Good Friday Music


Good Friday is almost over. It has been blissfully quiet on our usually busy street. The only sounds have been the springtime wind in the trees, the song of the “nightingale” (our mockingbird) perched on the lamp post, and the occasional, obligatory bark from our dog, when she felt she really had to register her presence. You would never have thought you were in the city, at all.

The fantastic German tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal in the Metropolitan Opera of New York's latest production.
The fantastic German tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal in the Metropolitan Opera of New York’s latest production. (Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera)

At the end of the afternoon, we felt as if we were awakening from a very long meditation. We had played our entire four-CD set of Wagner’s “Parsifal.”  We often don’t get past the first CD, but when you listen to it in full, it slowly and steadily seeps into your soul and your heart. It is sublime. It is hypnotic. It requires focus.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

OK, I know Richard Wagner doesn’t have a good “image.” Unfortunately, Adolf Hitler was a big fan; some of Wagner’s own views were controversial to say the least. Hitler thought Wagner’s epic operas fitted in beautifully with his concept of heroic Germany. And Wagner was not a particularly lovable person. But then, nor was Johannes Brahms, who wrote such fine music but was a miserable, bad-tempered man.

Flower maidens try to lead Parsifal (Jonas Kaufmann) astray. (Photo: Sara Krulwich/New York Times)
Flower maidens try to lead Parsifal (Jonas Kaufmann) astray. (Photo: Sara Krulwich/New York Times)

But if we can (please) put all of that on one side, “Parsifal,” Wagner’s last opera, is more than just an opera. At five and a half hours long, it is a journey. It took Wagner four years to compose. At its first performance at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth in 1882, he was already ailing. It is based (loosely) on a thirteenth-century epic poem called “Parzival,” about one of the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table, but there is much more to it.

A scene from "Parsifal."
A scene from “Parsifal.” (Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera)

A part of Act 3 is called “Good Friday Music.” It was actually prepared as a separate piece, and it’s the scene where Parsifal arrives at the Castle of the Grail (the Holy Grail or chalice) and rests in a meadow filled with flowers.“This is Good Friday’s magic spell” (Karfreitagszauber), says the knight Gurnemanz. In 1865, Wagner wrote to his friend and patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria: “A warm and sunny Good Friday, with its mood of sacred solemnity, once inspired me with the idea of writing Parsifal; since then it has lived within me and prospered, like a child in its mother’s womb. With each Good Friday it grows a year older, and I then celebrate the day of its conception, knowing that its birthday will follow one day.” 

The final act is filled with hope, redemption, and a kind of emotional and spiritual cleansing, hard to describe. Here Parsifal holds the Holy Grail. (Photo: New York Times)
The final act is filled with hope, redemption, and a kind of emotional and spiritual cleansing, hard to describe. Here Parsifal holds the Holy Grail. (Photo: New York Times)

If you read the story of “Parsifal,” you might think to yourself: “What the heck?”  This opera may sound like a sort of religious hotchpotch, with maidens and knights thrown in; but it is not. The music transcends and blurs the lines. The final Act simply shimmers with emotion, with hope, redemption and all those wonderful words that give our lives meaning. And I don’t see it as a purely “Christian” work; Wagner was not particularly religious, but interested in spirituality in his later years. He was reading the work of Persian Sufi poet Hafez at the time, and was apparently planning to write an opera about the Buddha.

Evgeny Nikitin as the magician Klingsor in "Parsifal" at the Metropolitan Opera of New York. (Photo: Sara Krulwich/New York Times)
Evgeny Nikitin as the magician Klingsor in “Parsifal” at the Metropolitan Opera of New York. When we saw the opera at Covent Garden in London many years ago, the Jamaican-born Willard White played this role. He was very sinister, indeed. (Photo: Sara Krulwich/New York Times)

“Parsifal” is not easy to understand, and draws on many cultural references. There is magic. There is darkness and fear; there is passion, and even an (attempted) seduction scene. It could actually have a lot of appeal for younger audiences, given the enormous popularity of “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Game of Thrones” and other lengthy, vivid and powerful fantasy narratives. However, it requires huge amounts of patience, and the attention span of our young people does not extend to well over five hours. It unfolds slowly. Slowly, and beautifully.

The opening Vorspiel (Prelude) of the opera is calm and stately. “Parsifal” ends on lingering, peaceful notes. It is springtime, the weather is sweet, and all’s well with the world.

I hope you had a wonderful Good Friday.

P.S. To our great chagrin, the current Metropolitan Opera of New York production – with the stunningly charismatic and accomplished tenor, Jonas Kaufmann in the title role – was not among the operas chosen for the worldwide HD live broadcasts. I can understand why; its length is a major drawback for that kind of thing. But I am so sad that I will not be able to see the wonderful Mr. Kaufmann – whose performance in Massenet’s “Werther” was exquisite – as the wandering fool Parsifal in our local cinema. Never mind. 

Tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the latest production directed by Francois Girard at the Metropolitan Opera of New York. (Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera)
Tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the latest production directed by Francois Girard at the Metropolitan Opera of New York. (Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera)

4 thoughts on “Good Friday Music

  1. Your excellent review of this opera reminded me of an anecdote about Wagner’s reaction to critical opinion about it. There had been some thought that Parsifal himself is something of a “Christ figure.” (The theology of the opera is so overgrown in that particular Wagnerian way that there is a tremendous urge to cut through it, to simplify it.) On hearing this Wagner is supposed to have said: “Christ? A tenor? Impossible!”

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment! When I first became acquainted with this opera, I was also tempted to over-simplify and to see Parsifal as Christ-like. But the more I read and learned about it, the more complex it became. (Can you imagine having a philosophical discussion with Richard Wagner? I think one would get into very deep water, very quickly…) I agree with him, though – not a tenor… A baritone, maybe… Thanks for visiting my blog, and do visit again soon!

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