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The Searchers of the Grail - A Tony Palmer film
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal (opera - excerpts)
Parsifal - Plácido Domingo; Kundry - Violeta Urmana; Gurnemanz - Matti Salminen; Klingsor - Nicolai Putilin; Amfortas - Deodor Mojhaev
Kirov Orchestra and Choir/Valery Gergiev
rec. Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg. No date supplied: 1998?
PCM Stereo; picture format 4.3; region: worldwide.
ARTHAUS MUSIK 109081 Blu-ray [88:00]

It is some 32 years since Tony Palmer made his colossal nine-hour epic film of the life of Wagner starring Richard Burton in the title role. Here he uses some footage from this epic when he revisits the composer with a film about the search for the Holy Grail, This is centred on excerpts from Parsifal with Domingo in the title role and Urmana as Gundry with the Kirov Choir and Orchestra conducted by Gergiev.

The Holy Grail was the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper and it was believed that his blood was gathered within it as it dripped from his crucified body. Different legends located the cup in diverse places including Spain and Glastonbury in England where it was supposed to have been taken by Joseph of Arimathea. In a concentrated span of less than 90 minutes Palmer tells us much more about the Grail and its significance. He covers the self-aggrandising search for the Grail by Adolf Hitler and contrasts the purer selfless motive of Indiana Jones - played by Harrison Ford - in Steven Spielberg’s 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Hitler had identified himself with Parsifal believing that the true meaning of the Wagner work was the conviction that, for Germany, a true Aryan race was to be desired at the expense of the elimination of Jewish influence. Palmer calls upon Karen Armstrong, a Biblical Scholar to cover the legends surrounding the Grail. These started circulating in the thirteenth century. Later the true altruistic meaning of the Grail is argued with Domingo echoing Wagner’s actual words in his Parsifal libretto: “Through suffering, knowledge. Through knowledge, compassion. Through compassion, love.”

The film includes footage taken in the beautiful gardens of the Villa Rufolo in Ravello, Italy above Amalfi where Wagner was inspired to write Parsifal and within the Wagner theatre in Bayreuth where the composer’s grandson, Wolfgang Wagner, explains how the theatre was specially redesigned to accommodate the exact sound and staging Wagner required for this, his last opera.

The excerpts include external location-filmed scenes. Understandably the emotional impact of the whole is lost in viewing only parts of this powerfully emotional work. These very much simplify the complex story: first we witness the killing of the swan by the hapless boy Parsifal near the enchanted lake where Amfortas is bathing his wound but in vain. The wound had been inflicted by the spear that had pierced Christ’s side on the cross. The next excerpt is set at the communion service in the Temple. From Act II, Klingsor, the evil sorcerer summons his flower-maidens, then Kundry, to seduce Parsifal. They fail because Parsifal recognises his mission to rescue Amfortas. Klingsor reappears and hurls the spear at Parsifal who seizes it and making the sign of the cross causing Klingsor’s garden and castle to disappear. The final excerpt, from Act III is set in the temple again. Amfortas is cured when Parsifal touches his wound with the Holy Spear. Kundry is redeemed and Parsifal becomes the new leader of the Knights of the Temple.

The juxtaposition of realistic filmed locations and obvious stage-sets look odd and jar but the principals with the usual age caveats impress. Domingo recorded as Parsifal for DG in 2005 and our reviewer, Tony Hayward’s comments very much apply here. Urmana makes a compelling Kundry.

The coverage of the legends and the meaning of the Holy Grail ultimately provide the main point of interest of Tony Palmer’s stimulating film.

Ian Lace



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