Operapedia: Madama Butterfly
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Operapedia: Parsifal 

Henry Stewart bleeds for Wagner’s mythopoeic swan song.

The Basics  

The title fool uses his compassion and sexual purity to vanquish an evil wizard and restore health to the king of the knights of the holy grail. 
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◀︎   First Performances

Parsifal, Wagner’s last opera, was first performed in the theater he’d designed for himself in Bayreuth, Germany, in July 1882. It had been meant to open the theater—Wagner called it a long German word meaning “festival play for the consecration of the stage”—but the full score wasn’t ready until years later. Wagner died in early 1883; he had hoped Parsifal would be produced only as he had envisioned it, which his heirs interpreted to mean it should be performed only at Bayreuth. “The rarefied atmosphere and unique acoustics of the house’s ‘invisible orchestra pit’ were critical,” OPERA NEWS reported in 2013. That injunction, buttressed by European copyright, would be followed for more than two decades.

In Pop Culture ▶︎

The Good Friday music, from the middle of Act III, gets oomph from its bold, Wagnerian horns; the string and wind sections provide contrasting pastoral serenity. Director Tex Avery and music editor Carl W. Stalling exploited this latter quality in the 1940 Looney Tunes short “Wacky Wildlife.” The music plays over a shot of “the great sheep ranges of Montana,” but the score switches to something jazzier as one lamb rises and lifts up her wool to reveal a stockinged gam. “Ah, there’s nothing like a good leg of lamb,” the narrator says. Wagner might not have appreciated the joke; some believe the scene in which Parsifal is scolded for shooting a swan represents Wagner’s sympathy for vegetarianism.
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Friedrich Nietzsche  had once celebrated Wagner, but not after witnessing the Christian piety of Parsifal (among other personal and aesthetic issues). “The preaching of chastity is an incitement to anti-naturalness: I despise everyone who does not regard Parsifal as an outrage on morals,” he wrote. “Parsifal is … hostile to the prerequisites of life; a bad work.” The Nazis liked it, though, even if Hitler wasn’t particularly fond of the Christomystical motifs of the Bayreuth production. There’s nothing explicitly anti-Semitic in the libretto, though many have suggested a subtextual implication, considering Wagner’s own bigotry, particularly in the form of Klingsor, the exiled, deviant magician who’s the Christians’ enemy. 

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Surprise Showstopper  

For a pious opera tottering between the sublime and the otherworldly, it’s surprising that the mostly chromatic scene in which Kundry attempts to seduce Parsifal (the centerpiece of which is “Ich sah das Kind”) should stick out. But it’s riveting. Kundry, among other problems, is an ensorceled slave of Klingsor, for whom she tries to corrupt Parsifal sexually, as she did many years ago the grail king Amfortas, which led to the wound that plagues him. The music is especially effective as sung by Waltraud Meier , for whom the role was a signature; she’d move fluidly between matronly affection and erotic temptation, tormenting the simple Parsifal. 
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◀︎ On Background

Wagner based his telling in part on the thirteenth-century epic Parzival , by Wolfram von Eschenbach, who is a character in Wagner’s 1845 opera Tannhäuser . The composer’s 1850 followup, Lohengrin , was also based on Eschenbach’s poem; Lohengrin is Parsifal’s son. This patrilinearity is ignored in Parsifal , however, “so intent is Wagner on [the] theme of male chastity,” OPERA NEWS reported in 1949. Wagner was twice notably involved with married women, including his eventual second wife, Cosima , and his characters often were too, from Tristan to Siegmund. But Parsifal ’s hero rejects sex with his master’s erstwhile partner. “The story cannot end romantically,” OPERA NEWS continued. “Only the themes of celibacy and spiritual love are reemphasized.” 

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Hit Tune 

In the Act I prelude, Wagner turns his penchant for harmonic irresolution into something spiritually transcendent—which suits it to our most mystical filmmaker, Terrence Malick, who frequently employs a reworked rendition in his 2012 film To the Wonder, as in a scene in which Olga Kurylenko’s character cheats on her husband, played by Ben Affleck. Their “sacred love leitmotif is purposefully misappropriated and violated so as to contrast it to the idyllic springtime of their original passion,” reports the blog Film. Music. Media. “Wagnerites will be reminded of King Amfortas and the mortal sin of the flesh that keeps him from embracing the Grail’s grace.” (Will they?)

The Performance We Wish We'd Seen

Parsifal wasn’t staged publicly outside of Bayreuth until Christmas Eve 1903 at the Met. Wagner’s widow, Cosima, sued to stop it and lost. The house imported Alois Burgstaller from Bayreuth to sing Parsifal; Cosima “threatened that any artists who participated in [the] ‘Rape of the Grail’ would never work in [Bayreuth] again,” OPERA NEWS once reported. The show went on, and the 6:45 p.m. intermission lasted two hours, for dinner, or to change into evening attire. The magnificent production was a success. But thereafter the Met usually scheduled it at Eastertime. “A more … unsuitable Christmas show … is scarcely imaginable,” OPERA NEWS reported in 1948.
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Something Completely Different

Experimental filmmaker Bruce Baillie’s 1963 short “To Parsifal” uses Wagner’s score (except when it cuts out for on-location sound) to accompany images of nature intruded upon by machinery. It opens with life in and around the sea, interrupted by fishing boats, with shots of seagulls and fishermen gutting fish (closeup on the dead eyes!); then it’s a misty forest full of insects and naked humans—and a noisy train passing through on clackety tracks. It’s an ambiguous if inventive tribute to the opera and its hero, a sort of prelapsarian icon of incorruptible purity.

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Where It Is This Season

Fifteen productions are scheduled in as many cities through June, mostly in Europe. The Met revives its production in February—about halfway between Christmas and Easter. 


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