29 October 2006

Swan Dive

This is going to be long, but I find that so suitable for Parsifal. . . .

Digression One: Mein lieber Schwan!
My first viewing of Parsifal was in the form of the Hans-Jurgen Syberberg film, at Boston's long-gone Exeter Street Theater (a handsome romanesque revival building that was first turned into a furniture store -- sort of a proto-Ikea -- and then a Waterstone's bookstore, which is what it might still be for all I know). I had heard the music but didn't know the story in any detail. I nodded off briefly. (This had nothing to do with boredom; my body will sleep when it's tired no matter how interested I am in what I'm doing.) When I came to, Gurnemanz was berating Parsifal at length for shooting a swan. And I thought: what's the deal with the swan? Was it a very special swan? Why are they so upset?

Once VCRs arrived, I rented Syberberg's film again (the sweet beauty of VCRs: if I fell asleep, I could just stop or rewind the film). This time I was there for the whole swan incident, but I still didn't really understand the intensity of the reaction from Gurnemanz and company.

Several years later, I had spent a mostly sleepless night once again, tormented by the mechanical thumping of numerous stereo systems (I was living way too close to several colleges, among them Berklee). I was preparing to go for an early-morning run along the Charles River, hoping exercise would at least reduce my disgust with everything around me. Across from my apartment I saw a flock of pigeons pecking snacks from the trash left in the gutter. A group of little boys was walking down the sidewalk, spotted the pigeons, and immediately ran towards them yelling, just to frighten them away. Why? Why not leave the birds in peace? Why not enjoy their iridescent neck feathers and just go your own way? The children saw something smaller and weaker and had to disrupt it, just because they could. My disgusted mood only deepened.

I won't claim I made the connection right away, but eventually I realized that's why Gurnemanz is so angry when Parsifal kills the swan: he didn't need to. He saw something flying along and shot it for the joy of killing. I hadn't missed something special about the swan. It was a sentient being, and it needed no more sacredness to make killing it a sin. When Parsifal breaks his bow after the rebuke, the wrathful Gurnemanz doesn't pay much attention, but it's a major step in the holy fool's moral development.

This is the way the meanings of Parsifal have come to me, slowly, in irregular bursts. Parsifal has always fascinated me, but I won't claim even now that I, or anyone, can completely understand it as it vibrates deeply in our hearts.

Nonetheless (on to Schlingensief's notorious interpretation, my first opera at Bayreuth), I feel free to say that this production got it all completely wrong. Much as I love to sneer at overly conservative opera audiences, I have to give them this one. I hardly know where to start. I'm tempted to say Parsifal is all about sex and the production isn't sexy, and leave it at that, but there's so much more.

The setting was sort of a cargo cult/Heart of Darkness/junkyard mishmash that rotated around, though each section looked roughly the same, so Monsalvat and the Grail Hall and Klingsor's garden and the flowery meadow for the Good Friday music all looked pretty much the same. There was no development in the characters either. Parsifal and Kundry both have doppelgangers who (respectively) baptize or wash feet or whatever long before the character has reached that stage. Gurnemanz, not Parsifal, breaks the swan-killing bow, thereby completely missing that Parsifal has made a leap forward in understanding another creature's suffering.

And then there are the bunnies, eviscerated, decaying, or just hopping around in projections. The day after the performance I was speaking to a woman at the hotel breakfast who was with the southern California Wagner Society. They had gone to hear a lecture about the production (I believe from the director, but the only participant I know for sure is the Klingsor, John Wegner). The bunnies were discussed. Apparently bunnies have many cultural connotations throughout the world, particularly in India. Unfortunately the performance was not happening in India. Here are my associations with bunny rabbits: mindless fucking, Easter candy (hollow except for the ears), Bugs and Elmer Fudd (you see a bunny at Bayreuth, I defy you not to hear "Kill the WAB - bit! Kill the WAB - bit!"), my oldest sister's childhood pet that defecated little round balls of shit and did little else before dying, the song "Don't Be the Bunny" from Urinetown the Musical, and Matt Groening's Life in Hell bunnies (when they brought out life-size blank dolls shaped exactly like the Life in Hell rabbits with big red marks over the genital region, all I could think of was "Could you please show us on the doll where the heil'gen Speer touched you inappropriately? And would you confirm that this caused you a never-easing wound?"). I suppose you could wrap your mind around those associations as an aid to seeing into Parsifal, but you could do that with almost anything (such is the power and also the ambiguity of this myth). The problem with counting on cultural associations that are not native to your audience is that most people are not going to get it, and those who do will do so only because they've been told what to think. They're reacting from specific and not general information: instead of being open to the poetic images and reverberations of the stage pictures, they are slotting them into the previously assigned categories and feeling smug because they are people in the know, people with insider information that is not available to just anyone. A performance should be accessible to anyone who is willing to open up to it and think about it, not just those who have been given their secret decoder rings.

There were lots of projections. I think some of them might have been of the syphilis spyrochete (either I read this somewhere or I guessed: I don't think most audience members, excepting any doctors, would recognize those little squiggly things). I've read that Wagner once confided to someone that Amfortas had venereal disease. But a remark like that must be from the trickster in him: no one could possibly listen to that music and think that ache could be cured with a few shots of penicillin. It's an absurdly literal interpretation in a production that barely pays attention to literal meanings in any other point (even the spear is actually a shepherd's crook; the only standard stage picture was one they probably should have changed, which was dressing Parsifal in the conventional Jesus/Apollo long white robes and shoulder-length blond locks, not a look many men can pull off).

The Grail ceremony was a blood sacrifice enacted by participants from all the major belief systems, from Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish (because Wagner's art is more comprehensive than his tormented mind) traditions. I could see what they were getting at, and it had a certain power, but if the most sacred ceremony involves killing an animal and splashing its blood around, then what difference does it make if an ordinary swan is killed? It makes their reaction in that opening scene as overdone as I first thought it was long ago.

The Klingsor was an obvious case of ignoring the words and actions of the drama. Perhaps Wagner was to blame here for not composing the role for some nineteenth century David Daniels, but even a cursory reading of the libretto will tell you that Klingsor castrated himself (to cure the wound that will not heal) and was cast out from the Grail knights for this destructive evasion of that mighty force; hence his attempt to destroy the rest of the knights with the seductions of the Flower Maidens (showing perhaps that there is no resistance except through his method of self-mutilation). So does it make any sense at all for Klingsor to be not just powerful in a magicky kind of way but obviously the most virile man around? Why would the director have Kundry give him a blow job? I'm not really up on the mechanics of this, but is that even possibly when the man has been castrated? Klingsor (and I should say John Wegner gave an excellent performance) wore little but a loincloth for most of his performance, displaying his forceful, muscular physique, and like the dedicated performer of Othello in Nicholas Nickleby, he had blacked his whole body to play the part. Yes, Klingsor for some reason was portrayed as a black man, while Parsifal, Gurnemanz, Kundry, Amfortas, Titurel, and the Grail Knights were all white. What exactly was the message there, making the evil character black? To my American eyes the only thing genuinely shocking about this supposedly shocking performance was the minstrel-show make-up on a couple of the attendants (complete with the white outline around their mouths). There was a disturbing objectification of black bodies throughout: there was a large black woman who was required to walk around naked except for a little skirt (Kundry's doppelganger mentioned above was a midget, another example of objectifying the different, though all I could think of when I saw her was the outraged outburst of Peter Dinklage's character in Living in Oblivion, who was furious that once again he had to play in a dream sequence because he's a dwarf: "Does anybody even really have dreams about dwarves?").

Digression Two: More Fallout
I'm going to go on several tangents here, starting with Dr. Atomic: I still feel that it is one of the few operas where you can't do color-blind casting, because in a work claiming to deal with the moral problems of that time and place, you can't just pretend that there was no deep moral problem caused by segregation. But I will also admit that part of my discomfort was that the only black singer was cast as a buffoonish general. At least they partially avoided the temptation of making the darker-skinned characters wiser, more truthful and moral; they shoved that silly simplification onto their portrayal of the women. (I say they partially avoided the temptation because there was the American Indian nanny.) Maybe I would have had a different reaction to the black general if there had been another black person on stage, say, Audra McDonald as Mrs. Oppenheimer, a role I believe she going to sing in New York (and I'm going to go all Laurence Sterne and go off on another digression: I heard McDonald at Symphony Hall last spring, and she introduced The Glamorous Life by saying, "I'm going to sing a song from A Little Night Music: no, I ain't gonna sing The Miller's Son" and I realized how rarefied the air was in which it was not even within the realm of possibility that the hackneyed song no one wanted to hear from that musical would be Send in the Clowns; I was giddy on the esoteric heights. . . .). Of course, the whole problem of color-blind casting in Dr. Atomic would be solved if they revised it to be more of a meditative oratorio rather than an attempt to portray the actual events leading up to the A-bomb test, a revision they should undertake anyway.

Back to Klingsor. He not only returns in Act Three, he even regains the spear. According to my informant who heard the lecture, Wegner, who was very committed to the production, said this was to show that Klingsor has also been redeemed, though how and where and by whom is completely unclear; certainly the audience members I heard afterward were completely baffled, possibly because it's the opposite of what Wagner actually wrote. You can make a case for the sympathetic qualities of Alberich -- I personally find him very sympathetic -- but you really can't with Klingsor. If it's so easy to redeem everyone, why does it take so long?

My informant also told me that the naked black woman was cast because she had the exact build of the Venus of Willendorf. I told her I had noticed that (she was duly impressed) but I still found the display of her body exploitative, more like the Hottentot Venus than the Venus of Willendorf. She also told me that the many Arabic verses written all over were new this year; I, having painfully learned that everything is ruled by fashions, told her I had guessed that (she was doubly duly impressed). But there you have this production: there was no way into much of what they did unless you were in the privileged position of hearing personally from those behind the scenes. The performance was undoubtedly sincere and serious in its intention , but ended up looking trendy and wrong-headed. While watching it (from my excellent third row seat, the best I had for the festival) I was increasingly irritated, but as days went by most of the staging was so irrelevant it sort of slid off my memory and I was left with the very fine musical performance. Not a gesamkuntswerk, but not a total loss by any means.

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