By Lynne Gray, PhD
Please note this can be seen at www.metopera.org
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Friday, August 7
Starring Waltraud Meier, Siegfried Jerusalem, Bernd Weikl, and Kurt Moll, conducted by James Levine. From March 28, 1992.
James Levine’s conducting of ` 1Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, has been described as “a model of concentrated rapture.” The Met’s orchestra and chorus—to say nothing of this classic, all-star cast—are certainly spellbinding in Otto Schenk’s production (with sets by Günther Schneider-Siemssen). Siegfried Jerusalem (could there be a better name for a Wagnerian tenor?) is Parsifal, the ignorant young “pure fool” who finally achieves wisdom, recaptures the Holy Spear Wand restores the Order of the Holy Grail. The bewitching Waltraud Meier is a perfect Kundry, Kurt Moll’s Gurnemanz is both compassionate and wise, while Bernd Weikl’s suffering fallen knight Amfortas completes the talented ensemble.
Wagner’s epic masterwork of ritual threatened and ritual restored demands unparalleled stamina from singers, conductor, and audience alike. Yet the payoff can be an experience as profound and moving as anything in the canon, with compelling music and uplifting psychological portraits of its characters. The ultra-modern 2013 production that was streamed in April featured Jonas Kaufmann, Katarina Dalayman, Peter Mattei, Evgeny Nikitin, and René Pape. Even if you saw that one, this current, more traditional version still has much to offer us, including its highly accomplished cast, classic setting, and, of course the outstanding conducting of James Levine.
What could be more epic than a story about the legend of the Holy Grail? A bit of background is particularly useful for this opera, however. So – the Grail has been guarded for centuries by a secret order of knights sequestered at Monsalvat – the Knights of the Holy Grail – who are sworn to protect it. In addition to the Grail, the knights were also entrusted with the Holy Spear (which pierced the side of Christ on the cross while the Grail held His blood). The Order has a king, currently it is Amfortas, son of Titurel who is too old to rule, along with his knights and squires, etc., all of whom serve the Grail. As the opera begins, we learn that Amfortas suffers horribly from an excruciating and incurable wound. The story is that a dark young man, Klingsor, once sought to become a knight of the Order but was denied admission due to, shall we say, his more carnal interests (the particular details of how he went about trying to cure that failing are far more gruesome, but I leave those for you to discover on your own should you be that curious!).
Suffice it to say, that Klingsor did not take his rejection by the order well and has since dedicated himself to revenge. He learned the dark arts, became a powerful sorcerer and filled his domain, which happens to be just below Monsalvat, with enchanted Flower Maidens. The Flower Maidens’ mission is to seduce and kill any wayward Grail Knights they can find. Long ago, Klingsor successfully lured the young Amfortas into his Flower Maiden trap and along with another irresistible female – his thrall Kundry – caused Amfortas’ defeat. He was tempted, succumbed and lost the Holy Spear to Klingsor – who inflicted the incurable wound from which Amfortas now suffers.
Returning to Monsalvat in shame, Amfortas had a holy vision which told him that in order to be redeemed, and to have his wound healed, he would have to wait for a “pure fool” who would eventually become enlightened by compassion and reclaim the spear.
Enter Parsifal (who later turns out to be the father of Lohengrin – but that’s another, completely different opera!) Just now, he is a woefully naïve youth (obviously the much sought after “pure fool”)! Having lost both his father (coincidentally, a Grail knight who was killed in battle) and lately his mother, he is now an aimlessly wandering, but rather expert, archer who is hunting in the vicinity of the Temple of the Grail at Monsalvat. He brings down a beautiful swan and is roundly chastised by the knights who see it fall. They and their leader, Gurnemanz, catch him and shame him for the senseless slaughter. Consequently, he breaks his bow over his knee in remorse and is thus invited to the temple to observe the grail ritual.
Being a fool, of course, the ritual means nothing to him beyond causing a good deal of confusion in his mind – and the strange phenomenon of his momentarily experiencing Amfortas’ horrible pain. Obviously being not yet ready to become a knight of the grail, he is sent out into the world to learn compassion.
Needless to say, he, like Amfortas, rather quickly stumbles into, and is caught by, the Flower Maidens. Klingsor (undoubtedly sensing a disturbance in the Force) awakens his secret weapon, Kundry and sends her off to finish the job. Kundry is an exceptionally complex character. Because of her past sins committed at the foot of the cross, she has been sentenced for eternity to never again be able to weep, only to jeer. She is controlled by Klingsor, but desperately craves redemption and the release of death. She is sometimes able to temporarily break free from Klingsor and when she does, she has sought redemption by helping the Grail knights. Her visits to the Grail knights when Klingsor is pre-occupied are highly unpredictable, but she sometimes brings Gurnemanz balm to comfort Amfortas’ pain – although I digress.
Locked in Klingsor’s domain, our fool, Parsifal, is also sorely tempted by Kundry. When he does finally weaken and kisses her, he immediately experiences once again Amfortas’ pain and so is actually able to resist her in the end. This causes her to curse him in anger and then, in desperation, to call in Klingsor who hurls the Holly Spear at Parsifal. Somehow the spear is stopped in mid-air, allowing Parsifal to retrieve it for himself. When Parsifal makes the sign of the cross with his new-found weapon, Klingsor’s realm completely disappears in a spectacular conflagration. Our hero, nevertheless, still falls victim to Kundry’s final curse, which was that he should wander forever without finding his way back to the Grail.
After many years of searching (and presumably after finally learning compassion – and a whole lot more), Parsifal does once again stumble upon Monsalvat in spite of the curse. Amazingly, Kundry has also just been found by Gurnemanz lying unconscious under a bush. And oh — it’s Good Friday – certainly an auspicious day for miracles.
The dramatic final scenes – full of Christian religious symbolism with redemption to spare – are accompanied by dramatic and inspiring music that can’t help but leave you uplifted and hopeful – not such a bad thing in this particular time…..
1. Siegfried Jerusalem as the title character in Wagner’s “Parsifal” at the Met, 1992. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.
2. Kurt Moll as Gurnemanz, the senior Grail knight in Wagner’s “Parsifal” at the Met, 1992. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.
3. Bernd Weikl as Amfortas in Wagner’s “Parsifal” at the Met, 1992. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.
4. Siegfried Jerusalem as the title character with Flower Maidens in Wagner’s “Parsifal” at the Met, 1992. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.
5. Siegfried Jerusalem as the title character and Waltraud Meier as Kundry in Wagner’s “Parsifal” at the Met, 1992. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.
6. Siegfried Jerusalem as the title character and Waltraud Meier as Kundry in Wagner’s “Parsifal” at the Met, 1992. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.