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Opera Club: ‘Parsifal’ and ‘La Juive’

Paul von Joukowksky painting of the Hall of the Holy Grail

This week’s Opera Club viewing suggestions are Wagner’s Parsifal as the classic, and  Halévy’s La Juive as the discovery.  If you have any questions or would like to discuss the productions, please do comment on our Facebook and Twitter feeds and we’ll get back to you!

Richard Wagner
Bavarian State Opera, Munich


In moments of collective crisis, we look to people of extraordinary ability for the rescue: we need heroes. Heroes come in different shapes, and lie in the eye of the beholder. They might be nurses and doctors, they might be climate activists, they might be soldiers. Uniting heroes of all kinds and times is a quality of singularity, a skill set that sets them apart, makes them unreachable, maybe even transcendental?

Richard Wagner’s strong interest in heroes is evident throughout his career as a composer of “Musiktheater”. It culminated in his last opera, Parsifal, which made the search for a “true hero” the focal point of this truly epic “Gesamtkunstwerk” – the only work he specifically wrote for his Festspielhaus in Bayreuth (premiere 1882). Wagner’s libretto is based on the medieval poem of the same name by Wolfram von Eschenbach, and its protagonist: the young, naïve man Parsifal, who is chosen by destiny to save the Kingdom of the Grail.

The opera narrative can seem dizzyingly complex, but revolves around a few central characters. King Amfortas worries about his Kingdom, and its most valuable treasure: the holy Grail, a stone with miraculous powers. When fighting his arch enemy, the magician Klingsor, Amfortas was seduced by Klingsor’s ally Kundry, and subsequently wounded by a magic spear that prevents the wound from healing. Amfortas orders Gurnemanz, a veteran Knight of the Grail, to look for his saviour, who was defined by a divine prophecy as a “pure fool made wise by suffering.” Gurnemanz believes he recognises the young Parsifal, who was spotted shooting a holy swan, as the “pure fool” and brings him to the Castle of the Grail. When questioned, Parsifal proves oblivious to his transgression, but begins to realise his mistake when he feels pity for the animal he killed. Later however, when Parsifal seemingly fails to react appropriately to witnessing the uncovering of the Grail and Amfortas’ cry of agony, Gurnemanz chases him out. On his aimless wanders, Parsifal reaches Klingsor’s realm, where the magician orders Kundry to woo him and bring about his downfall. Will Parsifal prove to be the hero that can save the Kingdom of the Grail against dark forces?

Parsifal is densely populated with mythological references, Christian and Buddhist symbolism, romantic motifs, and – in the eye of some – pre-fascist thought. The opera continues to fascinate and puzzle audiences, critics and academics. Musically, Wagner clearly establishes contrasting spaces: Amfortas’ Kingdom of the good against the Klingsor’s realm of the evil. He assigns strong musical themes to the Grail, to the characters, and to several emotional states, such as Parsifal’s pity, or Kundry’s longing.

The production in Munich boasts several outstanding regulars at the Bavarian State Opera, such as tenor Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal), baritone Christian Gerhaher (Amfortas) and soprano Nina Stemme as Kundry. Kirill Petrenko conducts the stellar Bayerisches Staatsorchester. The director is Pierre Audi.

Fromental Halévy
La Juive (The Jew)

Libretto by Eugène Scribe
Opera Ballet Vlaanderen


Some ancient conflicts are painfully modern. Halévy’s grand opéra La Juive certainly hits a nerve in its commentary on societal intolerance towards the “Other”. In their dismissal of those representing difference, the characters in La Juive call on God – each meaning a different one, but each believing to have been given divine consent for their behaviour. Within a society driven by prejudice and populist thought, the individual’s attempt of establishing acceptance and openness is challenged by the masses. In La Juive, it is especially the older characters, who fail to look behind the surface of religious customs and community membership in their blind rejection of those they deem alien – with tragic consequences.

Eugène Scribe very consciously placed his narrative during a synod in 1414, a historic event designed to smooth the cracks between different strands of Christian practice: a time of conflict and judgement. Against this backdrop, we encounter a Jewish goldsmith (Eléazar) and his daughter (Rachel), who are observed working on a Christian holiday and subsequently face a death sentence for committing blasphemy. When Cardinal Brogni enters, he recognises Eléazar as a past acquaintance, and releases both prisoners. A young man, Prince Léopold, follows them. He is attracted to Rachel, who knows him as the Jewish painter Samuel – a false identity. When the public, led by Brogni, once again demands Eléazar’s death, Léopold manages to appease their anger.

By night, the Jewish community – including Léopold – secretly celebrate Passover at Eléazar’s house. They are interrupted by the arrival of Princess Eudoxie, who has been chosen a husband and has come to commission a gold necklace as a wedding present. When alone with Rachel, Léopold reveals himself to be a Christian. Eléazar overhears the scene. After much debate, he is willing to give the couple his blessing, but Léopold – suddenly angst-ridden – declines and hurriedly leaves.

By day, Eléazar and Rachel deliver the necklace to Eudoxie’s house, where the family celebrates the princess’s engagement to Leopold. Rachel publicly accuses him of infidelity. Eléazar, Rachel and Léopold are arrested and face death penalty. In prison, Cardinal Brogni and Eléazar meet again. Brogni tries to convince Eléazar to convert to Christianity to save his daughter. Eléazar reclines and reveals that Brogni’s daughter, who the Cardinal thought dead, was indeed rescued from a fire by a Jewish man…Will the two men reach out to each other to prevent tragedy?

Halévy’s five-act opera is a prime example of French grand opéra in its setting of a historically-inspired, tragic story, and its combination of large-scale dramatic choir scenes and intimate duets. The production by Peter Knowitschny and his design team capture perfectly the stigma of difference, and the arbitrary nature of marginalisation. The cast is superb, including sopranos Corinne Winters (Rachel) and Nicole Chevalier (Princess Eudoxie), and tenors Roy Cornelius Smith (Eléazar) and Enea Scala (Léopold). Musical director is Antonio Fogliani.


Last week’s online opera club suggestions if you missed them: Puccini’s Tosca and Handel’s Rodrigo: