Parsifal, Volume 14 (score)
Parsifal, Volume 30 (documents) of the Sämtliche Werke (Complete Works) of Richard Wagner
“Si c’est l’amour divin, je le connais.”
Charles de Brosses, on Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy
The Metropolitan’s Parsifal (1974 season), the recent release of a superior recording of the opera, and the publication of a monumental critical edition of the score provoke re-examination of a masterpiece whose music is ever more highly regarded even as a wider audience is beginning to understand that the drama’s underlying philosophy is truly repugnant. In no sense is Parsifal a decline; on the contrary, Wagner’s musical powers are at their pinnacle. The importance of stage action is reduced, but the musical rendering of the drama is more self-sufficient than ever before—of necessity, given the large part played by transformations that are uniquely within the power of music to express.
Wagner’s musical language continued to evolve during the composition (1877-1882), and his affective and emotional range to expand. He was still discovering new, more liquescent chord sequences and intensifications of sound colors, fulfilling his promise that the instrumentation would be “like layers of clouds which part and then re-form.” The orchestral blends and separations are without precedent. But while the reputation and historical importance of Tristan have long been established, it is only recently, and to a large extent through Debussy and Schoenberg, that the profound influence of Parsifal on the beginnings of twentieth-century music has been recognized. Verklaerte Nacht and the final Adagio in Lulu are inconceivable without the Prelude to the third act of Parsifal, as are Pelléas and Erwartung without other parts of Wagner’s opera.
Concerning the performance, the recording, and the publication, the production at the Metropolitan warrants mention if only because it succeeds in imposing the Theater of the Absurd on opera’s ranking Solemnity. Thus the great bells knelling the death of the king and the hour of the Crucifixion have been replaced at the Met by a species of electric door-chimes in a different key from that of the orchestra, making Gurnemanz’s “Mittag” sound like first call for lunch on the S.S. Bremen. The chorus, too, within moments of most of its entrances, manages to drift into excruciating micro-tonal regions which it would never have been able to find if demanded by the score.
Yet the jarrings from this and other musical faux pas are minor compared to the visual discordances. Klingsor’s spear, looking about as lethal as a paper airplane and effortlessly plucked from the air by its intended target, raised titters that turned this dramatic and musical crisis into a farce. And Klingsor’s garden, an ithyphallic fantasy at the Met—pistils and stamens like necks and corks of giant champagne bottles—was in radical disagreement with the Pre-Raphaelite tableaux of the rest of the opera. The Flower Maidens’ falsies, moreover, worn outside and just above nature’s realities, suggested a Jean Genet drag scene with Klingsor as the transvestite madame. (Although Klingsor is self-castrated, his Er ist schön, der Knabe,” with …