Bernard Levin on Parsifal
or many years, Bernard Levin was a frequent contributor to the London
Times. His eclectic articles addressing cultural and political issues, usually with a dry and very English wit, were often provocative and always
entertaining. The following extracts are from an article in the issue of 18 February 1988.
Directed by Terry Hands, conducted by Georg Solti
that time, Mr Hands had directed only one opera - Otello, in
Paris - and although I wished him well, I foresaw disaster; not because I didn't believe him talented enough for the task, but because directing opera is
not the same as directing plays, and a lifetime on the dramatic stage will not guarantee success upon the lyric; a wholly new approach (and, of course,
technique) must first be understood and assimilated. Moreover, Wagner demands an approach and a technique different not only from the theatre but from other
composers; a long course of immersion in his work and thought and assiduous attendance backstage throughout the production of more than one of his operas is
essential to success (which is not, even then, by any means assured).
Directed by Bill Bryden, conducted by Bernard Haitink
et's get it over quickly: the idea of the production is that Parsifal is
the end-of-term play at a minor public [i.e. fee-paying] school in the 1930s, put on in the ruined church next door, with the doting parents of the performers
scattered round the stage - handbags, hats, three-piece suits and all (Gurnemanz is the headmaster, incidentally); from time to
time the parents are called upon to do things, such as light candles and hold them in their laps. I truly believe that it was only by the direct intervention of
Almighty God - who, after all, has a substantial interest in the matter -- that the Grail was not inscribed, The Mrs. Featheringay-
Fawcett Cup for Outstanding Prowess in the Gymnasium. (Perhaps it was; my sight is not of the keenest). You will doubtless suppose from that gloomy introduction
that I had a bad time. Your supposition, though understandable, is baseless. Musically, it was without exception the finest Parsifal of my life; I have
never before been so entirely overwhelmed by its force and meaning.
ver the years, the Wagner operas have rearranged themselves again and again in my
mind in order of priority. The Ring (its constituent parts also go up and down in my ordering) stayed at the top of my charts for many years, but has
slipped a little, while Mastersingers grows and grows; to Tristan I go resisting all the way, only to be drowned full fathom five the moment the
Prelude starts; Tannhäuser I wouldn't much mind if I never heard again, and I have never really warmed to Lohengrin (though I hope to hear Domingo
sing it here in June even if I have to be carried in a chair, like Amfortas, or even in a coffin, like Titurel).
ut Parsifal, which I took a good many years to understand (it is not a
work for youth) and have not yet finished understanding, and never shall, now stands at the very head of the page, beckoning me at one and the same time into
Klingsor's Magic Garden, which is death, and the Temple of the Grail, which is
he contrast between Wagner's prodigious genius and his horrible personal nature has
been discussed endlessly and fruitlessly; there's no art to find the mind's construction in the music. Some great artists have been of the most beautiful and loving
nature, and some have been anything from dishonest to the most frightful swine ... Wagner, to be sure, takes the dichotomy to lengths unparalleled in all history
(Georg Solti calls him det old gengster) but there is nothing to be done about it, and surely Parsifal is the greatest testimony in all art to the
terrible truth that so enraged Shaffer's Salieri: that any channel, even an unworthy one, will serve as an aqueduct through which the pure water of art can flow from
Heaven to earth, and not be tainted by the corrupted vessel that serves it.
here is a moment, some two-thirds of the way through Act Two, when this lesson is
driven home in the most violent possible way. Consider: the raging tempest of sensuality which the central act consists of, is constructed out of musical materials
very different from those of the two outer acts. This is reflected in the leitmotives which Wagner uses throughout the act; naturally, Kundry's dominates the list, together with those closely associated with her and her past.
hen Parsifal enters, he adds strains from another world,
and for a long time Herzeleide, the Wound, the Spear, Kundry's
Wildness, Torment of Sin, Longing, Fool and of course Klingsor, weave in and out of the heaving, flooding orchestral and vocal texture. Suddenly, without warning, we hear, for the first time in
three-quarters of an hour, the Grail. It is like a blow in the face, so enmeshed are we in the struggle between good and evil; but I
never remember that it is approaching, with its glorious news that the battle is almost over and light has triumphed over darkness. Well, this time, when it
rose from the orchestra like Excalibur, I thought it would stop my heart, so far had I been drawn into the furnace of the struggle. Surely this is what the shepherds
who were tending their flocks must have experienced when the angel appeared to them with glad tidings of great joy.
he tidings in Parsifal are brought in Act Three, when the Spear that pierced Christ's side heals the wound of Amfortas's guilt; even the poor production could not spoil that
moment, so powerful and so complete was the spell of the conducting, playing and singing. But the spell of the performance was as strong as it was because it served,
with the utmost fidelity, the spell of the opera - its drama, its meaning and its consummate ability to steep the whole evening in the balm of hope. And when you
come to think of it, what is the Christian message but hope? Of course it is an oversimplification to read Parsifal as orthodox Christian witness; Wagner
wove much besides Christianity into his final work. But if we generalise a little, we can demonstrate that the redemption of Amfortas is indeed the symbol of redemption of the world; remember that
we hear, as Parsifal moves with the healing instrument towards the stricken man, the Grail, not Parsifal's own theme; and as the spear point closes the wound, it is not the weapon that sounds, but Amfortas himself.
Surely Wagner is saying that Parsifal is neither the Christ nor John the Baptist, but the Paraclete of St. John's Gospel, who is
sent to comfort the world: Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you. And it is man, sinful but capable of redemption, who
receives the divine gift from the hands of the innocent fool, made wise by pity. (© Times Newspapers Ltd.)