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Wagners last completed opera. Conceived in 1857, only to be first performed at Bayreuth in 1882. Wagner called it a Bühnenweihfestspiel, a festival for the consecration of a stage. It was never to be performed outside of Bayreuth, let alone played from Spotify. The sacrilege!

Four hours and 20 minutes. This is one of those classic operas that takes ages. I think there might be a fat lady in there somewhere, and she is singing, but taking her time also. Yet, I found that when I saw it on stage, I was entertained, I kept being interested, and time went fast.

Solti made a very good recording here. Decca did a superb job delivering a wide staged sound with the limited technology of the time. It still stands as a hallmark of opera recording, and is widely available on streaming (including a high density studio quality in 96kHz / 24 bits).

Wagner wrote his last opera on the basis of the thirteenth century epic poem Parzifal by Wolfram von Eschenbach. The story is in very short: Knight of the round table Parsifal is looking for the holy grail and does heroic things on his way to get there.

I was not able to detect in the vocal parts of Parsifal anything that might with confidence be called rhythm or tune or melody… Singing! It does seem the wrong name to apply to it… In Parsifal there is a hermit named Gurnemanz who stands on the stage in one spot and practices by the hour, while first one and then another of the cast endures what he can of it and then retires to die.

Mark Twain after seeing Parsifal in 1891

There is a tradition in Bayreuth that says there should be no applause after the first act. It seems that Wagner went on stage after the first act of the first performance, saying that the cast would make no curtain calls until after the whole performance. The audience didn’t applaud from the confusion, even though Wagner told later that they could do.

For the first twenty years the opera was not to be performed outside of Bayreuth. A rule that was kept by Wagners widow Cosima, but ignored in several performances in London, New York and Amsterdam. In 1903 a complete stage version was brought to the Metropolitan in New York, with many singers that were also in Bayreuth. Cosima reacted by banning those from ever working in Bayreuth again. She lifted the ban in 1914 however. The reason for this special treatment was that many parts of the opera were actually written with the shape of the theatre in Bayreuth in mind. Bayreuth was in many way a revolutionary opera stage, and Wagner wanted only the best for his sacred opera.

In closing, if you talk about Wagner, you cannot in good conscience ignore his dark side. Yes, his music was favourite among many nazis, and he was Hitlers favourite composer. Also, he was an activist, writing nasty anti-semitic pamphlets. When the first performance was to be conducted by a jew, Wagner protested, claiming that he got complaints that of all pieces, this most Christian of works should be conducted by a jew.

Many things can be said about this, and have been. Was Wagner voicing here the opinion of the time? No doubt. Were there others sharing that opinion? Yes, alas. Are his works themselves anti-semitic? I highly doubt it. Should we stop listening to them? Emphatically no.

Among the many different kind of operas that have been created, Wagners’ stand out. They are monumental pieces of music that deserve to be studied, but most of all, enjoyed.

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