Operatic Beauty for Earth Day

Wie dünkt mich doch die Aue heut so schön!…

“How fair seem the meadows today!… never did I see so fresh and charming the grass, the blossoms and flowers, nor did they smell so sweet of youth or speak with such tender love to me.”

With these words spoken by Parsifal begins the “Good Friday Spell” in the third act of Richard Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal. The music is of an unearthly beauty that even Wagner had never achieved in his previous works.

Kundry washes the feet of Parsifal while Gurnemanz reflects on the beauty of Good Friday in a 19th century painting.
Kundry washes the feet of Parsifal while Gurnemanz reflects on the beauty of Good Friday in a 19th or early 20th century painting.

“Das ist Karfreitagszauber, Herr” replies the elderly Gurnemanz. “That is the magic of Good Friday, my lord!” Parsifal is reminded of what Good Friday means and is moved to correct his admiration of the meadows. Nature should not be so beautiful on this saddest of days: “Alas for that day of utmost grief! Now, I feel, should all that blooms and breathes and lives should only mourn and weep!”

But Gurnemanz corrects him in a sustained passage of incredible poetic and musical beauty:

You see, it is not so… Now all creation rejoices at the Saviour’s sign of love and dedicates to Him its prayer. No more can it see Him on the Cross; it looks up to humankind redeemed, freed from the burden of sin and terror, made clean and whole through God’s loving sacrifice. Now grasses and flowers in the meadow know that today the foot of man will not tread them down, but will step on them softly. Thus all creation gives thanks, all that here blooms and soon fades, now that nature is absolved from sin and gains its day of innocence. (Lionel Salter translation, slightly modified and shortened)

Today is Earth Day. Next week it will be the Orthodox Good Friday, the Great and Holy Friday of our Lord’s death on the Cross. Wagner’s extraordinary third act of Parsifal brings these two days in our own calendar together in a magnificent vision of nature’s redemption and sanctification inseparably from the redemption and sanctification of humanity. This is also the vision of St. Paul in the 8th chapter of his epistle to the Romans:

 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons and daughters of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons and daughters, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Wagner’s Good Friday scene echoes St. Paul’s message. Wagner shares the same vision of liturgical harmony between nature and human beings that inspired Papadiamantis in Greece (see previous post today).

Unfortunately, most modern stagings of Wagner’s Parsifal give us no vision of beauty. The music and the words remain, but the visual beauty is gone. Most often, today’s productions of Parsifal set the scene in some sort of post-apocalyptic time of environmental or nuclear devastation. It is certainly a sign of our own time to turn beauty into ugliness. But our earth is still beautiful; it has not been destroyed yet. We can still turn the fate of our planet around. And that is the annual message of Earth Day.

We Orthodox have a clear understanding of earth’s holiness and our need to be in harmony with God’s creation. We do not preach an individualistic and escapist gospel. Nor do we practice an inward-looking, self-absorbed spirituality. Our vision of life is liturgical. The earth itself is a sacrament of God’s presence and deifying grace.

Modern stage productions of Parsifal are ugly and dystopian, because it seems the artistic world has lost its sense of beauty. Indeed, most of us living in western societies have become cynical and pessimistic – cynical about politics and daily life, pessimistic about the future survival of the planet and life on it. Today, more than ever, we need to remind ourselves of what Dostoyevsky said: Beauty will save the world.

The Karajan recording of Parsifal on Deutsche Grammophon (click to enlarge)

Regardless of how Parsifal is staged, the beauty remains in the music. And in my opinion the most beautiful recording of this opera remains the Karajan recording from 1980. No conductor ever achieved such unearthly beauty and splendor in an orchestra, and no cast ever sung with greater conviction and understanding. To hear the great German bass Kurt Moll sing the words of Gurnemanz quoted above is to enter the reality of creation transformed, transfigured, and ourselves with it.

Happy Earth Day! And may our own Good Friday next week speak of God’s gift to us, a home to call our own and to love with the love of Christ.

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