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Parsifal at Covent Garden in 1914

Parsifal was first performed in England on 2 February 1914. This review appeared in The Times on the following day. The author was H.C. Colles (1879-1943), who had been the newspaper's music critic from 1911.

First Performance in England

Amfortas Herr Paul Bender
Titurel Mr Murray Davey
Gurnemanz Herr Paul Knüpfer
Parsifal Herr Heinrich Hensel
Klingsor Herr August Kiess
Kundry Frau Eva von der Osten
A Voice Frau Bender-Schafer
Conductor Herr Artur Bodansky

Covent Garden 1914, Illustrated London News
Left: A contemporary illustration of performers in the 1914 production of 'Parsifal' at Covent Garden (March 28, 1914 issue of the Illustrated London News magazine).

Queen Alexandra occupied the Royal box at the first performance in England of Wagner's Parsifal, which took place at Covent Garden last night before a very distinguished audience.

The huge audience which filled every seat in the Opera House from the stalls to the gallery was drawn there no doubt by every conceivable motive and interest, from a devotion bordering upon a religious enthusiasm to mere curiosity and the desire to share in an historic event. Yet for practical purposes it could be divided into two definite classes, those who knew or thought they knew what Parsifal is and those who had come to make the discovery.

Soundbytes Paul Knüpfer as Gurnemanz, recorded in 1914. Ogg format, mono, duration 6 min.

Both classes no doubt had one question uppermost in their mind: the question how far what they were to see and hear would be the Parsifal which until this year has remained secluded at Bayreuth. The question, though inevitable, is destructive to the spirit which Wagner fought so hard to gain from his audience. He wanted what every artist wants and rarely gets, an attitude of concentrated sympathy freed from all exterior distractions. He wanted an audience without poses either of piety or cleverness to whom he could speak direct. The conditions of modern artistic production make the ideal unattainable, and while those who know Parsifal have by now answered the question each in his own way, it must be our business to answer it to some extent for the benefit of the newcomers.

Parsifal for the first time in England. Newspaper article with illustrations.

The Setting of the Opera

The forest scene, into which Kundry rushes, wild-eyed and breathless, bringing balsam for Amfortas' wound, and where the boy Parsifal strays and thoughtlessly shoots the swan, gives a far more spacious view of lake and mountain than can be shown at Bayreuth.

The temple in which the mystery of the Grail is celebrated is, on the other hand, a very close representation of the Venetian [sic] architecture of the Bayreuth scene, but the point at which this production fails is the moving scenery which Wagner intended should link the two. The idea was one of Wagner's worst blunders in practical stagecraft. He directed that the whole scene should move gradually towards the right, and even when it is done perfectly it has some of the absurdity of the old-fashioned panorama show. But when the scene does not move at all, but is gradually obliterated by a canvas on a roll (which is what happens at Covent Garden) the absurdity is multiplied a hundredfold. If the management could have had the courage to prove Wagner wrong by omitting the moving scenery altogether, letting the journey to Monsalvat be pictured imaginatively in the magnificent music of the orchestra, as Siegfried's journey to the Rhine is pictured, a lasting service to Wagner's art would have been done ...

Parsifal bells at Covent Garden in 1914: bell-piano, gong and tubular bells. Left: A full section of Parsifal bells at Covent Garden in 1914: bell-piano with damper, gong and large tubular bells.

The Performance

But these things are really only the accessories. Every one realizes now that the heart of Wagner's art lies in the music. The cast had been carefully chosen with this in view. Herr Hensel has sung the part of Parsifal in two Bayreuth festivals; Mme. Eva von der Osten is the possessor of one of the most beautiful mezzo-soprano voices of modern times, and in Herr Paul Bender, Herr Knöpfer, and Herr Kiess were secured three of the finest singers possible. Individually the work of the principal artists was of the highest order. But one looks for more than this, and through most of the performance we got more both in the careful ensemble and in the fine orchestral playing. The opening scenes were the least satisfactory ...

The ending in which Parsifal raises the Grail, illumined as in the first act, produces an anticlimax musically as well as dramatically. Wagner's attempt to give it additional significance by the descent of the dove produces no more than a cheap theatrical effect, and he has no new musical point to add in the score. In this as in much else one is reminded of the fact that Parsifal is the work of his old age. His strength was ebbing, but the sincerity of his purpose sufficed to produce a work which has created a deeper reverence for opera than any of his earlier masterpieces could achieve. Even if we do not feel Parsifal to be Wagner's greatest work, its unique beauty and the loftiness of its standpoint are incontestable.