Parsifal (1951 Callas Recording)

“Buhnenweihfestspiel” in drei Akten. Running Time: 3 hours 30 minutes.

Please read this as a joke, although….

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Can La Callas EVER be a joke?!? 

SETTING: Medieval Spain. Parsifal is a fool who manages to become the Grail King by spurning the sexual advances of Kundry, a time-traveling Jewess who got cursed by Jesus (because why not?) and so is enslaved to a castrated but horny Moorish sorcerer named Klingsor who wants the Holy Grail for some never disclosed purpose and opened a nearby brothel for the expressed purpose of deflowering the knights in the hope that he would one day acquire it by default.

Surprisingly, once you get through the hurdle of the first act there is only 118 minutes left for the last two acts! There is one problem with the video, it appears that the second cd was doubled so you have to skip around at one point.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHm_TANh8Vs

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (92 minutes)

Scene 1: Some outdoor scene, seriously it could be anywhere on the grounds of Montsalvat.

0: The prelude * is long, serious, and a bit boring. It consists of a parade of leitmotifs, Forman names them as Sacrament (the first, goes into a space opera sort of thing on the second iteration), Grail (the Dresden Amen), and Faithful (develops over time, flowers in the finale) none of them ultimately bad at all (although the Grail Motif will become tediously repetitive), but that is all it is, and it goes on for twelve solid minutes of just stop and go. The only development occurs around eight minutes in when a newish motif Spear, pops in as a finish for Sacrament. As a concert piece, it isn’t bad, but as the introduction to an opera it has a long way to go. Forman didn’t even bother with a star here.

20: Gurnemanz does his thing and the pages (two sopranos and two tenors) kneel in silent prayer. More Gurnemanz. Kundry rides a horse to death and comes on with some Arabian balsam for Amfortas’ wound. The first patch of music following the prelude which isn’t utterly ornery is when Amfortas is carried in on his way to the baths * when the orchestra temporarily releases itself with a patch of fresh air. It quickly returns to ornery, however. Kundry puts a stop to all of this by ordering them off to the baths. The pages pick on Kundry, so Gurnemanz straightens them out with an incredibly long précis about her and how she ended up working for the Knights, also about how Amfortas got his nasty wound and lost the Holy Spear to the dreaded Klingsor because he got seduced (shock horror!) by one of Klingsor’s houris when he tried to defeat Klingsor by going to close down his sex palace.

33: The orchestra gives us something nice based on Grail ** while Gurnemanz talks about the entrusting of the Grail to Titurel (Amfortas’ father and retired King of the Grail, Amfortas now being King although with his wound and all the whole system seems to be a ploy to get mass nursing aid for Amfortas). After this we get some background on Klingsor and Klingsor motif as well.

40: The four pages sing in unison very briefly just before a swan (the swan!)  flies in an dies from arrow shot. We almost as quickly bombarded by Parsifal motif as he enters and takes responsibility for the killing, for which Gurnemanz gives him a nasty lecture * as required from PETA after which he asks Parsifal 20 questions for which the answer is “Io non lo so”/ “I don’t know”.

48: Kundry teases him and tells him his name is Parsifal * and gives him a lot of biographical information which lends some to believe she might be his actual mum (although she says his mother is dead). Gurnemanz tells Parsifal that when he goes to the Grail Castle, time and space before one or something.

55: The Transformation Music * as we move from Grail field to Grail Castle is nice steady music as the scenery gets changed.

Scene 2: The Grail Hall.

58: Gurnemanz is about to show Parsifal around when he leaves and the groupies come out for their daily Grail-time session. If Wagner didn’t realize this would all look cultish his brain was the size of a pea. Notice this very German/Scandinavian theme that pops up infrequently *. The chorus is holy-holy, but not much else, playing around with the Faithful motif when trying to be tuneful and just ornery when not.

77: Titurel gives his extremely boring monologue telling Amfortas to “Release the Grail!” but son is too sick. “How else will I live forever?” says Titurel, and so Amfortas presents the Grail to a haemorrhage of Sacrament *. It gets repeated again but this time Amfortas is unable to bare it and has to put it all away (sin?). Afterwards we half-expect the Pilgrims Chorus from Tannhauser but no, nothing so good, just rehashing of previous material (lots of Grail, Faithful, Sacrament). Gurnemanz gets turned off by Parsifal’s lack of symbolic knowledge and tells him to get out but a contralto voice from above chides him as the curtain falls.

ACT 2: (54 minutes)

Scene 1: A room in Klingsor’s magical castle.

0: The prelude to this act * is the most interesting thing about the first scene. A bizarre chromatic composition which doesn’t last very long and is based mostly on the Klingsor motif. He calls up Kundry, she screams for a bit and then settles down into one of the most boring conversations in musical history. The only thing that happens is he orders her to seduce Parsifal.

12: Towards the end we do get a brief bit of Parsifal theme from the orchestra * as Klingsor spies on him killing his soldiers in his magic looking-glass.

Scene 2: Klingsor’s pleasure garden.

14: Now, finally we get something remotely interesting ** (incidentally also the first music of the score to be written), as the Flower Maidens flutter about in a twittering panic about how their boyfriends are now all dead because of this handsome stranger who they then proceed unsuccessfully to seduce. It is apparently Wagner’s idea of a French choral number. The highlight is four minutes in when they switch to waltz time.

22: Kundry makes her entrance *. She calls the other girls away and Parsifal and she go back and forth chromatically for a while.

28: There is an odd passage here that actually sounds like traditional opera *. It would be beautiful were it not so sedate. She tries to milk her knowledge of his dead mother as a means of seduce him (this is really very weird, but possibly of interest to psychologists).

36: Kundry kisses Parsifal but it has the exact opposite effect that it is supposed to have *. He now knows everything: Kundry was the woman who seduced Amfortas when he got the wound! Kundry tries rather hard to get him back into sexy time mode but she might as well be a dude in a harem costume at this point (actually, she might have more success that way than talking to him about his mommy, just saying….).

42: Kundry’s next idea is to tell Parsifal about her own life, namely how she got cursed by Jesus for laughing at him during the crucifixion (not entirely implausible, re: fig tree). This is interesting character backstory but both musically and strategically a total misfire yet again.

48: By this point Parsifal has totally had her figured out so Kundry curses him to roam around forever and calls for Klingsor to help her (how exactly?). He tries flinging the Holy Spear at Parsifal (in an attempt to kill him, would that not have been easier in the first place than this pathetic charade of human female sexuality Kundry’s been putting up for the last half-hour?). Parsifal catches the Spear in mid-air, makes the Sign of the Cross with it and blows up Klingsor and his palace leaving nothing but a screaming Kundry. Parsifal tells her she knows where to find him and departs, the act ending on a timpani roll.

ACT 3: (65 minutes)

Scene 1: Same as Act 1 Scene 1 but on a Good Friday years later.

0: The prelude * is a chromatic mess and what follows for the next quarter hour is just utter ennui as Gurnemanz tries to get Kundry out of a shrub. Parsifal eventually shows up with the Holy Spear.

21: Spear theme comes on * and then, suddenly, we get the prelude to the act again. Gurnemanz tells Parsifal that Titurel has just died a few days ago and his body is on viewing in the Grail Hall. Apparently recently Amfortas gave up on exposing the grail and this caused his father to die because he needed grail exposure to ensue his immortality.

34: Suddenly, a bright patch in the music ** very different from the surroundings and floating about almost like the sound of water, probably because Kundry is washing Parsifal’s feet. (The Good Friday Music should be here, I’m not finding it.)

44: The scene change occurs to some broodingly dark orchestral work (including bells) *.

Scene 2: Same as Act 1 Scene 2, Titurel’s body laid out in coffin.

56: After a miserable chorus and a monologue of misery from Amfortas, Parsifal arrives * and heals the wound made by the Holy Spear with the Holy Spear, imagine that!

60: The finale ** starting with Grail (as usual) and moving on to a very wonderful development on Faithful as Parsifal takes his place as King of the Grail and is acknowledged by all in the Hall.

COMMENTS:

Now Wagner has really done it. He has moved so far away from traditional opera that this is a stage play with a 100-piece orchestra in which all the highlights are to be found in the instrumental music. The vocal lines are entirely a kind of dry arioso with only rare moments of fioritura (mostly Kundry and the Flower Maidens in act 2). It doesn’t help that this has the same vocal distribution as Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. Is Gurnemanz ever actually singing or is he just barking monologues of info at us to orchestral accompaniment? What is remarkable was how Wagner managed to formulate this bizarre tale which he used as a tool for his own made up religion out of the Percival legend because oddly enough it isn’t too far from the original. Apart from Wagner’s pretensions of holiness this sounds like what every boring early twentieth-century opera will sound like. The worst thing about Parsifal isn’t the weird libretto with vampiric references to sacred blood, the storyline, the fake religiosity, nor the ritualistic Nordicist anti-semiticism (although those are all there), it is the fact that almost the entire score smells of decay. It would be decadent, but it, like Kundry, has no real sex appeal. The score is mostly sedate and morose punctuated by brief moments attempting to be exciting and the entirety of it is based ultimately on only one theme, Sacrament, which we hear at the very beginning. It has only fleeting moments of beauty, although admittedly they are there. The best way to look at Parsifal is as medieval mythology. Forget about the references to holy blood, evil sex, and even the fact that this is obviously Wagner’s eighth sacrament and the foundation of his cultic theology of übermensch and “the redeemer of the redeemer” and look at it as a boring tale of knights with big long spears who aren’t into girls. And speaking of girls, it is hard to not pity Kundry, but just as equally hard to even remotely like her. She is a failure as a heterosexual woman, but not a bad postal worker. It is hard to believe that she seduced Amfortas, especially if she pulled off a similar stunt to what we see her do with Parsifal. It is also hard to not see her seduction attempt as a self-furthering of her own redemption even while it is supposed to be part of Klingsor’s plan to do the exact opposite by eliminating Parsifal as a redeemer by deflowering him because she is just so bad at it. It also plays into Wagner’s default heterosexism, he wants us to believe that Kundry is by nature irresistible just because she is female, but there is no way in heck that she ever really could be. She is at least 800 years old after all and her pick up lines are “I knew your dead mum” and “J-man cursed me a thousand years ago because I laughed at him”. Welcome to gamma land!

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17 thoughts on “Parsifal (1951 Callas Recording)

  1. Now you really must listen to the 1951 Knappertsbusch recording, and Levine’s 1985. Levine also conducted a good, traditional production with Siegfried Jerusalem.

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    1. Heavens, those are the longest recordings of Parsifal in existence! and I’ve already heard Knappertsbusch (slow-troll that he was). I much prefer Boulez or even Kegel with Rene Kollo, an entire hour and a quarter shorter, plus I like Kollo.

      The thing that surprises me about this recording from 1951 is how terrible the sound quality is. I’m not expecting stereo that early, but something about the sound is so washed out.

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      1. I’m not really given to philosophical music. I love Verdi for goodness sakes, a composer devoid of philosophical though (at least in him music).

        I know that Parsifal is basically a liturgy as a theatrical work. It blurs time and space, creating a sense of the spiritual and combining the profane and the sacred (at least from a Christian perspective), and consummating the marriage of drama and music so completely that the drama is the music and the music is the drama. In a way it is a mockery of religion because he succeeds, if you let him, to recreate the same experience one does worshipping a deity, probably because you are worshipping something, in a way, namely Wagner the artist. This being the point of all of Wagner’s mature works, but it most maturely manifests itself in Parsifal. The longer the recording, the more successful it will be at drawing the listener/viewer in to creating a parallel universe or heaven if you like. The shorter it is, the less of a hold it has because given the brevity of the libretto, performances of Parsifal do not usually feel long, usually only about half their actual length.

        Basically it is the musical equivalent of an opioid. But unlike a poppy, a very beautiful opioid.

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    1. Well, it really isn’t a very good show, much less an opera. I’m actually surprised that it is as popular as it is. It is basically just a vehicle for Wagner to manifest his religious dogmata of man as god. Thankfully it was never taken further than this (nor were there plans to do so). There are some moments of beauty in the score, but it is saddled to one of the worst librettos (admittedly Wagner’s shortest) and a lot of formulaic music which gets tiresome after a while. It really is more of a beta though, not really a gamma, that was really just a joke.

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      1. You’re not suggesting that Wagner knew anything about cults, I hope? Surely nobody could compare Bayreuth and its Master to a weird religious group? 3:)

        I like Parsifal more than, say, Tristan. A lot of the instrumental music really is wonderful. Wagner, as Tchaikovsky thought, was a symphonic, rather than a dramatic, composer.

        But there is something repellent about all Wagner’s works after Lohengrin. You’re right to call them decadent. (Have you read Nietzsche contra Wagner?
        Parsifal was where he decided Wagner was a hypocrite – and would rather listen to Carmen or Offenbach, which had tunes.)

        There’s Wagner, swathed in silk and stinking of scent, writing anti-Semitic propaganda with one hand, and with the other operas about the renunciation of the world and the will. There’s the de-Judification ceremony he made Hermann Levi go through. And there’s the worship of death, the weird sex, the absence of any recognisable human beings…

        Oh, and another attack on Meyerbeer. Act II is modelled on Robert, Act III. (See http://www.monsalvat.no/meyerber.htm.) Klingsor is an evil figuer who wants to be an Aryan/knight, but couldn’t, so lures pure Aryans to their doom with a garden of poisonous flower maidens (Meyerbeerian grand opera). Parsifal = the Wagnerian redeemer, the Messiah who rescues fallen Western civilisation.

        Galloping megalomania!

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      2. I already know about the similarities between Act 3 of Robert le diable and Act 2 of Parsifal, I hinted at it when I said that “this was Wagner’s idea of a French choral number”. The Flower Maiden’s Scene is blatantly based on French opera, and may even be a vicious mockery of it. Entire decisions on which key to use are copied from Meyerbeer, it’s a little disgusting knowing how little of Wagner is actually original.

        It is, however, better than Tristan, but just about as morbid. They are actually structured in the same manner and use the same compositional technique. And yet, Tristan does have some good orchestral music, but I agree that most people look at the highlights and see it as all of the opera. Attached to the Lieberstod is almost an entire hour of very boring and rather ordinary diatonic music. If Forman of all people is panning long sections of Wagner, King Mark’s monologue for instance, you know it’s terrible. The chromaticism is relegated to the portions of the score everyone talks about, as though the opera was 70 minutes rather than 220!

        It truly was a 19th century war of ideas, which had 20th century consequences. Let us hope and pray the tide is changing so they are not 21st century problems.

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    2. Not really. The trouble with me and Wagner is that I want vocal beauty with my opera. Orchestral beauty is fine and all but it really is about the voice and what the composer can do with it for me. Parsifal is devoid of vocal demands beyond stamina (Kundry can be performed by a mezzo for goodness sakes!). Now I’m on to either completing Donizetti’s Poliuto/Les Martyrs (I’m going to see if I can do both in a single massive post) or my bevy of 19th century Slavic operas I have lined up. I like what I’ve heard so far of Les Martyrs, I don’t think it will be like Polyeucte at all. Besides, I need some alphas!

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  2. Depends on what I want “more” of. If by “more” I mean comedy, it certain can be since Parsifal has none detectible to normal humans.

    If by “more” I mean weird pseudo-religiosity about blood, sex, and medieval symbolism, then yeah, you are probably right.

    By “further” I meant that Wagner’s doctrines never progressed beyond Parsifal (nor had any plan of doing so). It encapsulates everything and represents the final ideological intentions of its creator. I personally do not find it to be an alpha opera, it would at least have a better libretto. However, as a means of studying Wagner’s weird religious cult and its doctrine, it is rather fascinating as a relic in the study of cultural development.

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