Friday, March 15, 2013

Episcopal Evangelism in Light of the Papal Conclave

Having then checked out St. Swithun's, she never came back when she found out they actually sing more that three verses of the hymns.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Seeing the Grail

Back last year when I was seeing the new Met Ring cycle, it was announced that they would be doing Parsifal this spring with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. Given his electric performance as Siegmund, it was the decision of a millisecond to decide to keep it on the calendar.As it turned out, Kaufmann was, if anything, perhaps the low end of a dream cast: Peter Mattei as Amfortas and René Pape as Gurnemanz were beyond outstanding, and the orchestra played its heart out.

Not that there weren't weaknesses. Parsifal, like the Ring operas, invites productions which step outside the original setting, and it is increasingly hard to get anyone to take seriously a production which respects Wagner's High-Victorian/Prince-Valiant middle ages directions. And indeed it is easy to see how the story can be abstracted.

But it defies deconstruction. You can find quite a few clips on YouTube, including a few from the 1980s-'90s in the days before irony and cynicism totally corrupted the art world, which range from the arch-traditional to symbolist productions like the current Met version, which largely respect the text, and there a few that try to go way beyond anything Wagner wrote and treat the opera as a vehicle for anything but the mystery play which it is. Last year's Bayreuth production, for example, set the story in political context something like Weimar Germany. To make this work, they had to do such violence to the story that the action on stage is as often as not completely at odds with the text.

That text, if you pay any attention to it at all, is relentlessly Christian. Jesus's name is never mentioned, but his passion and sacrifice are mentioned nearly every time Gurnemanz opens his mouth. François Girard's staging has some decided quirks (such as the pool of blood which the entire second act is sung in) but by and large his blocking of the action works extremely well and to the service of the story, especially the two great religious rites which end the first and third acts. But for whatever reason he feels it necessary to comment on the Buddhism in the work. This is complete and utter bullocks. The only traces of Buddhism in Wagner's stage action and text come out of the fact that sometimes Jesus and the Buddha drove in neighboring lanes on the theological highway, as it were. The first scene in Act III in particular is Christian from beginning to end, remembering that the end is Kundry's baptism, for crying out loud.

Wagner's story of redemption is in fact one of the most thoroughly Christian works in the repertoire, and it is striking how the various productions attempt to subvert that message. For example, the aforementioned Bayreuth travesty replaced the grail itself, in the final scene, with a boy of about ten, who was presented to the audience by Gurnemanz and Kendry as Parsifal disappeared below stage. Kendry herself I give even odds of surviving these days, and one looks in vain for dove at the end, descending or even shot from a cannon. Somehow Girand, for all his fashionable babble about other religions, managed in the end (or despite himself) to present the salvific message intact; indeed, during the first grail rite the fourth wall broke the other direction for me, as Pape and Mattei spoke the truths which are Most True, and the grail was revealed in full reverence, perhaps more so than anyone intended.

You have another chance to see this production, if you are hardy enough and live close enough to one of those theaters showing it, for it will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, March 20th. In the meantime, I leave you with this classic clip of the final scene, featuring Siegfried Jerusalem, Bernd Weikl, and Waltraud Meier.