Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday

Since Alex Ross devoted today’s post to his The Rest is Noise to an audio clip from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 4 cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, I figured that a shout-out was due to another media source recognizing Good Friday on a totally different, but equally relevant, axis.  That source is SiriusXM Radio and their Metropolitan Opera Radio channel.  As an early riser, I was able to appreciate that they chose to begin the day with a broadcast of a performance of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal given in the Metropolitan Opera House on April 20, 1974.  The conductor was William Steinberg;  and the leading soloists were Jess Thomas (Parsifal), Janis Martin (Kundry), and Thomas Stewart (Gurnemanz).

It is important to remember that Wagner never called Parsifal an “opera.”  As I observed last October in my review of the live recording taken from the Mariinsky Concert Hall under the direction of Valery Gergiev, Wagner called the work “‘ein Bühnenweihfestspiel,’ which its Wikipedia entry translates as ‘A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage.’”  I can imagine that this must have fit nicely into Wagner’s vision of his Bayreuth Festspielhaus;  but, in the context of my somewhat anthropological view of the rich and mighty, I have never really thought of the Met as a site to be consecrated.  Furthermore, I remember an old Opera News article by Michael Steinberg, which observed that Wagner did most of his work on this piece in a perfumed bath.

In spite of these factors, I have never really taken to revisionist productions that try to debunk the undercurrents of faith in the libretto for this music.  (Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s cinematic conception of the piece probably remains the most ludicrous case in point.)  In any interpretation that does not maliciously distort the basic narrative, even an atheist can appreciate the fundamental role of ritual in the plot line and the ways in which Wagner’s music establishes that role.  Indeed, the music for Good Friday has absolutely nothing to do with the Crucifixion.  It is an orchestral depiction of the return of spring, whose descriptive capacity can be just as effective in the abstract setting of a concert hall as on the most imaginatively equipped opera stage.

Without intending to offend any Christian readers, I would say that there is a perfectly good atheist reading of this narrative.  The plot line is ultimately about rebirth of hope in a time of despair.  Considering current conditions around the world, we could do with a lot more performances of this work right now!

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