Is Parsifal a Christian opera?

Tom Sutcliffe is unimpressed by a non-Christian approach to Wagner’s work

Is Parsifal a Christian opera? I am sure that Jon Vickers, the greatest Parsifal I have ever seen or heard and perhaps one of the most memorable performers there has ever been of the title role, would say that there is no question about that at all. Famously Vickers refused at a late stage to undertake the title role of Wagner’s Tannhäuser at Covent Garden because, despite the miracle precipitated by the Pope in the opera’s story, of the staff that burst into leaf, the Canadian tenor felt he could not identify with the whole decadence and sinfulness of the title role’s obsession with Venusberg. The climax of Parsifal when I was at Covent Garden for Vickers in the mid-1960s was the way he sang at full tilt ‘Amfortas, die Wunde’ with such overwhelming power and beauty that one felt it expressed in an unmistakable way the ‘enlightenment by compassion’ that is the heart of this extraordinary and spell-binding work.


So I found it extremely odd and depressing that so many other critics (especially Andrew Clark and Andrew Clements) praised the new Covent Garden production for removing ‘all trace of pseudo-sacred mumbo-jumbo’. Clark of the FT is a Scot, so Presbyterian sentiment and impatience may be expected from him – though he is generally one of the most useful opera critics. But Clements, my Guardian colleague for my last three years at the paper, praises the new production by Stephen Langridge, designed by Alison Chitty, daughter of a CofE clergyman, because its contemporary world is ‘freed of as many explicitly Christian trappings as possible.’

Now I do not suggest that the theology which emerges in Wagner’s poetry is orthodox. But the exposition of the Grail which the composer insisted was a central image of the work is intended to be recognized as (or by the Grail knights believed to be) the cup used at the Last Supper which Jesus raised with the words ‘This is my blood of the new covenant’. In the opera it is the passing of the Grail over the elements which is meant to represent their consecration. And anybody who reads the last chapter of Lucy Beckett’s Cambridge Opera Handbook on Parsifal will know that the Christianity in the piece is irretrievably embedded in the language used – it’s not just in the stage directions for the distribution of consecrated bread and wine to the assembled company.

Innate understanding

Beckett is a Roman Catholic who grasps exactly how Wagner aims to define a kind of natural goodness in his embodiment of Parsifal (the ‘reine Tor’ or simple fool) as potentially heroic. This is an opera about somebody who is an ignorant and disinterested agent of the power of goodness, somebody who lends himself in spite of his overwhelming sense of inadequacy to an entirely virtuous end. It is about the call to responsibility, the recognition of timeliness, and the reality of enlightenment. It is not about conversion, but about innate understanding.

It is an opera to show the organic slow development potential of us all, if we can just open our eyes to what needs doing. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche as instructive thinkers who immensely engaged Wagner here in a sense cancel each other out. Parsifal is simple. That is why and how it is a Christian opera.

Disappointingly Langridge’s very ‘public school’ grey-suited staging was centred around Amfortas’s hospital bed.

Chitty’s designs looked depressingly 1960s (her style) with metal chairs and towering tree-trunks at the edge of the stage, around a central box with translucent sliding doors where, as well as Amfortas suffering from his unhealed wound, various cutaway tableaux could show us, for example, Klingsor’s self-castration. The swan shot by Parsifal was brought on respectfully.

No coherent viewpoint

Respect was too characteristic of Langridge’s polite approach. But (talk of mumbo-jumbo) his weirdest innovation was to substitute an almost naked barely prepubescent boy-in-a-loincloth dressed for crucifixion for the glowing Holy Grail that Wagner wanted. Gerald Finley’s beautifully sung but over-acted, neurotic, jittery Amfortas eventually took up a scalpel and wounded this Teutonic-looking boy in his appendix region (in the last act the boy had ‘matured’ into a man). Just what was Langridge’s idea having a boy stand in for the Grail?

Instead of the journeying transformation scenes that Wagner wanted the audience to see – leading us watching and Parsifal and Gurnemanz to the grail-hall, Chitty lowered a pair of black wooden square outlines three times larger than the opaque Amfortas hospital cell at the centre of the stage.

There was no magic flower garden – just a few plastic pots with red flowers. In the third act a couple of fallen tree trunks suggest ecological decline. For the Kurfreitag (Good Friday) music Chitty offered a few green growths at the front, but no spring flowers.

The far too middle-aged-looking and well-fed Parsifal (Simon O’Neill, who sang decently but not very lyrical or engaging) entered for the final act in a cloth head-covering, a bit Ku-Klux-Klan, the sacred spear that wounded Jesus on the cross in the side wrapped in a sheet. Langridge seemed to have no coherent viewpoint at all. ND