I heard it slightly wrong. Parsifal, struck with awareness of Amfortas and the wound is physically overwrought. “Sie brennt in meinem Herzen!” he says, and then pauses, realises, “No! No! It’s not the wound!”, it is the anguish of love, immoral longing, and it is, I heard him say, “die Pein des Lebens.”
He didn’t quite, of course. Though he might have. I downloaded the a torrent of the film and in the midst of this, became curious about what Parsifal actually says, and even thought perhaps my libretto is a different version, but here Pasifal does say, not “Qual der Liebe!” but “Pein der Liebe!”
It is not the shock of Amfortas – his wound sliced from him, cushioned on black cloth, paraded, and leaking blood like an unholy vagina – that causes him to panic so; rather it’s his sudden violent awakening to suffering. He becomes human as the rest and sees utterly how this weakness, infirmity, poisoned Amfortas, Gurnemanz, and all the Knights, ruined Kundry, Klingsor, and every last person.
Syberberg’s Parsifal rests on this horror-stricken instant, these lines which I heard and did not hear, yet nonetheless it is there.
Roméo Castellucci’s Parsifal was also close during the four hours and fifteen minutes. Partly because this is my first return to Brussels since, also because I watched parts of the second act of the film during rehearsals, noting as well, aspects, stagings, intellectualisms, which came from that into his work. The singular difference though, is Roméo’s Parsifal is that of the titular role, whereas Syberberg’s belongs to Kundry.
I left the theatre exhausted, dry-mouthed, dazed. It is a harrowing four hours without pause, and one of the most transcendent moments of art I’ve ever lived through.
I’ll dispense with some technical notes first. The print was heart-rending. Badly scratched, dirty, especially towards the end of most reels, missing sections, and obviously cut together from more than one copy. Naturally this affected the sound also, at times a mess of noise, at others jumping and skipping, unsyncing itself in jarring cuts, and mostly soft, without detail, and slightly muffled.
It is so distressing that a film of such tremendous power is reduced so, and makes me fear for its future. While DVDs are available from Syberberg’s website, this is in no way comparable to the quality of a film print, especially for a film such as this.
Armin Jordan’s conducting would fit into what I probably erroneously think of as the standard arrangement. Its not quite the dramatic brilliance of Solti, and also I’m spoiled by Hartmut Haenchen, whose ideas on how it should be played to my mind bring forth something unique. I found myself wanting Jordan to go faster in places, to not linger so much, to find a sharper dynamic. Still, it’s beautiful and there is care and attention given throughout.
And this Parsifal is Kundry, as it rightly should be. There are two Kundrys, the voice is Yvonne Minton’s, and who we see perform is Edith Clever. Edith is so convincing I thought she was in fact the singer. She is brilliant. I fell in love with her, completely taken, and it was her performance that left me stripped and emptied.
Three Parsifals. Reiner Goldberg’s voice, first Martin Kutter, then Karin Krick, finally both of them. It was likely this that caused some to walk out during act two.
It begins with photographs under water, dirt-stained and begrimed. The camera circles over, sometimes nearer sometimes pulling away. The Reichstag gutted, the Statue of Liberty toppled and half-buried (I thought, is this from Planet of the Apes?), finding a Swan pierced by an arrow, a fetish object; a prelude, Kundry with a young impetuous boy, playing with his archery set, watched on by child-knights, and on into a puppet world, Bayreuth and the first Parsifal. Wagner is there also, but first we pass again by Kundry, asleep with a book open, an etching of the Knights of the Grail at their round table. She has a crown in her lap. She is in white, inky-blue stars around her waist, or perhaps black holes. Absences.
Behind is Wagner’s visage in profile, a death-mask. Here the action shall take place. Behind that is a dead puppet Wagner and Kundry again, and behind that, draped in a cloth, the world and the world tree – Yggdrasl.
More Wagners. The one pounding his baton into a bleeding ear; the one dressed in women’s pink silk attire, again darkness, this time emerging from a padded smoking jacket, the absent body giving it form, and in the depths, stars and night. A pure geometric solid breaks this. A rhomboid upon which a projection hovers. This all shall return, just as the overture’s leitmotifs are played out.
Even from these few minutes, the bottomless depth of this Parsifal is acute. Back through time and space it goes, trapping as in an autopsy all the parts that make a whole. It is perhaps also a judgement. As Wagner himself turns back towards the Germanic romantic history and its imagined form in millennia prehistory – the well-spring of his opera, Syberberg himself from a hundred years after the prémiere turns those years on Wagner. It is a work of love, yet it is never uncritical.
How do I write about such a piece? How do I remember it? I want to say it was for me as an epiphany. I also want to hold this feeling, to not pass it over for the next stimulation. Perhaps to say it is a meditation, a ritual; to go through those hours.
There are two moments when the theme, what this is about, is impossible to misconstrue. The first where Parsifal falls to Kundry in anguish as she tells of her (his mother’s) broken heart waiting for his return. The second at the end, The two Parsifals, male and female – though both so androgynous – come from within the rent crags of Wagner’s profile, regard each other and embrace. It is love.
It is not the confusion of Wagner’s platonic ideal, with its implicit misogyny and homoeroticism, nor of a christian one, burdened with guilt, obligation, and choking threat of punishment. Whether or not the spear Parsifal(Karin) wields closes the wound is perhaps less important than Kundry then lying beside, her last act one of sacrifice that releases the two Parsifals, closes this existential suffering under which all are enslaved. (The Knights no less for their role in perpetuating it, trapped in an endless deathlessness.)
From this, the two Parsifals freed, are able to meet, to see each other. It would be disingenuous as well as mediocre to read this as simply the reunion of male and female, though what this meeting posits, as well as Syberberg’s intention here is difficult to grasp. Perhaps here, the Buddhism which threads through Wagner’s conception of this opera, and which Syberberg never makes so explicit as he does other themes, comes forth. That Martin Kutter’s Parsifal is a beautiful, long-haired boy, feminine and slender, emotional in thought and expression, and Karin Krick’s is boyish, a Joan of Arc warrior in leather, her face blank of expression and emotions the barest flitting to impassivity, certainly undoes this simplistic reading, as well as any interpretation as Freudian familial drama.
As to why Parsifal changes (after the kiss, after “Wie alles schauert, bebt und zuckt – in sündigem Verlangen!…”) is equally elusive, though the overture hints at some possible readings. Nonetheless, she blames Kundry for this fall from salvation.
And Kundry. In the end, the choir sings, “Höchsten Heiles Wunder! Erlösung dem Erlöser!”, as the Parsifals greet each other, we find her lying, now crowned, next to Amfortas, around which all the Grails as they have been represented are accounted for, the world atop Yggdrasl now open and Theater Bayreuth therein, Wagner also nearby in an open libretto, skeletal corpses of the Knights around. The camera pulls back into darkness, emerges from the eye of the iron skull of a bishop in the same water as the overture, crowned and propped up like a macabre edifice, barring permanently any sentimentalism, romanticism the opera’s resolution so seductively and easily gives, and on out, the theatre coming into focus again, embraced in a glass ball by Kundry. She stares unblinking through the final notes until they pass, her eyes grow heavy. Sleep.