If he had not been an artist, Richard Wagner once told his wife, Cosima, he would have wanted to become a saint.
It's lucky for Wagner that he became an artist because he demonstrated little of the aptitude that leads to canonization. He took whatever he wanted from his friends, whether their wealth or their women; he wrote the viciously anti-Semitic racial tracts, filled with rapture for the purity of Northern light and blond hair and blue eyes, that attracted the adoration of Adolf Hitler and became part of the inspiration for the "Final Solution"; and he was so consumed by paranoia and narcissism that he has acquired a well-deserved reputation as probably the most awful human being who ever produced great art.
Yet in his final opera, "Parsifal," Wagner achieved, if not saintliness, something closely associated with it. "Parsifal," which will be simulcast from the New York Metropolitan Opera Wednesday at 8 p.m. on MPT (channels 22 and 67) and on WBJZ-FM (91.5), is a work so indelibly identified with the Easter season that only Handel's "Messiah" has a greater hold on the affections of the musical public in the holiest of all weeks in the Christian calendar.
And this is a judgment with which the composer would have concurred. When Cosima once publicly compared "Parsifal" to the Gospels, Wagner simply nodded.
Yet, is "Parsifal" a religious work? And if it is, in what sense? Wagner was himself only nominally a Christian -- and then only in the last years of his life. "Parsifal" is a work filled with heresies -- pantheism, a belief in magic and the transmigration of souls -- and it contains a vegetarian bias that alters the sacrament of Communion, subtly reversing transubstantiation so that the flesh and blood of the Savior is translated into bread and wine instead of the other way around.
But the composer has also got a grip on large Christian symbols that make it hard even for nonbelievers to resist, whether it is the Holy Grail, the spear that pierced Christ's side on the cross (the subject of the title character's quest), a Communion feast that re-creates the Last Supper, or a scene that suggests Mary Magdalen's anointing Christ's feet and drying them with her hair. All this dangerously approaches kitsch, yet it is kitsch raised to a transcendent level with imaginative power superior to that of a Cecil B. DeMille or Steven Spielberg.
Once you have heard and seen "Parsifal," you cannot forget it. The music and the dramatic power with which it is wielded penetrate to the bone. Despite all the misgivings one may have about Wagner the man, "Parsifal" leaves one with the feeling of having participated in a mythical voyage that leaves the corporeal body behind. Intelligent, discerning people have been known to emerge from performances with the glow of revelation on their faces.
An Arthurian legend
The plot is the composer's own condensation of one of the most famous Arthurian legends. Amfortas, the king of the Knights of the Grail, is sick in soul and body. While he is on a crusade against the evil magician Klingsor, Amfortas' spear is stolen by the sorcerer, who wounds the king in the side with it. Since the spear, which was presented to Amfortas' father by the angels, was the spear that wounded Christ, its theft places the knights and the Grail they guard in peril. And because Amfortas lost it when he was seduced by Kundry, a beautiful temptress in thrall to Klingsor, he suffers from his guilt and lust.
Kundry herself is under a curse because she mocked Christ on his way to the cross. She has been condemned to wander through history, eternally in search of salvation yet compelled to destroy men because of her sexual compulsion. She spends part of her time with the knights as a humble penitent. But when Klingsor calls, she falls into a cataleptic trance and is transformed in his magic realm into a seductress.
Into this heavily eroticized religious atmosphere steps the Holy Fool, Parsifal. Only a teen-ager, he cannot understand the depths of Amfortas' pain and guilt. But he is sufficiently moved by it to journey to Klingsor's castle, to withstand Kundry's temptations and to regain the spear, destroying Klingsor's castle and eventually restoring Amfortas and his kingdom to health.
It is a curiously static opera, perhaps the most sober and slowest-moving in the history of music. The stage properties are a dead swan, the spear and the Grail. The tempo is never faster than an andante. There is little or no action, except for the moment that Klingsor hurls the spear at Parsifal (and misses).