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Parsifal: the search for the grail
A Film Special directed by Tony Palmer
Parsifal - Placido Domingo
Kundry - Violeta Urmana
Gurnemanz - Matti Salminen
Klingsor - Nikolai Putilin
Amfortas - Feodor Mojhaev
The Kirov Orchestra and Choir/Valery Gergiev
Filmed 1998 on location in St Petersburg, Ravello, Siena and Bayreuth
ARTHAUS MUSIK 100 610 [90:00]

This is a documentary-style film about Wagner’s "festival play" Parsifal. It contains discussion around the issues underlying the opera, a little on the story and some extracts from a Kirov production led by Placido Domingo and conducted by Valerie Gergiev. It was made in 1998 by Tony Palmer who has a long and distinguished record of making films related to classical music topics. He deserves great credit for possessing the tenacity to make these minority taste, non-commercial films. I imagine raising finance must represent a considerable portion of the effort that goes into an enterprise like this.

When I have seen some of his previous work I have had a feeling that I have been watching flawed masterpieces in the genre. For me there is that sense of great ambition not quite achieved. Tony Palmer is not short of ambition. His film on Wagner with Richard Burton in the role ran to over nine hours in its full version (we get some mercifully short clips in Parsifal). Making a film about Parsifal requires ambition of a different sort – more a kind of intellectual courage. Here is a complex, multi-layered, philosophically/spiritually profound masterpiece, the meaning of which people have been struggling with for over 120 years.

The ambiguities that Wagner presents us with have inevitably led to many varying interpretations, allowing some "experts" to ride their own obsessional hobby horses in a way that does not necessarily aid understanding. A film like this, pitched as it appears to be at introductory level, needs to attempt a balanced interpretative view if it is to be taken seriously. It should also at least point to some of the metaphysical depths that Wagner is attempting to plumb. The film not only does not do this, but presents an aggressively unbalanced view that is likely to point novices in quite the wrong direction.

The first part of the film focuses entirely on the Christian myth of the Holy Grail. It is fronted by Placido Domingo who is reading a script which I assume to be by Tony Palmer judging from the piece the director has written for the booklet. Domingo tells us that the 700 year old myth is "one of the most important stories of the last 2000 years", and to support this statement we are treated to clips from movies that have touched on it. So we get a chance to see some Monty Python antics, Harrison Ford and so on.

Tony Palmer is quite big on the idea of surrounding his topics with context and powerfully illustrating this visually. That is a laudable aim in itself. I remember, for example, that his film on Shostakovich had, near the beginning, shots of thumping great pieces of Soviet industrial machinery redolent of Stalinesque five year plans.

In his Parsifal, these Grail film clips just seem to trivialise. However, to offset this, an academic theologian, Karen Armstrong, is wheeled on to tell us more about the Grail and that it has nothing to do with Christianity as sourced in the New Testament.

Up to now, the film has given a clear impression that Wagner's Parsifal is a musical story about the Holy Grail - which it isn't. The Grail (as container of Christ's blood) is a symbol which Wagner makes the dramatic focus of his work. It's a kind of magic vehicle that allows Wagner to unfold the drama that in turn provides the means for airing his deeper preoccupations with what we might colloquially call "the meaning of the universe" and our lot within it.

I believe we are being led into red herring territory as far as the core issues are concerned. Worse immediately follows. Palmer decides to peddle the retrospective "Wagner as proto-Nazi" line. First, a link with the Grail is drawn. "Adolf Hitler believed that it was only the pure blood of the Aryan race that could preserve the sanctity of the Grail. As a result, 7 million Jews and at least 30 million others were slaughtered". (If only history consisted of a series of simple cause-and-effect statements like this then I might have done better at it at school.) We then get some dramatic Nazi propaganda footage of Hitler parading through Berlin accompanied by guess what music? Yes: Parsifal. And then: "The most famous illustration of this extraordinary story is the opera which Richard Wagner wrote ..." There is a strong implication building here in the way that Domingo’s commentary, the images and music are entwined that Wagner was somehow the direct cause of Hitler, the Third Reich, the Holocaust and the Second World War. I kid you not. The ground is now prepared for the racial purity interpretation presented later in the film when we will be told, "What Wagner did was very, very dangerous ... His work contributed to a dreadful turn of events".

Meanwhile we are taken at last to the story. There are some scrumptious, dramatised shots of the young Parsifal wandering the woods and then on to some staged and dramatised extracts which are the best thing in the film. The longest are from Act II involving the flower maidens, and Kundry sung by the impressively big-voiced Violetta Urmana. The moment of Kundry's kissing of Parsifal and his rejection is shown and Domingo then changes his role into voice-over commentator to tell us that with this denial Parsifal, "sees the Grail that alone will offer redemption". I don't know what our novice viewer would make of that, but this key moment in the opera offers a cue to some discussion about the relationship between denial (as release from "wanting') and the path from an unstable world of suffering to a transcendent state of release. This is firmly in Schopenhauer territory. Schopenhauer’s philosophy had more impact on Wagner’s outlook and development than anything else in his adult life - confessedly so. He was steeped in it and it is at the core of his later work. That does not mean he swallowed it all. I would argue that he had to write Parsifal in order to achieve a more palatable result than the one he had arrived at in Tristan which was rigorously, pessimistically in the Schopenhauer mould. In a sense, in Parsifal the transcendental redemptive process (for want of a better phrase) can take place this side of the grave which it could never do in Tristan. Many have argued that in Parsifal Wagner uses the imagery of the Grail and Christ's blood within it as a symbol of incarnation. Thus, in a ceremonial, ritualistic setting the audience are invited to share a glimpse of the beyond - or Buddhism’s Nirvana, or Schopenhauer's noumenal state. As I recall, there is not a single mention of Schopenhauer.

The film ends with the final unveiling of the Grail, superbly lit and shot with cuts to Gergiev looking sweatily and suitably Messianic in his commitment to this wondrous score. It is powerful stuff and reminds us not so much what Parsifal is about but what it is - an extraordinary musical work of art. But of the music there is no real discussion.

So at the conclusion of the film, has the novice had a chance to find out something about what Parsifal might be about? Well, Domingo's commentary has bandied around the words, "truth", "beauty", "love", "compassion" and "redemption" and there is no doubt that these abstractions and the relationship between them were major preoccupations of Wagner through his life and were at the heart of all his dramas. But they do represent something of a semantic nightmare and without trying to define them in Wagnerian terms they are not going to help very much.

Instead of having an interpretative shot at these core issues, two thirds of the way through the film, Tony Palmer brings on his only Wagner "expert". This is the American Robert Gutman, a writer who started to come to prominence in Wagner study circles back in the sixties, notorious for his obsession with Wagner’s anti-Semitism and theories on racial purity. There is no doubt that Gutman knows a lot about Wagner and that Wagner was anti-Semitic. In an oblique way the composer may have been using his last work to indulge some of his prejudices on racial purity (not to mention other secondary themes such as misogyny, vegetarianism and homosexuality). But so obsessed is Gutman with his theme that he has led himself into a position where he is convinced that the whole raison d'être of Parsifal is a plea for Aryan purity. Gutman has been largely discredited by Wagner scholars as being hopelessly cavalier with his sources in order to prove his point. Yet Tony Palmer presents him as his star witness.

"The subject matter of Parsifal is racial purity", Gutman tells us, and that, "the whole purpose of Parsifal was to explain Wagner’s concept of how the Aryan race might be restored. Hitler saw this very, very clearly."

I have read Gutman but never seen him interviewed before so it did occur to me, as I watched, that Palmer might have brought him on in this visual medium to allow him to condemn himself through his body language. Gutman presents his case to us with all the glee of the zealot, knuckles intertwined and cracking, accompanied by a perpetual grin and burst of maniacal laughter. But no. On checking Palmer’s booklet essay it is clear the film maker swallows it himself, (although he does reassure us that "Wagner did not invent Hitler.")

As far as I am concerned this, together with the gratuitous Nazi footage, invalidates the film as a piece of work to be taken seriously. If the theory was presented in the context of a range of accepted interpretations - fine. But it isn't.

There may be good reasons to buy this DVD. The performance extracts are magnificent and as usual with Tony Palmer films there are superb visual effects. Some may find Gutman's contribution deliciously funny.

On the whole though I think this a disgraceful piece of work and I cannot forgive Tony Palmer for persuading one of the world's great dramatic singers to head up the irresponsible enterprise.

For anyone who wants to have a serious go at tackling Parsifal and the issues surrounding it, they could do no worse than consult the splendidly named website, Monsalvat, devoted to the work (see http://home.c2i.net/monsalvat/inxcommon.htm ). The approach is sensibly balanced, and there is a wealth of readable material. And it’s free.

John Leeman

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