Parsifal and the Overcoming of Evil - A Presentation by Thomas Meyer at the Sofia Opera House
On 8 July this year a special event was held in Sofia for two reasons: the first performances of Richard Wgner’s opera Parsifal in Bulgaria happened to coincide with the presentation of the Bulgarian edition of the book Im Zeichen der Fünf [In The Sign of Five] by Thomas Meyer.
Thanks to many years of links between the anthroposophical publisher and Wagner connoisseur Dimitar Dimcheff and the Opera House and its PR Manager Valentin Stanov the presentation was able to take place in one of the upper rooms of the Opera House and was also open to the non-anthroposophical members of the public.
After words of greeting from Diana Botucharova, Thomas Meyer gave the following lecture, which was simultaneously interpreted into Bulgarian by Katya Belopitova.
Dear guests, dear friends of Rudolf Steiners spiritual science and of Richard Wagner’s operas!
I am very glad to have this unusual opportunity to be able to speak in this place where the third performance of Parsifal will be held today. My theme is “Parsifal and the Overcoming of Evil”. Let’s take a look first at the main characters in the opera: Gurnemanz, Amfortas, Kundry, Klingsor, Parsifal. They all have something in common: they all have to do with the phenomenon. Some more passively, for example, Amfortas. Passively here means: affected by evil rather than deliberately seeking it out or willing it. On the other hand, we have Kundry and Klingsor, who are actively involved in the production of evil. Gurnemanz – a witness to evil, but
also a great friend of and striver towards the highest good. And then of course, finally, Parsifal, the one who actually overcomes it, the victor over evil. These characters therefore relate to the phenomenon of evil in very different ways.
But these characters have something else in common. We find all of them in each single person. In each of us there is something, in varying degrees, of Gurnemanz, Amfortas, Kundry, sometimes even of Klingsor; and, perhaps to a small degree, something of Parsifal.
The basic ideas in the opera
Already in the first act Gurnemanz expresses a basic idea, which applies to the whole work: “Who pays ill with good o’ercomes it.” An important basic motif. Evil is not overcome by the one who condemns it or fights it, but by he who places the good alongside it.
A further motif: if evil is to be overcome, that requires knowledge. This is already stated in the phrase that sounds several times, that the one who will one day redeem Amfortas is the one whose understanding will be compassionate. Neither compassion alone, nor knowledge alone is sufficient to overcome evil. Both must come together in a synthesis. Like heart and head. This is the task of Parsifal. He cannot manage this task at all at first. He cannot yet do it on his first visit to the Grail Castle, not even when he sees the afflicted Amfortas before him. He is still the “pure gate”, who knows nothing and does not feel much. At a certain moment, however, a vague feeling of compassion grips his heart.
Parsifal must go through a development. All the characters figures I have mentioned must undergo a development, more or less. Kundry’s development is extreme, as is that of Parsifal. The whole opera is thus also a drama of human development.
Rudolf Steiner and the knowledge of evil
The motif of the knowledge of evil enables me briefly to refer to the book which was mentioned in the introduction: Im Zeichen der Fünf [In the Sign of Five]. This book
contains Rudolf Steiner’s fundmanetal ideas about evil. He says – and this shows how contemporary Parsifal is - the knowledge of evil is the great task of our time. Steiner was also greatly familiar with appreciated the works of Richard Wagner. You see that in the second publication here [this refers to a Bulgarian edition with various lectures by Steiner on Wagner]. The day before the outbreak of the First World War, on 31 July 1914, Steiner was sitting with Eliza von Moltke and other friends at a performance of Parsifal in Bayreuth. A basic idea for the understanding of the encounter with evil is in Steiner – and I think also in Wagner –: there is no “eternal” evil. There is no absolute evil. There is only an absolute, eternal good. You can find this idea also in Goethe’s Faust.
Mephisto can do all the harm he does only because he receives permission from the “Lord”, from the Godhead itself. It is very important to grasp this thought. For
if one believes that there is an absolute evil, then this is not only an error; it also generates emotions, fear and hatred. Evil belongs to time and space, not to eternity. The German poet Lessing magically conjures various spirits The Present Age Vol. 3 / No. 5 / August 2017 9 Parsifal and the Overcoming of Evil in a “Faust” fragment. And then he asks them what is the fastest thing in the world. One of the spirits says, to Faust’s great satisfaction: “The change from good to evil”.
Thus evil has to do with time and also with acceleration in time.
We had the First World War – for four years. And then, at the beginning of this millennium, we had a single day which had and still has similar catastrophic consequences, 11 September 2001. This is a compression of the power of evil in time.
In Parsifal there is an image of the higher good that is absolute and which can therefore be victorious over evil. It is expressed by the word “Grail”. And from the Grail proceeds that which is called the Holy Spirit and what we see in the image of the dove, which in the third act descends to the revealed Grail [which in the otherwise excellent production in Sofia was unfortunately not included].
The Grail, the dove – these are images of the eternal. Of the eternally true, the eternally good and also of the eternally beautiful, as can appear in art.
Paths of development
I have already mentioned that all the characters go through a development, especially Parsifal and Kundry. Parsifal has to learn to understand through compassion. He has to learn to ennoble his impure qualities, which he also has - wildness, an inclination to violence, etc. Klingsor on the other hand takes another path. He does not want ennoblement in order to strive higher - he too once strove for the Grail - but he suppresses what is lowly within himself by force, and thereby conjures up unhealthy forces and black-magic capacities. Klingsor also wanted and still wants to attain the Grail, but he does it with the wrong means: oppression, power, hatred, etc.
With regard to the motif of “understanding though compassion”, for me, there is a real climax in the whole three-act drama. We will see in the second act how at Klingsor’s command, Parsifal is tempted by Kundry, as happened with Amfortas. There comes the dramatic moment where Kundry, who has already enticed him
with her flower girls, finally embraces and kisses Parsifal. And one could understand how even Parsifal could yield to the temptation. Then we would have a new Amfortas. But this does not happen. A single word which he exclaims shows clearly that now he has awakened, now he has become knowledgeable. It is the word “Amfortas!” In the moment he is kissed, he intuits what the drama of Amfortas actually was. The vague compassion which he had already felt in the first act, then only dimly, has now awakened. And Parsifal recognizes in a single moment the origin of Amfortas’ affliction. It is the dramatic climax of the whole drama. Now he can directly take hold of his mission to overcome evil. For now it has become clear to him how things stand.
This climax in the drama can be compared with the moment when, in Verdi’s Rigoletto, the hero opens a sack at night, in which the corpse of his enemy is supposed to be, only to find his own beloved daughter. “Amfortas”! The most compelling moment of knowing compassion in the whole opera.
Development through repeated earth lives
A further motif is that we have many opportunities for development, and indeed not only in one life, but in many lives. This is expressed already in the first act by Gurnemanz. He says of Kundry that she “perhaps [has] to atone for her guilt from an earlier life”. In the second act Klingsor calls Kundry not only a “primeval she-devil” – a strong phrase! –, but also Herodias. She is according to legend supposed to have scorned and laughed at Christ on the Cross. When Kundry tells Parsifal about her own suffering, in order to entreat him, she says something very significant. She scorned the Lord on the Cross and she says: “Then his glance fell on me!” These words are accompanied musically by a very beautiful, simple motif, which also comes in the Overture, and then again in the second act, once again in the third act.
The gaze which fell on Herodias-Kundry, is not a punitive or a vengeful gaze. It is a gaze which impels her whole future development. That only shows itself later, in
a subsequent incarnation. This gaze of the Christ, which she had felt as Herodias, is the deeper reason why Kundry later strives towards the Grail. And as you know, she actually finds the path to the Grail in the third act thanks to Opera House, Sofia, Bulgaria 10 The Present Age Vol. 3 / No. 5 / August 2017 Parsifal and the Overcoming of Evil the redemption and a higher love through Parsifal, who frees her from being chained to evil.
You see, a far-reaching arc of development, which spans not only one life, but several lives. For Kundry, but also
Parsifal too has a dim awareness that he is not living for the first time. When Gurnemanz asks him in the first act: “Your name?”, Parsifal says: “I had many. But I no longer know them.” Most people are in this situation: they have forgotten their spiritual experiences from their earlier incarnations. But today there are already many people, often children, who tell of their experiences of earlier lives.
The idea of reincarnation in Wagner and in Christianity
Richard Wagner was not the only one who knew of reincarnation, took it seriously, and took in his works. That was also the case with Goethe, Schiller, Emerson, the
American essayist. And for Rudolf Steiner, the founder of spiritual science, it stands as it were in the centre of his work; it belongs to his “core mission”. It is not only
a Buddhist idea. In the Bible there is at least one striking place where Christ speaks of reincarnation: where some disciples go with Him to the mountain of the Transfiguration. On the way down they speak of Elijah, and Christ indicates that Elijah returned in John the Baptist, who had been beheaded a short time earlier. The idea of reincarnation can therefore be very much linked to Christianity. That is the one point on which I cannot wholly agree with a very remarkable interview on the Opera House website.
The interview with Richard Trimborn
There is an interview there, which lasts about nine minutes, with Richard Trimborn, who did the musical rehearsals for the opera with the artists. Remarkable. You find in Trimborn a man, who takes account of the real spirit of the creator of such a work. Trimborn asks the composer in the spirit: “Are you satisfied with what is done in Bayreuth today?” And he believes he hears the composer say: “No!” And then he asks: “Are you satisfied with what we are attempting here in Sofia!” And he believes he hears the composer say: “Yes!” And Trimborn apparently takes the idea of reincarnation seriously, when he also says it is only Buddhist in origin. It is the most interesting interview about Wagner’s Parsifal, that I have ever read.
Gérard Mortier and the reincarnation of Richard Wagner
We find the idea of reincarnation, which flowed so deeply into Parsifal, again in Steiner’s spiritual science, as I said; here as the goal of systematic scientific research. Steiner investigated many concrete cases of reincarnation. He also investigated an earlier incarnation of Richard Wagner himself. And the results of this research inspired another artist. Gérard Mortier, the Belgian director and leader of the Salzburg Festival, who died a few years ago said in an interview in the newspaper Die Zeit, how he had actually found his way to Wagner’s Tristan through having learned of what Steiner had said about Wagner’s earlier
And what did Steiner reveal? Richard Wagner had had, amongst others, an earlier incarnation as the great sorcerer and magician Merlin.
Something of the magic of Merlin returns in the magic of Richard Wagner’s music.
The musical motif of the magic of Good Friday
I would like to close the all-too brief sketch by indicating something about the musical motif of the Good Friday sorcerer in the third act. After Parsifal has revealed himself, Kundry has washed his feet, and Gurnemanz has anointed him - everything changes. Even nature. Development is not just human. Development is also expressed throughout nature, that is, in concrete terms, in the realm of the elements and its beings. For the sake of man’s development, these beings have, in a certain way, allowed themselves to be locked in a prison; they are, as it were, exiled from their spiritual home. But they expect man will free them one day. Gurnemanz says that nature is “purged”. Nature is in a state of expectation of joy. And now there are about twenty or twenty-five bars, where the music is immensely solemn, tender, and quiet, while nature blossoms in the magic of Good Friday.
Rudolf Steiner once said to a companion at a performance Parsifal: “Pay attention here! The music that comes now is as though inspired by the being of the Grail itself.”
Thus, Wagner’s Good Friday magic leaves far behind everything that is merely Catholic, where a mood of suffering and guilt prevail. Everything here is the seed
of new life - everything in man, but also everything in nature.
The holy spear
Finally, I shall read a few lines about the holy lance, which plays the key role in the wounding and the healing of Amfortas. It is the lance which had been thrust into Christ, from where the pure blood came from the wound. For Amfortas, who had been seduced by Kundry and had ben fatally wounded with it Klingsor, it had been wrested from Klingsor. Parsifal now brings back. And he says:
“Only one weapon suffices -
The wound is healed only by the spear That caused it.“
And he says to Amfortas:
“Be whole, purified and atoned!
For I now perform your office.
Blessed be your suffering
Which gave the timid fool
Compassion’s highest power,
And the might of purest knowledge!”
Now Parsifal has really become knowledgeable through compassion – and powerful, in the good sense, in the sense of white magic. –
I thank you for your attention!
A few impressions of the two performances on 8 and 10 July
On 8 July I saw the third of the total of four first performances in Bulgaria.
The conductor was Constantin Trinks, the director Palmen Kartaloff.
The acoustics of the Opera House are excellent. Both in the upper circle and in a front stalls seat the sound was flawless. The orchestra and singers rehearsed by Trimborn gave balanced performances. It was a rare homogeneity of orchestra, singers and choirs. Trimborn and Kartaloff are to be thanked that this was no embarrassing piece of ‘director’s licence’. (Regietheater). It had a unique, stylized stage design using modern lighting effects, but without the unfortunately usual pressure of having to submit to some politically or otherwise “contemporary”, and mostly arbitrary, directorial interpretation. Even if in the interests of some symbolic formations one might want to omit something - like a beautiful visible chalice, or the dove in the third act etc., everything was there to serve the poetry and the music, and not to distract from it.
This basic approach was clear also with the singers and in the orchestra and the choir.
In addition, the direction encouraged sequences of movements which are hardly seen in Wagner performances elsewhere, which often leads to protected immobility of gesture. These movements were particularly admirable in the second act, for example, with Kundry.
Thus, the viewer was able to watch the music drama vividly and with constant interest, supported by subtitles in Bulgarian and English, for Wagner’s music without text is like coffee without caffeine.
All in all: a great atmospheric unity of singers and musicians, which also - in both performances - transferred to the whole audience. The audience listened and watched with genuine Slavic devotion and anticipation. The applause after the fourth and last performance was especially persistent and heartfelt.
The only performances of Parsifal that I know in Central Europe that have been comparable in dignity with those in Sofia are the ones held every Good Friday in
The organiser, Diana Botucharova, with T.H. Meyer
However, lacking dynamic movement, with little clear articulation in most of the voices and without subtitles they bear little comparison with the real attention that
could be experienced in Sofia.
It is to be hoped that such performances will take place regularly in Sofia – both the composer and the public would thus be saved from the sufferings of Amfortas that have to be endured in Regietheater productions. In this sense the Parsifal premières in Sofia were examplary.
Next summer Der Ring der Nibelungen and Tristan will be performed in Sofia. Further information from the website:
Parsifal and the Overcoming of Evil