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Television shares with cinema the possibility of presenting an opera in any location, but, more often than not, it relies on filming a live performance in the opera house. It is not necessarily for economic reasons that it does so; it is also because the reproduction of a live performance perpetuates the immediacy the spectator, now sitting in his comfortable chair at home, would have experienced in the theater at the time of the première. While invested with the power to objectify the action onstage, the camera compensates for the monotony of a fixed point of view by means of a pluralistic reading, as though the spectator could sit simultaneously at several points in the theater and zoom in on various details of the scene through a virtual opera glass. The viewer becomes a hyper-spectator because the camera endows him with the power of embracing the totality of the representation. Is this god-like condition an enhancement of the visual faculties one has in the opera house? If the medium were an interactive one, letting the spectator trace his or her own visual path, the answer would likely be positive. However, television (and film) offers a "predigested" selection of focal points from which the action is recorded and interpreted. Strangely, this makes Edison’s way of filming the opera (Parsifal, 1904) the most faithful to actual production in a theater and thus more closely allied to Wagner’s original concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk.

Between film and live broadcast is a third way of telecasting opera: the studio production. As Herbert Graf, director of production at the Metropolitan Opera House (1936-1960), asserted, studio production offers the best way of realizing both virtues of television: participation of the spectator in the actual performance and the use of new artistic and technical production methods inherent in the new medium [2, p. 225]. Though it is not exactly clear what Graf meant by "technical production methods", we can infer that pre-scoring and post-synching (the latter being common also in cinema), as described in a later passage, are two of the main features of a television production. Pre-scoring and post-synching have been used throughout the sixty years of television history, but studio recordings are often more successful despite the numerous detractors among critics and directors who dislike that kind of production. Both methods have the advantage of providing the best conditions for a realistic representation: performers do not strive at singing and can concentrate on acting, their facial expressions respond to the logic of emotions rather than the effort of singing, and, finally, their physical appearance can match that of the characters (by replacing the singer with an actor endowed with a more fitting appearance). Unfortunately, as Jennifer Barnes writes (quoting Lionel Salter), even when the singers themselves mime to a playback of their voices, their synchronization is very rarely faultless and their comportment fails to lend conviction to the pretence that they really are singing [1, p. 45]. While Syberberg transformed these flaws into a stylistic trait (Parsifal, 1982), in the television productions they seem to be merely a remainder of technological procedures, an unintentional disjoining of sound and image.

The 1991 Met production of Parsifal was staged almost ninety years after the first American mounting of the Wagnerian drama, the same one that incurred legal troubles due to the Bayreuth copyright and which is at the origin of Edison’s film version (the booklet contained in the DVD box released in 1993 stresses this historical continuity by showing images of the old New York première). A comparison of images of the original staging with the frames from the Edison movie confirms that the scenery in both opera and film is virtually the same. Even in the more recent Met production, the stage director Otto Schenk evidently wanted to maintain a strong link with this tradition. Indeed, some scenarios clearly recall the imagery used for the first time in 1903: Act I opens in a wood-and-swamp setting with gigantic, straight tree trunks very much like Monsalvat’s columns in Edison’s Parsifal (in fact, during the transformation music the trunks convert to the castle’s pillars and dispose themselves in a semi-circle); Klingsor’s castle is very close to Edison’s because both of them iconographically refer to the model of Piranesi’s Le Carceri, while being less complex in architectural structure but not in ominous and solidly imposing appearance; the colorful luxuriance of floral decorations in the Flower Maidens’ garden as opposed to the monochrome aspect of other scenes also reflects the aesthetic choices made by the stage director at the beginning of the last century. Overall, there is a marked predilection for central symmetry that requires specific directorial decisions, mainly setting the action in the middle of the stage.

Brian Large, a doyen of televised opera, characteristically placed cameras at multiple points in the theater. His direction, like the whole opera production (scenery, costumes, acting, etc.), is conservative; that is, it reduces the possibilities offered by video technology to an unobtrusive presence of the medium. The 180° rule of classical Hollywood cinema is always respected, as if the imaginary line separating the audience from the place of action cannot be traversed. Nevertheless, two events in Parsifal suggest and require some theatrical artifice that television promptly exploits and boosts: the Act I transformation music (the passage from the wood to the interior of Monsalvat castle) and a similar situation at the end of Act III when Parsifal, the new Savior, is led by Gurnemanz to renew the rite of the Grail. The former scene is probably created by means of three images projected on the backdrop which scroll from the center to both sides. I say probably because the enchanting visual effect is enhanced and blurred by slow cross-fades that are typical of narrative transitions in film and video. The scene from Act III is less clear with regard to its construction. The grass that welcomes Parsifal on his return stretches from the stage to the background, but the line of the horizon clearly separates the grass in the bottom part of the image from that painted on the backdrop. As soon as Parsifal, Gurnemanz and Kundry abandon the scene, the lights fade, leaving the back in complete obscurity and the front in a sort of twilight brightness. Some pictorial elements of the grass now become components of an abstract texture that soon invades the whole screen. Taking into account the lack of depth (namely, the absence of the perspective effect between background and foreground), the effect could be realized in the theater by a projection on a semi-transparent screen and an appropriate use of lights. However, the drastic cross-fade to the stony, bluish castle that follows shows the previous grass image as a small part of the whole scene. Therefore, it seems that the texture effect, whose size we thought to be the size of the scenic frame, is likely the result of a deep zooming that the theater audience cannot see. Even in a traditional setting, the conservative Brian Large (surely more conservative than the often shocking Chéreau, Russell or Wilson) does not reject the advantages television production offers in terms of image manipulation. Nonetheless, his hand is always very sober, and even when he uses visual effects, he does it in a way of which the spectator is barely conscious, so as not to disrupt the viewer’s entry into Wagner’s mythic world.

Thomas Grimm adopted similar solutions in shooting the Parsifal production at the Festspielhaus of Baden-Baden (2004). Like Large, Grimm starts with a shot of the theater’s facade in order to locate spatially the place of the performance, to announce that what we are going to see is a fiction and to accompany the television spectator along the path that the opera spectator must follow in order to see the show (implicitly identifying the first with the second). Significantly, both directors avoid overlapping a realistic shot with background music; only the sound of the big fountain in front of the Met and the evening quiet of the Festspielhaus’ square introduce the performances to come.

No special effects are used in the filming. Even where they could be invoked (i. e., for the transformation music), Grimm opts for a plain direction so that what we see on the screen is exactly what happened in the theater. Whereas Large makes use of cross-fades, Grimm focuses on close-ups of the characters with the consequent result of delivering a quite static representation of the scene and preventing the spectator from appreciating those changes of scenario that constitute one of the most spectacular aspects of theatrical performance. Grimm is not the only one to be blamed for this shortcoming. Very arguably, the stage director, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, wanted both Gurnemanz and Parsifal to stand (and inexplicably to rock as if they were on King Marke’s boat) at the center of the stage during the whole transformation music. The long instrumental piece is indeed meant to sustain attention through harmonic and timbral dynamism. No distracting human activity is required because no dramatic action is expected other than the scenic change produced by the hidden machinery. Due to Gurnemanz and Parsfal’s cumbersome presence on the stage, for some reason Grimm feels compelled to aim his cameras at two characters who are not supposed to receive such close attention.

Lehnhoff’s interpretation invests the whole Wagnerian myth with an existential reading of the concepts of atonement and redemption. Amfortas, Gurnemanz and the other knights of the Holy Grail no longer compose a community devoted to the beneficent protection of a moral order. They are no longer either open to the outer world or willing to welcome whoever ingenuously and fortuitously penetrates into their realm. They are only interested in finding the one who will save them from annihilation; any other intrusion in their miserable lives is perceived as a disturbance and, as such, rejected. In this context Parsifal, Kundry and Gurnemanz (as the sole links between the knights and the world) play a new, crucial role. In particular, the enigmatic Kundry leads Parsifal and other Grail knights back into the tunnel of mankind at whose end a faint glimmer of hope can just be discerned. On the other hand, Parsifal, "an impulse of nature", functions as an invader into a decadent and dead world, whose rituals have become meaningless and where all missionary consciousness has been lost [from the booklet of Parsifal. Waldron, Heathfield, East Sussex: Opus Arte, 2005 DVD]. His arrival is the sign of a rebirth "after the mass destruction" (as Lehnhoff calls it) that struck the Earth. We do not know what happened (an atomic war, or maybe a natural catastrophe caused by a divine authority), but it is probably the institutionalization of rituals and ideology that is the cause of world decadence.

Parsifal arrives as an anarchic force in a place abandoned by God. He finds a group of strange people whose way of dressing and living recalls the underground existence of the survivors in an apocalyptic science-fiction movie. Raimund Bauer, the designer, sets this pitiful humanity against a reinforced concrete wall riddled by gun-shots. An enormous and mysterious meteorite dominates the scene through a breach in the bunker wall and it retreats only under the magic touch of Kundry. The alienation we feel as spectators is similar to that experienced while watching futuristic movies, such as Blade Runner (1982) by Ridley Scott, Terminator (1984) by James Cameron, or 28 Days Later (2002) by Danny Boyle. In these films, replicants, robots and zombies respectively are all agents of a superhuman doom that destroyed mankind and attempted to rule the planet in its stead, as if there were a god somewhere trying to replace his old creation with a more sophisticated and robust one. Klingsor’s reign acts in an analogous way as a machine that slowly but systematically overcomes the one who gave it power — Amfortas, whose moral weakness stands for the weakness of all human beings.

Far from claming that such movies are the direct offspring of Wagner’s sagas, it is worth noticing how they share similar content and narrative constructions with Parsifal and contribute to the iconographical baggage that Bauer utilizes to support Lehnhoff’s eschatological interpretation. Desolated landscapes, deserted towns, and ruins of past glories are all ingredients of an imaginary scenery which often accompanies reflection on possible (if unpleasant) future worlds. The end seems near, but thanks to the instinct of self-preservation, humanity manages to leave in these post-apocalyptic worlds survivors who are always on the edge of extermination and perpetually wait for the savior of their species. What Lehnhoff expects at this point is neither the beginning of a new religion nor the death of ideologies. He knows only that nothing is certain any more and it is now up to us to embark on this new journey [ibid.]. Parsifal, the wild, innocent outsider, joins Kundry in showing his fellows the path towards life.

An important contribution to Wagner and cinema is the book edited by Jeongwon Joe and Sander L. Gilman
(Wagner & Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010).
Many of the authors cited in the article are gathered in this text that offers a panoramic view on a large array of Wagnerian aspects connected to cinema,
although not specifically to Edison and Syberberg or TV productions.

Works cited

  1. Barnes, Jennifer. “Television Opera: A Non History” / A Night in at the Opera: Media Representations of Opera / ed. by Jeremy Tambling. L.: John Libbey, 1994. P. 25-51.
  2. Graf, Herbert. Opera for the People. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1951. 289 pp.


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