Monday, April 2, 2007


Sunday 31 March 2013 at 3.03 - 8.45 pm

WAGNER: Parsifal, an opera in three acts
Only the guileless fool Parsifal can heal the wound of the sinner Amfortas by returning the sacred spear to the brotherhood of the Grail
Parsifal......................... Jonas Kaufmann
Kundry........................ Katarina Dalayman
Gurnemanz.................. René Pape
Amfortas...................... Peter Mattei
Klingsor....................... Evgeny Nikitin
Titurel.......................... Rúni Brattaberg
Flower Maidens........... Kiera Duffy, Lei Xu;
Irene Roberts; Haeran Hong;
Katherine Whyte; Heather
Esquires....................... Jennifer Forni; Lauren McNeese;
Andrew Stenson; Mario Chang
Knights..........Mark Schowalter, Ryan Speedo Green
Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orch/Daniele Gatti

REVIEW (with pictures galore)
LIBRETTO (German & English

Listening to a Bayreuth Festival recording of Parsifal in 1953 on the ABC in Sydney, I started my love-affair with Wagner's music, and opera in general (Mario Lanza had a part to play in this, too). The bass role of Gurnemanz fascinated me (there it was Ludwig Weber, here we hear our NZ "Big Mac", and that is not an advert for the computer I am writing this on, with LCD screen).  And Wolfgang Windgassen was very fine as Parsifal (and so now is our own Simon O'Neill; you can go to his website, from my side-bar, and listen to him singing Puccini's Nessun Dorma and some Wagnerian roles also).

I could say a lot about the whole subject of the Holy Grail, but I am putting it on my website:
There is a series of essays on the various medieval epic poems and novels on the quest for the Grail, by Perceval (French) and Parzival (German), but here is what I say about Wagner's Parsifal and his quest (for the Holy Spear more than the Grail).
What did Richard Wagner do with the old tales to produce his opera Parsifal? He first mentioned ‘Perceval’ in his earlier opera Lohengrin: this knight of the Grail, in his farewell address to the people of Brabant, names his father, the king of the Grail Castle (Monsalvat) as Parzival. That is the same spelling as Wolfram used for his hero, Parzival. And Wolfram was the main source for Wagner’s Parsifal, but he did not ignore the French Perceval tradition; and as always he made his own imaginative new creation out of the material he inherited. The most striking feature is that Parsifal goes on a quest for something significant and holy, but it is not the Grail, because he knows the holy vessel is in the Grail Castle. But of course Perceval in the old romances has to find his way back to the castle, and that is always a long search, another quest. Parsifal brings something back with him that belongs with the Grail, but it had been stolen. He does not just return empty-handed with only a determination to ask the unasked question. For Wagner there is no question of asking a question to bring about the healing of the wounded king.

Incidentally, Lohengrin is able to be the protector and spouse of Elsa von Brabant, as long as she does not ask him his name. Naturally, after the wedding feast and the bridal chorus, they have not been singing their love duet for five minutes before she is hinting it would be nice if she could whisper his name in his ear while they are making love. Then, being the soprano, she enters into her mad scene; but the tenor keeps his cool, even when he has to fight off a gang of bedroom invaders, with his sword, and run their leader through. Next thing he is on his way back to Monsalvat, going home to Father and the Grail. So in this story it is asking a question which causes trouble, not failure to pop the question. [Just how did Lohengrin take his marriage vows anonymously? And what was she expected to call him when she was telling him his dinner was ready, ‘and come this instant’?]

I called Parsifal an ‘opera’. But Wagner wanted the term ‘music-drama’ to be applied to his works. His four-night music-drama, The Ring of the Nibelung, is called a ‘stage-festival’ (Bühnenfestspiel), and Parsifal is a ‘stage-consecration-festival (Bühnenweihfestspiel). So consecrated or sacred was this ‘total work of art’ (another description he applied to his masterpieces) that he decreed it should only be performed in his own Bayreuth Festival House (built by the patronage of good King Ludwig the Mad, of Bavaria). Of course, the US Americans had no scruples about breaking that ban (searching for mass-destruction weapons in it, like a spear [a high-velocity remote-controlled uranium-tipped missile, for sure], or a nuclear fission grail, belonging to the fission king).

What is the Holy Grail according to Wagner? In 1865 he told King Ludwig this:
“The Grail is the crystal cup from which the Redeemer and his disciples drank at the Last Supper”.

The ‘crystal’ idea is new, but if Wagner was trying to cling to Wolfram’s image of a stone-grail, he might have meant ‘rock-crystal’, from which a chalice was carved.

He continues: “In it Joseph of Arimathea caught the blood that flowed from his [the Redeemer’s] spear-wound in his side when he was on the cross”. (Usually we hear that the blood was collected when the body was taken down from the cross.)

“For a long time it was mysteriously withdrawn from the sinful world and preserved as the holiest of relics.” Eventually, “there sprang up in certain divinely inspired heroes, filled with holy love-longing, the desire to seek out this strengthening relic of which tradition spoke, in which the blood of the Saviour had been preserved (sangue [?] réale, whence San Greal, Sanct Gral, the Holy Grail) ”.

So, Wagner has picked up the Royal Blood etymology (Sang réal) for the Holy Grail (Saint Graal). But he does not move on to the ‘bloodline’ hypothesis of Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln, involving Mary of Magdala and Jesus of Nazareth.

As a matter of interest, though, Wagner had sketched out a play entitled Jesus of Nazareth (in 1849), in which Mary penitently bathes her Lord’s feet, as Kundry does to Parsifal when he returns to take up his kingship (in Act 3). Wagner had also planned (in 1859) a drama about the Buddha, in which a hysterically laughing woman appears, another counterpart for Kundry. Wagner’s Kundry is a female ‘wandering Jew’, who had mocked Jesus in his Passion, and was condemned to perpetual laughter; from am Indian point of view, her soul transmigrates from body to body carrying this karma (though the Buddha denied the existence of the soul, and spoke only of rebirth with the karma passing from one life to the next). Kundry is basically Wolfram’s Cundrie, the ugly but knowledgeable witch, who tells Parzival what he did wrong at the Grail Castle and eventually calls him to the service of the Grail. Wagner’s Kundry does not quite do that, but she is an amalgam of a number of Wolfram’s characters. She has to function as a seductress in the employ of the wicked Klingsor (Wolfram’s Clinschor, the magician who owned the Castle of Wonders)

Gurnemanz is Parsifal’s tutor, as with Parzival, but Wagner has combined him with the hermit Trevrizent (who completes Parzival’s education) and made him one of the Grail Knights, so that he can always be on hand to direct the young man.

Parsifal makes a dramatic entry by killing a swan in the territory of the Grail, where the animals are sacred. Gurnemanz thinks this might be the long-awaited “pure fool who is made wise through compassion” (durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor). Gurnemanz takes Parsifal to the assembly of the knights of the Grail, to test him.

Parsifal is only an onlooker at the Grail ceremony (here the Eucharist, though not the Catholic Mass); unlike Parzival and Perceval he has no conversation with Amfortas, but he does begin to experience compassion; and although Gurnemanz kicks him out (literally), and calls him a silly goose, and tells him he is nothing but a fool, and not the ‘pure fool’ they are waiting for to be their redeemer, and to heal Amfortas. But Parsifal goes off to prove him wrong, to rescue the sacred spear from Klingsor, and become the redeemer and the Grail king.

Thus, Wagner made the search for the Holy Spear the central quest of Parsifal. The spear with which Klingsor wounded Amfortas was indeed the Lance of Longinus, which pierced the Saviour’s side, and eventually healed Amfortas.

What is the Grail?
Wolfram says this: the source of the nourishment of the Templar Knights of Munsalvaesche (Grail castle) is ‘a stone whose essence is most pure’, lapsit exillis .
A stone from heaven (meteoric like the Black Stone in the mosque at Mecca)?
The philosopher’s stone (alchemy)?
A precious stone (emerald, sapphire)?
Wolfram has it carried on a green achmardi, an exotic word, not found in dictionaries, possibly Arabic or Persian? A cushion, or a tray?
Titurel (15th C), agrees with Wolfram, that it was a stone brought to earth by a heavenly host; it is called ‘jasper and flint’ (iaspis et silix); people fashioned a dish from it; used by Jesus Christ for the Last Supper.
Was the stone carved to become a vessel? In the Genoa Cathedral is the Holy Bowl (il sacro catino), used by Nicodemus at the Deposition from the Cross, to collect some of the sacred blood;
Note also the Holy Chalice (santo caliz) of Valencia Cathedral (or el santo grial): a carved agate cup (Graeco-Roman), medieval mounting, chalcedony cup as its base. It has an Arabic inscription, but its meaning is disputed.
However, H-W Schäfer, Kelch und Stein (Chalice and Stone, 61-64) affirms that this is Wolfram’s Grail, and reads the Arabic letters as: ALBST SLYS (alabsit sillîs), corresponding to LAPSIT EXILLÎS, the name that Wolfram applies to the Grail.

In many of the accounts the Grail is a cup or chalice from the Last Supper.
In the Queste, grail and chalice are separated. Wagner has it as a ‘crystal cup’.

Sexual Symbol (Jessie Weston and Joseph Campbell)
A vessel (containing blood) associated with a spear, can convey to the subconscious level of the mind the idea of sexual organs, and fertility rites (that is, if you can stand up to the accusation of having ‘a dirty mind’). Compare the Tantric Buddhist ‘jewel in the lotus’, an image of physical and spiritual union.

Royal Blood
Speaking of blood in the vessel, notice that John Hardyng, a contemporary of Malory (15th C), has Galahad finding the ‘sank roiall’ in Wales; he uses the misreading ‘sang real’ for ‘san greal’, so that the Holy Grail becomes the Royal Blood.

Wagner’s definition: sangue réale, whence San Greal, the crystal cup at the Last Supper.

Hardyng’s ‘blood royal’ mistake is applied by Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln to the ‘royal bloodline’ of the Merovingian kings, supposedly descended from Jesus and Mary Magdalene; sober historians reject this is an erroneous esoteric hypothesis.

Divine Symbol
Albert Pauphilet (in the introduction to his edition of La Queste del Saint Graa) points out the characteristics of the Grail: ‘immaterial, omnipresent, surrounded by celestial beings, it has omnipotence and wondrous grace’. These are the very attributes of God; the Grail is a symbol of God; the quest for the Holy Grail is the search for God, presented allegorically in a tale of chivalry; the story is also edifying and educative, providing instruction in theological (the Holy Trinity, transubstantiation), liturgical (elevation of the host in the mass), moral, ascetical, and mystical matters. Can we extend this definition of the Grail to the other romances? Perhaps not so mystically in Wolfram’s Parzival, though it is certainly a Bildungsroman, ‘a formational romance’, an account of the moral education of a young man; and the Grail is heavenly. Crestien’s grail was ‘a holy thing’, a religious object.

Whence is the Grail?
Wagner has it coming from the table at the Last Supper, with the Redeemer’s blood added to it at the Cross, then treasured and hidden as a sacred relic (in the celestial realm?) till it was revealed to Titurel and his knights, who became its guardians. He includes the legend of Joseph of Arimathea in his statement (see above, on Parsifal).

Another tradition has it taken to Rome by the Apostle Peter, and in troubled times, in the middle of the third century, Pope Sixtus II sent it to Spain with Saint Laurence, and it was kept in his home in Huesca. It is said to be the chalice now held in the Valencia Cathedral.

Where is the Grail?
According to Wagner’s stage instructions for Parsifal, the Holy Grail is in the castle of the Grail-Knights, namely Monsalvat (Wolfram’s Munsalvaesche), in a forest in the mountains of northern Spain.

The Spanish connection has much to recommend it. Werner Boote has made a documentary entitled Parsifal - Indiana Jones and Richard Wagner, describing “a gripping search to uncover the Legendary Holy Grail in Spain,” and he “and his team may have found the real thing”. He is taken on a grail-quest-tour of northern Spain, particularly to a monastery in Catalonia, at San Juan de la Peña (it is portrayed as fitting Wolfram’s account of the Grail castle). And finally to the Valencia Cathedral, where there is an order of Grail Knights, and many other relics.

Who is the Grail?
When the Grail is first mentioned by Gurnemanz to Parsifal, he naively asks:
“Who is the Grail?” (Wer ist der Graal?)

This question could receive the answer: Mary of Magdala, if the Holy Bloodline hypothesis were established.

But the Queste romance seems to offer this answer: The Holy Grail represents God and his abundant grace.

Friday 6 April 2007 at 12 noon
Performance from the NZ International Arts Festival,
Friday 17th of March 2006
NZ Symphony Orchestra, conductor Anthony Negus
Director Bernd Benthaak; Designer Tolis Papazoglou
NZ Cast
(and I want to name them all, because I have sung with some of them, in backing choirs):
Sir Donald McIntyre (Gurnemanz),
Simon O'Neill (Parsifal), Margaret Medlyn (Kundry),
Paul Whelan (Amfortas), Martin Snell (Klingsor);
Grant Dickson (Titurel); Patrick Power, Roger Wilson, Stephen Chambers, Paul Chappory, Linden Loader, Madeleine Pierard, Janey McKenzie, Jenny Wollerman, Morag Atchison, Annabelle Cheetham.
Assisted in rehearsals by Michael Fulcher and Rosemary Barnes.

Looking at the programme of this Parsifal, I read: "Proudly presented by ONE". That is, TV ONE. So where is the video recording?!

We used to use and got used to using the NY Metropera materials, but not any more!

Story with Pictures

What a feast for Wagnerites at this Easter time:
Parsifal on Good Friday (appropriately, as Act 3 takes place on a Good Friday, Karfreitag), and Mastersingers on Sunday, Easter Day.