washes his feet and dries them with her hair, while Gurnemanz washes his forehead. This seems to revive Parsifal so Gurnemanz annoints his head and proclaims him the new king.

Parsifal baptizes Kundry with the holy water. Gurnemanz dresses him in the robes of a Knight of the Holy Grail and they all go off to Titurel’s funeral.

At the funeral the knights all beg Amfortas to keep his promise and bring out the Grail. Instead he jumps into the grave and sings a long aria about how he is a terrible person and should just die.

Much to everyone’s relief Parsifal finally shows up with the Holy Spear. He touches the spear to Amfortas’s wound which is instantly healed. Amfortas is happy now and nobody blames him for the fact that he caused his father’s death by being so emo.

He also doesn’t mind that Parsifal has usurped his throne. Parsifal is obviously much holier and better suited to the job.

Parsifal tells Kundry to bring out the Grail. She takes it out of the box and in a great Freudian moment Parsifal dips the tip of the Holy Spear into the Holy Grail. Kundry immediately drops dead, but she’s at peace so I guess that’s OK.

In fact, given that we have a new king and masculine purity has been preserved, I’d have to say that this is a totally happy ending all around.

However the next time that someone says that anime is weird and sexist I’m going to ask them to explain this.