Parsifal — Wagner's Most Jewish Masterpiece?

3 March 2013

Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal, has always held a strange fascination for me. The music represents Wagner at the height of his power, but the libretto is a baffling hodgepodge of themes and symbols from Christianity, Arthurian legend, Buddhism, the writings of Schopenhauer, and Wagner’s own philosophy and ego. I’ve found that for me, the best way to appreciate this opera is to ignore the words and let the music tell the entire story.

I recently attended a Live in HD transmission of Parsifal, in a new Metropolitan Opera production directed by Canadian director François Girard, who is most famous for such films as “The Red Violin” and “Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.”

Girard had the cast costumed in modern-day clothing, presumably to help his audience find a relevance they might be unable to see if the cast wore costumes more in keeping with the Middle Ages, where the story is set. For me, this only succeeded in making me see everything and everyone as very Jewish.

During the Prelude, a mirrored show curtain in which the audience sees themselves dissolves to show the chorus. The men of the chorus remove their coats and ties and assemble to sit in a small, tight prayer circle. To me, they did not look like the knights of the holy monastery of Montsalvat; they looked like a Chevrah Minyan on the Upper West Side of New York City, especially when they’d rock and sway while praying; they looked like they were davening.

Gurnemanz knows everything, and tells us everything he knows at great length. He’s certainly knowledgeable enough to be the congregation’s shammes, (synagogue sexton) but he’s also opinionated and bossy enough to be the Temple President. True to form, before he does anything, he performs a ritual washing of hands in a stream that runs down the center of the stage. This stream also serves as a mechitzah (a divider separating the men’s and women’s sections of the synagogue) which the women of the chorus, dressed conservatively in black dresses, never cross; they observe the men praying but they never join or participate.

The main order of business in Act I is getting Amfortas, son of Titurel,  to and from the mikveh for a ritual bath in the vain hopes of healing his unhealable wound. (I have to wonder if this wound would be considered a pre-existing condition, and if so, whether or not it would be covered under Obamacare, but I digress) Kundry arrives with a vial of balsam from Arabia, but the younger knights are immediately suspicious; Where did the balsam come from? Who brought it? Is it Kosher?

Gurnemanz fills us in on the villain of the piece, Klingsor, who operates out of a magic castle guarded by a bevy of Flower Maidens, who exist to seduce and enthrall wayward knights. To hear Gurnemanz describe these lovely sirens is to hear the same rationale of the ultra-Orthodox men of today who will throw rocks at women they consider immodest.

We are told about the Holy Grail, and when it is finally revealed, what is it but a giant Kiddush cup? Amfortas even goes so far as to dip his fingers into the cup; in his delirium he must think it’s Passover and time to recite the Ten Plagues.

In Act II, we are transported to Klingsor’s castle, and in this production there is blood everywhere, gallons of it. Everything in Klingsor’s realm is treyf (unclean), especially the aforementioned Flower Maidens. The Flower Maidens all wear flimsy white nightgowns, and because they’re standing in a pool of blood up to their ankles, the hems of those nightgowns are soon soaked in the blood. They look like they’re having really messy periods, all of them at once. (How apt it would be for Parsifal to enter singing “A Wand’ring Menstrual. I, a thing of shreds and patches,” but, again I digress) Kundry attempts to seduce Parsifal on a king-size bed, but she succeeds only in getting blood all over the sheets. Parsifal somehow resists temptation, but it’s not really that difficult when the temptation is so disgusting. Parsifal catches one of Klingsor’s magic spears in mid-air and makes the whole place, and everyone in it vanish.

Parsifal returns to shul in Act III, and Gurnemanz, who does not recognize Parsifal after such a long absence, greets him with “Greetings, guest! Have you lost your way, and may I direct you?” Just what a temple usher would say, except during the High Holy Days, when it would be “Where are your tickets?”

Parsifal has brought with him the spear he wrested away from Klingsor, and this spear has the power to heal Amfortas’s unhealable wound. By the virtue of this, and the fact that Titurel has just died, Gurnemanz appoints Parsifal the new spiritual leader and dresses Parsifal in a white garment very like the Kitel a bridegroom would wear at his wedding.

A funeral for Titurel is held, and during the ceremony, Amfortas jumps into his father’s open grave, on top of his dead father. What might Freud say about that? I’m surprised no one had the presence of mind to say “Get out of there, you’re making a fool of yourself!”

The opera ends with the return of the Holy Grail, and Parsifal, for reasons best known to himself, dips the point of the spear into the cup. To me it looked like the end of a Havdallah service.

I doubt François Girard had my interpretation in mind, but this is just the sort of thing you invite when you attempt to update a classic.