In Act Three of Parsifal, the hero returns from his wanderings to find the Brotherhood of the Grail demoralised and dispersed. The old knight Gurnemanz ekes out life as a hermit. The accursed, shape-shifting Kundry is grounded, degraded in body and mind, muttering gibberish. Amfortas, the ruler of the Brotherhood, racked by pain and guilt, longing for death, refuses to enact the ritual of the Grail. Into this scene of desolation Parsifal brings the spear that wounded Amfortas and whose touch will be his cure. He forgives Kundry her past misdeeds and baptizes her, lifting her ancient curse. His central and culminating act as king-priest, however, is to be the revival of the lapsed Good Friday ritual, the exposure of the Holy Grail.
It is here, at this most charged moment in the apotheosis of Parsifal, the completion of his journey from Fool to Redeemer, that the recent Met production introduces a novelty. Rather than having Parsifal lift the Grail from its casket, which is Wagner’s stage-direction, we see Kundry rising from abject subordination to perform this supreme ritual, a thing so subversive to the myth-logic of everything that has come before, we must ask, What was the problem to which this became the answer?
Let us say at once that a problem Parsifal lays before an audience now, arises from its preoccupation with sexual pollution, with disgust and fear of women. Much of Act Two, in the domain of the evil Klingsor, where Parsifal’s downfall, like Amfortas’s, is to be accomplished by seduction, is wince-inducing indeed, even though the sirens are imaginary and Kundry is not a free agent.
We know a lot, of course, about the relationship of Parsifal to Wagner’s medieval sources, and as well to Wagner’s infatuation at that time with Schopenhauer, proponent of a philosophical version of Buddhism and, perhaps not incidentally, a notorious misogynist. But such explanations—if not mitigations—cannot be laid out in performance. We move with what we see and hear. The problem is compounded when the action of the drama is set in something like the present, as this production is. We do not so easily relativise the offending parts as we can when characters are archaic figures in Fritz Lang art-deco kit.
The temptation is thus to improve the work, make it relevant to our time, reveal what the artist would have done had he lived in a more enlightened age, which then becomes somehow what he must have really meant. So Kundry, in this adaptation of Wagner’s drama, is not merely a penitent, a Magdalen, but is shown, before she expires, exalted, a priestess, an equal in the cult of the Brotherhood.
The trouble with this is not that Wagner is made nicer than he really was, or that his intention is given a teleological spin, it is rather that we are likely to miss what he actually says about the present age. The burden of Parsifal—which Wagner called ein Bühnenweihfestspiel, A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage—is that the path to maturity and wisdom for the exceptional individual, the Chosen One, the Redeemer, and, through him, to the redemption of the world of men and nature, must begin and end with religious consecration and utter spiritual isolation. This aristocratic and mystical sense of representative human life is, mutatis mutandis, what was held by his contemporary Kierkegaard (whose bicentennial, like Wagner’s, is in May), to the scandal of many who would like to claim Kierkegaard too for one version or another of the modern narrative. This scandal is not commensurate of course with scandal arising from antisemitism, or misogyny, or some other beyond-the-pale posture, which we know all about and discount in advance, but arises from the difficulty that a great artist might actually intend such a deeply illiberal, anti-equalitarian politics.