The first piece of music that embedded itself in my memory, when I was a small boy in Canberra during and after the war, was the trumpet call in Wagner’s overture to his opera Rienzi. It preceded a dozen bars or so of the overture, heralding the radio news provided by the Macquarie Broadcasting Service. I didn’t know that Wagner had written the music. Indeed, I knew nothing about music at all. All I knew was that before long I knew those bars, and I liked them.
Richard Wagner himself in later life didn’t like Rienzi at all, and called it a dreadful piece of work. It was his third opera, his only Grand Opera, and his first success. Though it was performed throughout the rest of the 19th century, it is out of the repertoire now, and all we ever hear is the overture. The Wagner I’ve since heard live has been in the concert hall, notably the Siegried Idyll, and several of the overtures and entractes, apart from some songs. The Wesendock songs are especially delightful. I’ve never seen a Wagner opera, though in earlier years I would have done so had there been one on offer where I lived. The Ring has escaped me live, since seeing it would have meant a journey and a lot of expense. I did watch a version over several weeks on BBC television in 1965.
The Sydney Opera House, or rather its Joan Sutherland Theatre where operas are staged, is closed for renovation, but Australian Opera offered this year a concert hall performance of Parsifal, and we went to it. The performance, including intervals, lasted for more than five hours, so it was not for those who need to go to bed early. One inducement to be there was Jonas Kaufmann, who was to sing the title role, and is the possessor of a lovely tenor voice.
Parsifal is an opera in the tradition of the mediaeval fables built around King Arthur and the knights of the round table. The name of the character Parsifal is a rendition of Perceval, though Wagner apparently thought the world was Persian for ‘pure fool’, Parsifal’s role and virtue in the story. A group of knights guards sacred relics, including the ‘Holy Grail’, which is a vessel of great power and wonder. The King of the Knights, Amfortas, has been wounded, by another relic, the Holy Spear (the one used by a Roman soldier on Christ at the crucifixion). His wound will not heal. A strange woman, Kundry, who seems to be the messenger of the Grail, brings him medicine. Later a slain swan falls from the sky and an odd young man is dragged before the knights, horrified at his casual killing of an innocent bird in a holy place. The young man is Parsifal, who seems to know nothing about himself or much else. Kundry explains that he is an orphan.
A villain called Klingsor, a former knight who failed the tests of virtue and could not join the company, and is now a sorcerer, has been out for revenge. He had used a beautiful damsel to lure Amfortas into a position where he was struck with the spear, which Klingsor now possesses. Klingsor fears that the youth is the person referred to in a prophecy (much of the first Act is taken up in telling us all about the prophecy), and orders Kundry to transform herself again (she was the beautiful damsel who did for Amfortas) into an alluring woman and then seduce Parsifal, who would thereby lose his purity and thus his potential to defeat Klingsor. Parsifal resists all the seduction offered him (it does go on for a long time). The sorcerer gets panicky, throws the holy spear at Parsifal, who catches it. Klingsor’s realm, and presumably his seductive maidens (there are more beside Kundry), now vanish into nothingness.
Kundry, when she could not have her wicked way with Parsifal, applied a curse to him — an inability to find his way out of the forest. Many years seem to have elapsed before he does so, at the start of the final act. But all ends happily. Parsifal becomes the king, baptises Kundry, who becomes normal again, and Amfortas is cured. The sacred relics are back together again and the community of knights is saved. This is a sketch of a sketch of the plot. You can get it all in Wikipedia.
What I have seen of Wagner’s operatic work on YouTube clips and the like suggest that that there is a lot of static singing, a lot of processions, and not a great deal of action. That doesn’t make Wagner an oddity. You could say the same about much of Mozart’s operatic work, which I have seen, and much more than once. There is often wit and light-heartedness in Mozart, but not a lot of it in Wagner. I can’t think of any in Parsifal. Perhaps it would be better properly staged. What we saw was a big orchestra on stage (the program listed 98 players), with the principals in front and the chorus behind. The orchestral sound was magnificent, as was the chorus.
The principals were uniformly excellent. Jonas Kaufmann was every bit as pure and expressive in voice as I hoped he would be. But the real hero of the performance to me was the Korean bass Kwangchul Youn, who plays the part of Gurnemanz, the oldest (perhaps the most senior) knight of the company, who is essentially the narrator of the story. He had a lot to do, and he did it wonderfully well. My guess was that he received more applause than did Kaufmann on the night we went.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s review was simply rapturous, and the reviewer would have given the performance 5 ½ stars out of 5 had he been permitted to do so. Because I had nothing with which to compare it I would not have been so over the moon. In fact, I found the music eventually repetitive. Of course, Wagner uses the leit motif, a characteristic musical figure, to denote themes, characters or significant history, so you will hear some little figures again and again. I’m not knowledgeable enough to be sure, but my guess was that whenever the Holy Grail was mentioned Wagner offered us what is called the Dresden Amen, in which the chord you expect at the end of the figure is replaced by another, which closes the theme in a transfixing way. I must have heard it a score or more times during the evening, and while it is most beautiful the sheer repetition becomes distracting, and it loses its appeal.If you know Mendelssohn’s symphonies you’ll recall its use in the last movement of his fifth or ‘Reformation’ symphony.
Wagner’s status in the opera world was so powerful that other composers felt they had to use the leit motif too. I think I first heard one in Verdi’s The Force of Destiny. Bizet used them in Carmen, and of course Tchaikovsky used them in his ballet scores. Today they are widely used in film music as well.
After four hours or so of Wagner’s music I admired his orchestration and the sonority of his music. I also felt that the Parsifal music was uniformly heavy, and I longed for some light and quick counter-balance. Rossini once commented that Wagner’s music had some marvellous moments but some very long quarter-hours. I wouldn’t go so far, but I’m not sure I would want to sit through the whole staged opera, even if it is his best.
As a final remark, I discovered from the program that Parsifal was written to consecrate Wagner’s own special theatre in Bayreuth, and for a long time performances outside Bayreuth were forbidden. It was the New York Met that in 1903 eventually defied the ban twenty-one years after the first performance. The ban was lifted in January 1914, and in the first six months after the lifting of the ban, more than fifty opera houses in Europe staged performances.
Those were the days.
ENDNOTE: Rossini also said : ‘One can’t judge Wagner’s opera Lohengrin after a first hearing, and I certainly don’t intend to hear it a second time.’ And somebody else remarked that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds…