Graham Bradshaw writes about the interpretation of Wagner

  • The Bayreuth Ring
    BBC2, October 1982
  • Parsifal by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg
    Edinburgh Film Festival, September 1982
  • Parsifal by Lucy Beckett
    Cambridge, 163 pp, £9.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 521 22825 5
  • Wagner and Literature by Raymond Furness
    Manchester, 159 pp, £14.50, February 1982, ISBN 0 7190 0844 1
  • Wagner to ‘The Waste Land’: A Study of the Relationship of Wagner to English Literature by Stoddart Martin
    Macmillan, 277 pp, £20.00, June 1982, ISBN 0 333 28998 6
  • Wagner and Aeschylus: ‘The Ring’ and ‘The Oresteia’ by Michael Ewans
    Faber, 271 pp, £12.50, July 1982, ISBN 0 571 11808 9

On balance, we should be grateful to the BBC for finding room on its snooker station, over ten successive Sundays, for what the editor of Opera described as France’s long-delayed revenge for the Franco-Prussian War. The Boulez-Chéreau Ring has also been described, more preposterously, as ‘the Ring of the century’ – an accolade which plainly belongs to the 1951 Wieland Wagner production which inaugurated the ‘New Bayreuth’. Musically, the Boulez Ring cannot compare with Furtwängler’s La Scala performance or Knappertsbusch’s 1957 cycle, both available on record. Moreover, if the New Bayreuth approach to Wagner no longer seems new or radical enough, and if overtly socio-political interpretations have now displaced Wieland’s revolutionary emphasis on ‘psychodrama’, then the Ring productions of Götz Friedrich and Joachim Herz might be thought more substantially challenging than Chéreau’s.

The contrasts between Chéreau’s Ring and Syberberg’s new film, and between Syberberg’s view of Parsifal and Lucy Beckett’s, are most illuminating. Beckett’s detailed, searching and provocative study can stand by Deryck Cooke’s magisterial I saw the world end (1979) and the long essay by Michael Tanner in the Faber Wagner Companion (1979). The other three recent books are built on shakier foundations. Ewans, the author of a fine study of Janáček’s operas, here traces the allegedly strong Aeschylean influence on Wagner, while Furness and Martin discuss Wagner’s influence on others: but all three are too little concerned with the peculiar nature and conditions of Wagner’s own musical-dramatic achievement.

Why do so many musical terms, like ‘composed’, ‘resolve’ or ‘tonic’, also have a psychological reference? The Greeks took very seriously music’s power to heal and assuage, just as Wagner insisted that the greatest absolute music could ‘heal’ and ‘cleanse’. In Parsifal, ‘Nur eine Waffe’ brings an unmistakable and profound sense of release – but from what, into what? Musicians don’t so much answer that question as reformulate it, forbiddingly, by speaking of a progress from harmonic and chromatic instability to sustained diatonicism. Wagner assumed that the pre-conceptual, musical-psychological experience would be clarified and intensified by his libretto’s conceptual references: but, as Syberberg reminds us, these also introduce a further cluster of moral, aesthetic and interpretative problems.

Parsifal’s sexual-pathological element, which so impressed and disturbed Thomas Mann (an authority on such matters), is one of the Parsifal problems; the issue of whether or not the work is ‘Christian’ is another. Nietzsche isolated these two problems together with a third, which is more peculiarly German: like Hanslick, Nietzsche detected and detested a conjoining of ‘religious’ and ‘nationalist-patriotic’ feeling, which he saw as a reactionary act of treason – a denial of the Goethean spirit in 19th-century Germany. And Nietzsche’s privately confessed, contradictory admiration for the music pointed towards a fourth problem which pressed hard on some Wagnerians: if Parsifal is indeed Wagner’s supreme musical achievement, how could this be dissociated from an allegedly suspect drama? The Bayreuth stagings were characterised by an unctuous religiosity, when Cosima and then Winifred Wagner ruled; Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner rebelled against this by insisting that Parsifal is a psychodrama, and no modern producer can avoid feeling the tug of these opposed traditions. Cosima’s anti-semitism and Winifred’s Nazi sympathies threw up another problem, of the kind which fascinated Ruskin in different contexts: Parsifal meant a great deal, not only to men of real integrity like Knappertsbusch and Furtwängler, but also to Clemens Krauss and Karajan, who saw no reason to dally over joining the Nazi Party. If we find it disturbing that Krauss and Karajan conducted very fine Parsifals, are we subscribing to the gross fallacy Cosima supported from the other side, through her belief that a Jewish conductor (Hermann Levi) could not penetrate the sacred mystery? On the other hand, if we aren’t disturbed, what becomes of Wagner’s idealistic belief that a ‘true’ response to great music conditions man’s moral being?

These problems aren’t equally important, of course. But few would claim to be able to watch Parsifal without finding their mind ranging over some of these problems. And I take it that here I am merely reformulating one of the premises that determined Syberberg’s procedure. Using clever front projection techniques, he provides a rapid background commentary on the main dramatic action: this is sometimes contrived and disruptive, but more frequently suggests the reflexes and ricochets of a mind that is actively engaging with Parsifal. Discarded alternatives are seen, in rapid flashes of irony. There are several glimpses of Paul von Joukowsky’s 1882 design for the Grail Temple; and although Syberberg’s Gurnemanz is evidently in his thirties, Kundry is at one point seen contemplating a sacra-like bundle of old puppets – one of them very like Emil Scaria’s original Gurnemanz. We are repeatedly reminded of Wagner himself at moments when there is some point in remembering that Parsifal is an intensely personal creative myth: a dusky starlit night, glimpsed in the journey to the Temple where ‘time becomes space,’ proves to be a huge blow-up of Wagner’s quilted satin jacket; rocks in the Temple grounds are a huge model of Wagner’s death-mask. There are pointed, unnerving double-takes: in Act Three, as the Knights who will menace Amfortas enter the Temple we see a swastika – but at once the camera pans back to show hundreds of different flags, many of them decomposing.

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