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by Maurice Ulrich

"The Graal" Knocked Over

Translated Thursday 13 March 2008, by Isabelle Métral

Opera: Stravinski and “The Rake’s Progress" at Palais-Garnier, Wagner and “Parsifal” at Opéra-Bastille: with these two masterpieces’ new productions, Opéra national de Paris gets a double first.

Who would have thought that a two or three-minute sequence from a masterpiece by Rossellini, namely ‘"Germany Year Zero" in which young Edmund wanders in a ruined building in Berlin in the summer of 1945, would be enough to create an uproar at Opéra-Bastille last Tuesday for the première of Wagner’s last and longest opera, "Parsifal" [1]? The booing was far from general, however, since it came from a part of the audience only. But it was noisily repeated at the end, the stage-director Krzysztof Warlikowski being booed while the female and male singers together with conductor Hartmut Hänchen [2] had been acclaimed.

An answer and a bold option

"Parsifal" is that sombre story of a Graal Knights’ community: chaste and pure the knights are, yet liable to yield to temptation, from which they can guard themselves by worshiping precisely the holy vessel that held Christ’s blood. Amfortas their king was wounded with the spear that ripped Christ’s side on the cross; the spear is now in the hands of magician Klingsor, who has been banned from the community. Parsifal, a simple-minded knight that has come from the Graal castle then entered Klingsor’s estate is first tempted by beautiful she-devils and by Kundry, whom the magician’s tricks hold in thrall. Her kiss is a revelation to the young man both of desire and of sin. He promises to deliver her but in all purity, kills Klingsor, comes back to the castle to which Kundry has also gone back and cures Amfortas thanks to the spear he retrieved at Klingsor’s. So all’s well that ends well.

The libretto is no doubt dated, but so are many others. The stage-director has tried to knock the Graal over (so to speak), and the crucial moment comes with the sequence from Rossellini’s film, announced by the second act. The temptresses look like women out the 1930s, cabaret-style. The innocent Parsifal is going to destroy evil itself, namely Klingsor, and to leave the magician’s kingdom in a state of ruin, hence the Berlin ruins and the response of one part of the audience who found the allusion overdone and the updating rather forced. As a matter of fact, it can be justified, but the question still remains exactly how Parsifal should be staged today. This last production provides an answer and a bold solution.

There is also Wagner’s extraordinary score that all four hours long never once stoops to prettinesses or the merely decorative, so that the dramatic tension never flags. And then the voices, first among which mezzo-soprano Watraud Meier’s in Kundry’s absolutely central role. For if the women in this drama are the channels of sin until the advent of redemption, the very force and intensity of Kundry’s score actually gives the lie to the misogynistic vision, and if you want to hear, if only once, a great international performer at the apex of her art and dramatic register, now is the time.

Music that is sometimes hallucinatory

There is no question of redemption in Stravinski’s famous neo-classical opera "The Rake’s Progress". The premiere of a new production was held at Paris-Garnier last week on Monday [3]. Tom Rakewell, a young heir, who is manipulated by the devil in the person of Nick Shadow (who presents himself as his servant), forsakes Ann Truelove, the young lady who loves him, to take up a life of debauchery in London. He marries Baba, the fair’s bearded lady, as a defiant proof of his freedom. And it all ends in disaster: Ann’s love is powerless against Tom’s fall, his madness. The opera was inspired to Stravinski by a series of eight paintings by Hogarth (in the 18th century).

From the point of view of form, some moments are superb, with the music verging on the hallucinatory at times. The second act with the scene of sexual orgy and the wedding of Baba is nightmarish and savagely derisive. In the third act the scene when Nick Shadow, defeated, cannot carry Tom’s soul away and only succeeds in driving him mad is as sublimely dramatic as Don Juan’s death. At the end of the story all the characters have learned the same lesson: beware of money, a debauchee’s lease of time is short. The lesson holds for all: for you “And you, and you”…these last words being addressed to the audience in the house.

[1There will be six performances until 23rd March.

[2A sacrilege, anyway, for it is a tradition that Parsifal must not be applauded, since Holy Friday is at the heart of the drama.

[3There will be seven performances until March 24.

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