Wednesday 23 October 2013
Perceval contra Parzival
I'm glad I read two medieval romances in the 'wrong' historical order - Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival first, and then the unfinished work to which he was so much indebted, Chrétien de Troyes' Story of the Grail. Wagner must have known about the latter when he worked on his Parsifal, but he only rails against the former, chiefly in that key letter to Mathilde Wesendonck of 30 May 1859 where he bewails the hopelessness of defining Anfortas' agony - later he used the alternative 'Amfortas' and shifted the stress to the second syllable - in operatic terms.
He sees Wolfram as a kind of unholy fool who has 'understood absolutely nothing' about what he writes: 'he tacks one event on to the next, one adventure to another, links together the Grail motif with all manner of strange and curious episodes and images, gropes around and leaves any serious reader wondering whatever his intention can have been?' Surely to tell a good yarn, but to over-embroider it with -as I've already remarked in the first Parsifal instalment - the kind of silly chivalric names Cervantes spoofs in Don Quixote, to jump all around a very peculiarly mapped world and to weigh down Parzival with an over-long back history.
What a relief it was, then, to turn back a decade or so - we know Chrétien's version must have appeared shortly after the death of Henri the Liberal in 1181, when Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders became his patron, and before Philip's death on crusade in 1191 - and find a master storyteller who always gets straight to the point.
Here we bypass Wolfram's first two chapters on the ludicrous Middle Eastern cavortings of Parzival's father Gahmuret, which will give the son a mottled half-brother, Feirefiz. With Chrétien we immediately enter the Welsh Waste Forest in Spring where Parzifal's mother - she has no name here, but becomes 'Herezloyde', 'Heart's Suffering', in Wolfram - brings him up in ignorance of the knightly code which killed his two brothers and broke his father's heart (this dad is not a fighter but an exiled noble).
Of course he meets five armed knights who seem to him like God and angels, has an amusing conversation at cross purposes with them and, enlightened, become adventure-bent.
If Chrétien hadn't got there first, you'd think his ironic comments about not wasting time on describing combats, tourneys and endless banquets were a reproach to Wolfram, who bores on about them at length (he's also obsessed with fine fabrics). In both, the code of mercy to conquered enemies and gallantry to damsels in distress or otherwise is a rather charming one bearing in mind the harsh world in which both narrators lived.
Curious that Wolfram should see the Grail as a kind of magic stone which feeds the hungry. Chrétien suggests it's a goblet of 'fine pure gold' set with costly precious stones, companion to a white lance from which a drop of blood flows. The significance of both we never learn, of course, since Chrétien presumably died before finishing his story. You curse the diversion of Gawain's adventures, well told though they are, without which Chrétien might have got to the point of Perceval's quest. As it is, we only enjoy a little further enlightenment from Perceval's hermit uncle between Gawain episodes before the main knight is lost from sight.
At the conclusion of our first five two-hour Opera in Focus classes on Parsifal at the City Lit, we've at last reached the end of Wagner's first act (Paul Joukowsky's design for the first Bayreuth production above). Three performances leapt out for the students and/or myself. First was the minute, snippeting Gurnemanz's narrative, we changed from René Pape for Gergiev to Hans Hotter, past his prime but still a voice like no other in the celebrated Knappersbusch 1962 Bayreuth classic. Second happened to be my own personal thrall to José van Dam, innately noble as Amfortas in agony for Barenboim. Third was when we watched the whole grail ceremony sequence in Hans Hollmann's Zurich production on DVD.
I chose this, after earlier scenes from Lehnhoff, for two reasons. Haitink is still the ideal Parsifal conductor for me, unhurried but completely natural. And I'd been so impressed with Michael Volle, surprising star of the Royal Opera Vêpres Siciliennes, that I wanted to see how he'd handle Amfortas. We were not disappointed. The production's simplicity is ideal, beautifully lit and still allowing for an astonishing image when the monolith 'grail' rises and Amfortas, behind it, extends his hands either side in a pool of brilliance to form a Christ on the cross image.
Hollmann speaks sense in a simple sentence: 'Wagner presents only possibilities - Parsifal can never be wholly fathomed by interpretation.' I don't see that the dodgy, proto-Nazi issue of the 'pure blood' need come into the picture at all so long as you focus on the human suffering symbolised by Amfortas's bleeding wound. Anyone who has tended a dying person or been seriously ill can understand that desperate need for transcendence in the midst of exteme pain. So far, so human. Next: more on the bells.