Monday, March 04, 2013

I drove down to NYC Saturday morning, leaving at 6:30am to make a noon curtain at the Metropolitan Opera. The performance was the new production of Parsifal, Wagner's last opera and, like much of his work, still controversial politically and philosophically and very much open to a variety of interpretations. That last point is not one that is embraced by a segment of the American opera audience that holds that there is one and only one way to do the great operatic works: the way they were done when they were first performed and the composer, presumably, approved. Time, they feel, must be frozen when it comes to producing opera, and that the productions must be done "as the composer intended." The fact that theatrical production techniques, including the way scripts (or librettos in the case of opera) are read and analyzed, have changed enormously since the great works were written means nothing to them.

What to do with the massive figure of Richard Wagner, who bestrode the 19th century performing arts like the proverbial colossus? He wrote the texts to his operas incorporating politics, philosophy, history, myth, religion psychology, and literature; write the music in the vanguard of the development of new styles in what he pretentiously but with dead accuracy termed "music of the future;" he often stage directed and/or conducted his operas along with having a major hand in their design. Wagner was the uber-creator, to use the "uber" that has become fashionable recently, and therefore his works should be staged today in accordance with everything he did, yes?

Well, no. Wagner was a restless, inquisitive, constantly evolving genius (in addition to being a thoroughly exasperating person on any number of levels) who was rarely satisfied with his own work, most famously when he told the cast of the first production of The Ring of the Nibelung that "next time everything will be different." Patrick Carnegy in his wonderful book, Wagner and the Art of the Theatre, is convinced Wagner realized that 19th century theater technology and production style in which he had always worked were simply inadequate to produce his works as he ideally envisioned them. Had he lived even another fifteen years, he would have seen advances in lighting, projections, costuming, and three dimensionality on stage he would have leaped at -- he was always drawn to the new and gave famous advice to those who would come after him, "children, make the new."

That's a good idea, applied to Wagner--or Verdi or Handel, or any opera composer, any playwright, or any stage director. We are not a 19th century audience; we don't know what they knew and don't attend the theater the way they did.  Any reading of the history of opera will reveal that the interpretation of some of the greatest works has changed radically as society has changed.  Carmen, for example, used to be an evil temptress who destroys an innocent young man for her own self-gratification.  She is now seen as a strong, independent, thoroughly honest woman who is drawn irresistibly to the one man who has the potential of destroying her.  That's one example -- the entire repertory is seen differently today than when the operas were premiered because we are very different people.  

Director Fran├žois Girard has conceived the MET's production as taking place partially in the never-healing wound in the side of the King of the Grail Knights, Amfortas.  That wound, the cause and the symbol of the massive decline in the Holy Grail knighthood, dominates the production until the moment just before the opera ends when Parsifal, having recovered the spear that pierced the side of Jesus during the Crucifixion, restores it to the Grail Temple.  A touch of the spear on the wound heals the wound and the way is clear to rebuilding the knighthood.  In the striking photo below, Parsifal reunites the very male symbol of the spear with the very female symbol of the Grail cup.  Here are two photos of the Metropolitan's new Parsifal.

Obviously, I am very open to contemporary production styles that build concepts on visual elements, including time periods and kinds of space in which to place the action, that do not resemble any of the traditional settings the composer may have known.  Here are two comments on this new MET production that appeared on WagnerBlog, comments typical of reactionary invective:

 Anonymous said...
Eurotrash has reared its ugly head, and this preposterous, jejune, imbecilical little exercise in pseudo-intellectuality is a somber omen. I watched clips from the Opera de Lyon, the original malefactor of this travesty, and it's a sight to see -if you want to get really depressed. I fear we as a society are so dumbed-down by now, are so out-of-touch with the greatness of this and other works, that spectators from now on will respond only to kitchy staging. It's really a microcosm of the demise of culture in general. So, let's thank our lucky stars for the previous Met production, still available on DVD. 

Anonymous said...
I suppose Euro-trash Wagner shall now premiere at the Met. If my goal was to stage these Wagner's great works in a way that would open them to nothing but ridicule and laughter, I could hardly do better than what is generally being done today.  Does anyone out there actually like this crap?? Maybe bring back the old vaudeville tradition of pelting the stage intermittently with tomatoes, eggs, cabbages...etc. would discourage productions such as these. The MET audience members better bring a good supply. It'll have to last four hours. 

Interestingly, neither commenter wishes to have his/her name connected to their comments.  I place no value in anonymous critical comment.

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