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Bernard Levin on Parsifal

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Right: Photograph of Jon Vickers as Parsifal with Amy Shuard as Kundry in 'Parsifal' at ROH in 1971.

Bernard Levin, writing in the London 'Times', on Wagner's 'Parsifal'. ROH Covent Garden productions of 1977 and 1988.

For many years, Bernard Levin was a frequent contributor to the London Times. His eclectic articles addressing cultural and political issues, usually with a dry and very English wit, were often provocative and always entertaining. The following extracts are from an article in the issue of 18 February 1988.

The 1979 Production at Covent Garden

Directed by Terry Hands, conducted by Georg Solti

At  that time, Mr Hands had directed only one opera - Otello, in Paris - and although I wished him well, I foresaw disaster; not because I didn't believe him talented enough for the task, but because directing opera is not the same as directing plays, and a lifetime on the dramatic stage will not guarantee success upon the lyric; a wholly new approach (and, of course, technique) must first be understood and assimilated. Moreover, Wagner demands an approach and a technique different not only from the theatre but from other composers; a long course of immersion in his work and thought and assiduous attendance backstage throughout the production of more than one of his operas is essential to success (which is not, even then, by any means assured).

Presentation of the Mrs. Featheringay-Fawcett Cup. Parsifal at Covent Garden in 1988.

The 1988 Production at Covent Garden

Directed by Bill Bryden, conducted by Bernard Haitink

Let's get it over quickly: the idea of the production is that Parsifal is the end-of-term play at a minor public [i.e. fee-paying] school in the 1930s, put on in the ruined church next door, with the doting parents of the performers scattered round the stage - handbags, hats, three-piece suits and all (Gurnemanz is the headmaster, incidentally); from time to time the parents are called upon to do things, such as light candles and hold them in their laps. I truly believe that it was only by the direct intervention of Almighty God - who, after all, has a substantial interest in the matter — that the Grail was not inscribed, The Mrs. Featheringay- Fawcett Cup for Outstanding Prowess in the Gymnasium. (Perhaps it was; my sight is not of the keenest). You will doubtless suppose from that gloomy introduction that I had a bad time. Your supposition, though understandable, is baseless. Musically, it was without exception the finest Parsifal of my life; I have never before been so entirely overwhelmed by its force and meaning.

Wagner's Operas

Over the years, the Wagner operas have rearranged themselves again and again in my mind in order of priority. The Ring (its constituent parts also go up and down in my ordering) stayed at the top of my charts for many years, but has slipped a little, while Mastersingers grows and grows; to Tristan I go resisting all the way, only to be drowned full fathom five the moment the Prelude starts; Tannhäuser I wouldn't much mind if I never heard again, and I have never really warmed to Lohengrin (though I hope to hear Domingo sing it here in June even if I have to be carried in a chair, like Amfortas, or even in a coffin, like Titurel).

But Parsifal, which I took a good many years to understand (it is not a work for youth) and have not yet finished understanding, and never shall, now stands at the very head of the page, beckoning me at one and the same time into Klingsor's Magic Garden, which is death, and the Temple of the Grail, which is eternal life.

The contrast between Wagner's prodigious genius and his horrible personal nature has been discussed endlessly and fruitlessly; there's no art to find the mind's construction in the music. Some great artists have been of the most beautiful and loving nature, and some have been anything from dishonest to the most frightful swine ... Wagner, to be sure, takes the dichotomy to lengths unparalleled in all history (Georg Solti calls him det old gengster) but there is nothing to be done about it, and surely Parsifal is the greatest testimony in all art to the terrible truth that so enraged Shaffer's Salieri: that any channel, even an unworthy one, will serve as an aqueduct through which the pure water of art can flow from Heaven to earth, and not be tainted by the corrupted vessel that serves it.


There is a moment, some two-thirds of the way through Act Two, when this lesson is driven home in the most violent possible way. Consider: the raging tempest of sensuality which the central act consists of, is constructed out of musical materials very different from those of the two outer acts. This is reflected in the leitmotives which Wagner uses throughout the act; naturally, Kundry's dominates the list, together with those closely associated with her and her past.

When Parsifal enters, he adds strains from another world, and for a long time Herzeleide, the Wound, the Spear, Kundry's Wildness, Torment of Sin, Longing, Fool and of course Klingsor, weave in and out of the heaving, flooding orchestral and vocal texture. Suddenly, without warning, we hear, for the first time in three-quarters of an hour, the Grail. It is like a blow in the face, so enmeshed are we in the struggle between good and evil; but I never remember that it is approaching, with its glorious news that the battle is almost over and light has triumphed over darkness. Well, this time, when it rose from the orchestra like Excalibur, I thought it would stop my heart, so far had I been drawn into the furnace of the struggle. Surely this is what the shepherds who were tending their flocks must have experienced when the angel appeared to them with glad tidings of great joy.

The tidings in Parsifal are brought in Act Three, when the Spear that pierced Christ's side heals the wound of Amfortas's guilt; even the poor production could not spoil that moment, so powerful and so complete was the spell of the conducting, playing and singing. But the spell of the performance was as strong as it was because it served, with the utmost fidelity, the spell of the opera - its drama, its meaning and its consummate ability to steep the whole evening in the balm of hope. And when you come to think of it, what is the Christian message but hope? Of course it is an oversimplification to read Parsifal as orthodox Christian witness; Wagner wove much besides Christianity into his final work. But if we generalise a little, we can demonstrate that the redemption of Amfortas is indeed the symbol of redemption of the world; remember that we hear, as Parsifal moves with the healing instrument towards the stricken man, the Grail, not Parsifal's own theme; and as the spear point closes the wound, it is not the weapon that sounds, but Amfortas himself. Surely Wagner is saying that Parsifal is neither the Christ nor John the Baptist, but the Paraclete of St. John's Gospel, who is sent to comfort the world: Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you. And it is man, sinful but capable of redemption, who receives the divine gift from the hands of the innocent fool, made wise by pity. (© Times Newspapers Ltd.)