How Are We Moved and Why Do We Like it?–with notes on the death of tragedy.

In my very first working post (“Traviata 1,” Aug. 4, 2017), I confessed that despite my dislike—on grounds not only of taste, but of artistic principle—of  Willy Decker’s production, there were moments in the Act 2 finale and the final scene when I found myself moved. I also had to admit that while I am often moved by these same passages, even in poorish performances, and attribute this mostly to the power of Verdi’s music to override the failings of his interpreters (and, on this occasion, the generally sour, resistant mood the production had put me in), I couldn’t indulge myself in denial: there had to be something in the production and performance that at least contributed to my emotional response. I was also aware that whenever I attend or listen to a performance of La Traviata, I am hoping for something like this response at these junctures; that although the emotion is of deep sadness, evoked by representations of cruelty, shattered love, and mortality itself, I enjoy having it and am disappointed when I don’t; and finally that this enjoyment or disappointment is a starting-point (though that only) for critical evaluation. I intended to pursue this subject in “Traviata 2,” but did not. Now’s a good time.

I was talking recently with a friend about François Girard’s production of Parsifal, which is returning to the Met this season. It’s another representation I object to on principle, whether I’m moved or not. And I’m always moved by Parsifal, because at certain places the music invariably overtakes all other considerations. In that sense, being moved has nothing to do with my opinion, so I concede the former and hold to the latter. But my friend was moved, specifically, by certain production choices. One was that in Girard’s auteurial universe, Kundry gets to be the officiant at the end. Wagner says she doesn’t, but Girard says she does, and since it’s Girard’s show, he holds the high cards. My friend felt that this choice contradicted only the letter, not the spirit, of Wagner’s apparently nullified law, and was moved to see Kundry dispensing the nourishing radiance. “She has to be redeemed!”, he said.

There’s a thread here, about women in the realm of the Grail, which I may take up after I’ve been to this year’s Parsifal revival. And one can’t very well be in the business of invalidating someone else’s emotional responses. For my money, Kundry should stay on the floor,  because her redemption inheres simply in being released from the centuries, eons, of agony to which she has been condemned for a blasphemy, and the only release is through death. There is plenty to explore in this notion; we don’t have to agree with it or like it. But it belonged to RW, and like another W, he’s the Decider in this pretty basic matter, according to my code of artistic ethics. (Which of the principal characters completes the work’s central action is well beyond the “Joe averts her gaze and frowns” level of stage direction, I would think.) Nonetheless, this little disagreement serves to remind me that I, too, was moved, as always, at the end of this Parsifal, this despite the fact that Kundry was having her mini-Resurrection. Further: this “being moved” was similar to, but not the same as, the “being moved” of La Traviata. Deeper? Not really, but different. Less personal, more “universal.” And while La Traviata is a tragedy of a peculiarly operatic sort, Parsifal, though marinated in tragic juices, isn’t. It’s a drama of redemption that shares the Christian dream of redeeming the world. That makes it one of a handful of outliers on the edge of the Romantic metanarrative.