Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Herheim's answer at Bayreuth for opera lovers puzzled by 'Parsifal'

As people get older they start to look back and talk about the past, as you must have noticed.

They contact former school mates, old friends and flames and, as it seems, try to relive things that are beyond recall. It is why reunions of all kinds and websites like Friends Reunited are so popular. They keep up, for everyone, the illusion that we can go back: that time has not passed and we are able to find things again as they were.

Most attempts at recovery are not only fruitless but extremely painful. Life is a river and, as the philosopher reputedly said, you cannot step into the same river twice.

Nevertheless we would not be human if we did not reflect, in private moments, on our own tiny history, on what we’ve lived through and dealt with, and try to make some assessment of it all. Out of the jumble of events, only a blurred outline and an indistinct course take shifting form. In some, this leads to their critically reviewing their lives and loves and one-time automatic convictions and sometimes also to their 'reforming'; it is a famous theme in art and life. The composer Richard Wagner, a most thoughtful intelligence, would certainly have gone through it. More important, he had every means, as a great artist, to put down his personal journey and his conclusions about it for posterity.

Even from him, perhaps particularly from him, we must not expect clarity. Parsifal is a work about understanding, forgiveness and redemption, not, as it has been said to be, about a very powerful and, by many accounts, often unpleasant personality starting to lose it in his dotage. There is no resignation or acceptance in Parsifal, nothing in it ‘failing’ - except for Evil failing. Along with Wagner's well-known lifetime obsession with Redemption has come the wisdom that is supposed to come to us all, but which is probably no more than our grasping at long last that there is, after all, a bit more to life than we thought at 25, or even twice the age.

Is this reform, is this a spiritual awakening or renewal, is Parsifal a religious work? There is no reply that will suit everyone (though many will think it was simple-minded of Nietzsche to say this final music-drama with its rituals of the Mass was Wagner ‘falling weeping at the foot of the Cross’). You find the same conclusions in the case of another huge and elusive intelligence, Shakespeare, in his beautiful Winter's Tale and The Tempest. I saw a play about Shakespeare in his later years once and in one of the scenes the character of the contemporary, controversial playwright - and younger man - Ben Jonson, bursts out in exasperation to Shakespeare: ‘The Winter's Tale! - what was that all about!’ The audience laughed happily at the joke. Most of us were also younger than the poet when he wrote his play.

In the same way, it is frequently pointed out that Parsifal simply baffles many people (as well as boring very many more rigid). Leaving aside the slow pace, and everyone's different tastes in music, they have been known to ask nervously, even after sitting diligently through the full four and a half hours: ‘Er - what is it about?’

Stefan Herheim’s marvellously imaginative production of Parsifal at Bayreuth answers unforgettably:

The person’s whole life, a people’s entire history, are in the end the means to redemption.

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