It has been many, many years since I last heard Parsifal. The music is as glorious as I remembered. However, as much as I reveled in the performance I attended at the Met last night, I am struggling to understand whether the faults I saw in it were the result of a weak production, or inherent in the work itself. The orchestra and singers were better than I’ve seen at the Met in years – so it wasn’t that. The staging, however, struck me as bizarre, and the way it shoved the Christian symbolism in your face, distracted rather than supported the message evident in the music by itself. The music is ecstatic, opening up a door to human redemption from our inherent failures and frailties. The staging was, to my mind, a rather confused mess.
The scenery and staging in this production constantly distracted from the glory of the music. That was particularly evident in the 2nd act, when the entire cast was wading through a pool of blood that filled the entire stage. All one could focus on, instead of the music, was how uncomfortable that must for the cast and chorus, as they became drenched in red. The 3rd act wasn’t much better. As the libretto spoke of spring and redemption, the cast looked like they were trapped on a lunar landscape or a lifeless destroyed landscape after the destruction of war. The culminating moment of the four hours of glorious music turned out to be Parsifal sticking the tip of his spear into an open cup. Oh, well. That made it all rather laughable, rather than profound.
That said, I don’t believe all of the blame belonged to a misguided production. To my mind, Wagner’s jumbled confusion of magic, Arthurian legend and Christian symbolism was an inherent weakness that was only exacerbated by the silliness of the production. The libretto is a philosophical mish-mash. The message of the music is clear, but his libretto is anything but. Ultimately, for future listening, I think it would be better to ignore the story and just listen to it as pure music. With the contrasts between the feeling conveyed by the music in the three acts, the music is all that is needed to tell the story of how we yearn for the innocence and glory that all humans lose from the moment we are born and hope, ever after, to regain.