Something seasonally appropriate: a sort of beginner’s guide to Parsifal that I wrote in 2015 for the CBSO’s in-house magazine, ahead of Andris Nelsons’s concert performance.
Cards on the table: if you’re a regular orchestral concert-goer, there’s a fair chance that you’re a bit suspicious of opera. If you’re a normal sort of opera fan, it’s more than possible that you’re a little intimidated by Wagner. And even if you snapped up tickets for Andris Nelsons’ CBSO concert performances of Lohengrin, The Flying Dutchman and Tristan und Isolde, you might still view Parsifal with a mixture of awe and trepidation. Because this is the big one: Wagner’s crowning achievement. It makes the Ring seem down-to-earth, and The Flying Dutchman sound like The Pirates of Penzance. Read much of the vast literature about Parsifal and you’ll quickly find yourself lost in an impenetrable thicket of medieval mythology, political theorising and the worst kind of musicology. Meanwhile, try and explain the plot to a modern English-speaking listener and it’s hard not to be reminded of Monty Python. I’m here to tell you that none of that matters. Anyone can listen to Parsifal, anyone can understand it, and anyone can be moved by it. No prior experience is required: in fact, Parsifal might even be the ideal entry point into Wagner’s world. But, without question, it’ll tell you a powerful and timeless story in some of the most heartfelt, involving and transcendently lovely music ever written. And if all that’s stopping you from having that experience are a few questions – well, here’s an attempt at a few answers.
What’s the story?
In the castle of Monsalvat an order of knights guards the Grail, a sacred relic with the power to renew life itself. They’re supposed to be pure of heart; but their king, Amfortas, has succumbed to worldly temptation, fallen into a trap laid by the demonic Klingsor, and is now incurably wounded. The order is ailing with him, until the arrival of an outsider – Parsifal, a naïve young man. Initially baffled by the knights and their rituals, Parsifal seems like easy prey for Klingsor, but – being truly pure of heart – he resists even the temptations of Klingsor’s unwilling slave-seductress Kundry, and in doing so, starts to understand Amfortas’ suffering. He defeats Klingsor and returns to Monsalvat on Good Friday to restore life and hope to the keepers of the Grail.
Isn’t it complicated?
That’s the thing with opera plots – explain them on paper and they sound ridiculous (It’s not only opera: try summarising Game of Thrones. Or, for that matter, The Archers). And it’s true, there’s more to Parsifal than the outline above: infinitely more. Wagner thought about this opera for nearly 40 years before its premiere in 1882. The Christian imagery of resurrection and the Grail, the philosophy of Schopenhauer, plus Buddhism, with its ethos of renunciation: they’re all encoded in Parsifal, and you can take them at face value, or dig as deep as you like. But like so many great stories, it all feels – somehow – familiar. The story of the Knights of the Grail comes from the legends of King Arthur (where Parsifal is Sir Percival); Kundry is the eternal femme fatale and the wounded king appears in both Celtic myth and Star Wars. Terry Gilliam retold the tale with Robin Williams in The Fisher King; Shakespeare, Tolkien and CS Lewis knew it too (we’ll pass over Monty Python for now). Elements of Parsifal keep popping up in western culture, sometimes startlingly close to home. An ancient artefact known as the Nanteos Cup was stolen from a house in Herefordshire last July – it’s believed to have healing powers and had been loaned by its current owners to a sick friend. “Village pub raided by police in hunt for Holy Grail” was the headline in The Daily Telegraph.
Wagner uses powerful symbols and characters, but after five decades working in theatre, he knew how to tell a story too. His libretto (he wrote his own) explains everything necessary, at a comprehensible pace. And it’s supported by truly miraculous music.
Is the music loud?
Ah, the old prejudice about Wagner, born from years of hearing only edited fragments like The Ride of the Valkyries and the Meistersinger prelude. Yes, Parsifal is thrillingly loud – when it needs to be. But for long stretches – most famously, the ecstatic “Good Friday Music” in Act Three, where a spring meadow blossoms with hope – it’s blissfully quiet and tender. Wagner travelled in Italy while writing the music for Parsifal; his set-designer travelled with him, and the Grail Temple of Monsalvat is modelled on Siena cathedral. Klingsor’s magic kingdom was inspired by a lush sub-tropical garden at Ravello, near Amalfi.
This isn’t the stormy Nordic world of The Flying Dutchman or the dark German forest of Siegfried. Parsifal is Wagner’s Italian opera, and it sounds it: long, singing melodies, distant bells, and warm, glowing orchestral colours. There’s a reason why David Hockney loves this music. Books have been written on the orchestration alone – Debussy famously described it as “lit from behind”. But the important thing is that it serves the story, gently, persuasively taking you where Wagner leads, and quietly gathering power as it goes. Before you know it you’re on that Good Friday meadow – don’t be surprised if you find yourself in tears. And if Wagner’s story still hasn’t won you over? Never mind: at least you’ve heard what Debussy called “one of the most beautiful monuments of sound ever raised to the eternal glory of music”.
But Wagner wasn’t a very nice man, was he?
Not especially. Artists are often a nightmare to deal with: the personal lives of John Lennon, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky and Charles Dickens (to choose a few names at random) don’t bear very close inspection either. Yet even Wagner’s bitterest enemies seem to have revered him. After Wagner had stolen his wife, the conductor Hans von Bülow called him a “glorious, unique man”. Friedrich Nietzsche – after publishing a series of vicious anti-Wagner polemics – still described him as “the greatest benefactor of my life”. Wagner’s personal prejudices are a matter of record; the ends to which Hitler (who wasn’t even born until six years after Wagner’s death) twisted Wagner’s artistic legacy have been well-documented. Interestingly, although the Nazi hierarchy enthusiastically patronised the annual Wagner festival at Bayreuth, no performances of Parsifal were given there during the war years. However readily the Nazis were able to misrepresent Wagner’s other works, Parsifal eluded them. Its compassionate vison is entirely true to itself, and at odds with any political agenda. D H Lawrence – a devoted Wagnerite – summed up the issue with typical bluntness. “An artist is usually a damned liar but his art, if it be art, will tell you the truth”.
Isn’t it long?
With intervals, it’s a little over five hours long. “The first act of the three occupied two hours” quipped Mark Twain, when he saw Parsifal at Bayreuth in 1891 “and I enjoyed that in spite of the singing”. That’s just the scale on which Wagner operates. It’s still only the length of two DVDs (basically half a series of Mad Men).
And I promise you this: you won’t notice. “Here, time becomes space” comments the knight Gurnemanz in Act One, and once the music starts and Wagner begins to cast his spell you’re simply drawn in. There’s no experience in all music so compelling, so immersive, so moving and consistently, ravishingly beautiful. “Absorbed in this unique soundworld” writes the critic Jessica Duchen, “we become someone else. We blend our spirits, and Parsifal shows us how.”
A bit much? People do get like that after hearing Parsifal. There’s only one way to find out if you’re one of them. And with Andris Nelsons conducting, odds are that when, five hours later, you finally leave Monsalvat, you’ll want to go straight back in and hear it all over again.