Monday, December 5, 2005

The Suckiest Pile of Suck That Ever Sucked - Parsifal at Los Angeles Opera

Richard Wagner and Robert Wilson would seem to be a perfect artistic match—they both have no sense of humor, the same initials, they both have a stutter (in Wilson’s case, literally and figuratively; with Wagner, only figuratively), and they both want to deny their participation in their chosen artform by acting as if they are somehow above it. This, of course, means that they are both douches of the highest caliber. Wagner wanted his operas to “appear out of the ether”; he hated the “business of costumes and makeup”, and all his energy went into creating this Gesamtkunstwerk, a seamless (and, in his eyes, perfect) piece of music. Parsifal is pretty seamless musically; it’s not broken up into arias or set pieces, so it might have conformed to what Wagner wanted. But the fact is that opera is a visual art as well as an aural one. If Wagner didn’t want to be bothered with sets and costumes and actors, he should’ve written cantatas or symphonies with vocal pieces in them. Maybe neither of those two forms could’ve contained the sheer amount of what Wagner wanted to write though. He seems infatuated with the sound of his own music and the sound of the words he wrote coming out of singers. Even the famous last chords of his operas seem to go on forever, as if he just.can’t.let.go. The problem is, in all his rage to create this Gesamtkunstwerk, Wagner never became a truly great composer. His fans are so rabid that I expected some kind of revelatory experience, some orgiastic heights, a little dazzling complexity, but Wagner is a jack of all trades and the master of none. Debussy and Bartok were both better at creating pictures with sound; Berlioz and Tchaikovsky were better at sheer Romantic bluster; Beethoven was more truly passionate, Mozart more complex and intricate, and Bach captured the desire of men to reach God through music more completely. I’m not saying that Wagner was a hack; some of his music is truly beautiful and great, but it’s just not any better or more special than, say, Verdi’s or even Puccini’s (though both of them, arguably, were better at using music to dramatize a plot than Wagner). To break out the English teacher’s favorite saying: Quantity isn’t the same as quality.

Wilson had a stutter as a child, and while he apparently overcame it with dance, he still is an artistic stutterer, only now the stuttering has taken on a masturbatory quality. We all know that nothing good ever comes of being a stutterer—you end up being hung for accidentally killing a Master-at-Arms, or being impaled on an oddly scissor-shaped coffee table, or being poisoned by your niece/wife and her batshit-crazy son, or you turn out to be Bill Walton. Wilson claims to not “like the theater much”, and his contempt of it shows. No one could completely make such a total fuck-pile out of something they loved. It appears that his dislike of the theater has extended to opera as well, as he seems bent on destroying every opera he comes in contact with. I have to wonder if he’s ever seen an opera, though it wouldn’t surprise me if he hadn’t—after all, John Adams, who composed the fairly egregious Doctor Atomic, says that he doesn’t listen to or attend the opera. Wilson seems to be stuck in a loop (or maybe he’s just an idiot); he’s seemingly on a quest to homogenize opera, which is at once futile and completely retarded. At least Achim Freyer’s ideas are creative in that they’re different (who else would use a Standard Poodle of Death, for fuck’s sake?), and they were refreshingly mockable. All of Wilson’s productions, on the other hand, look the same—Madama Butterfly is the same as Parsifal is the same as Orfeo is the same as Pelléas et Mélisande. You see the retardation? It’s like trying to use a mold to make a sculpture, forcing different media into the same mold. What works with copper won’t work with marble.

Seeing Parsifal at LA Opera on Saturday night was the first time I have ever felt angry at an opera. Well, the first time that I’ve ever felt angry at the opera itself; I’ve been pissed off at the audiences more often than I care to think about. I’ve been annoyed, disgusted, inappropriately amused, but never angry. I’m mostly inclined to lay the blame on Robert Wilson, because I’ve seen Lohengrin and The Flying Dutchman before, and while they were slow at times, at least there was stuff happening onstage. Not so with this Robert Wilson production. By the end of Act II, I was seething. I really thought I was going to rupture something and stroke out, I was so mad. When Kundry, Parsifal, and Gurnemanz left the stage in Act III, I almost wept with joy, thinking it was all over, but no, it wasn’t. A chorus of turds (or dildoes, as my mom described them) came out, and my agony was prolonged for another twenty or thirty minutes. The production is just that horrendous. I almost wished that my cough drop was concealing a serrated metal “O”, so my appendix would burst and I could be removed from the theater.

The opera opened with a long, though beautiful, overture. Wilson trotted out (though “inched out” would be more apt) one of his favorite nonsensical stage devices—a mostly nude child painted white. At first I thought that the kid was the Eater of Invisible Grubs from last year’s Madama Butterfly emerging from Kevin Spacey’s basement, but no, he was just a representative from the Ministry of Silly Walks. He slowly walked across the stage, doing random things with his legs and making a “fanning away a fart” gesture, which *anvil* would be repeated by Placido Domingo’s Parsifal. Though maybe Domingo was really fanning away a fart, because he’s kind of old, and things just don’t stay in like they should anymore.

I don’t want to sound like the Emperor in Amadeus (as played by kiddie porn enthusiast Jeffrey Jones), but Wagner wrote too much music for Parsifal. In other productions, maybe some of these musical interludes are filled with action onstage—maybe the Knights of the Holy Grail file solemnly into the hall, or maybe they perform the rituals that everyone was so scandalized by when Parsifal was first performed, but in Wilson’s production, nothing happens during those parts. Oh wait, no, I’m lying, something does happen—the characters walk in verrrrrry sloooooow circles. I guess I’m just a Type-A person because I like things to move quickly, or failing that, at a normal rate of speed. That’s why I wear my throat raw calling other drivers “douchebags”. During Parsifal, I was so tempted to start shouting, “Hurry up, you douchebags! Walk in your damn circle and get the fuck off the stage!” Even the scenery (the little there was of it) moved slowly. Something (an abstract bird of paradise, a painted-white guy on a slab, whatever) would start to inch across the stage, then it would appear to stop completely, then it would start inching along again.

There was some blah-blah-blah in the program notes about how Wilson is into “non-verbal communication”, but apparently his interest in that is the same as his interest in opera—he hates it and he wants to destroy it. None of the characters looked at each other or touched each other. In the big scene where Kundry is supposed to give Parsifal his first kiss, Wilson had her kind of stick a wand underneath Parsifal’s armpit, like she was checking his male oil or testing to see if her brownies were done. In the last act, Kundry was supposed to wash Parsifal’s feet, and he was supposed to baptize her, but they were standing at least ten feet away from each other and not even making eye contact. What the fuck?

The program also said that Parsifal is “contemplative rather than illustrative. It illuminates not a naturalistic story line, but the inner lives of the characters.” I guess, ideally, it would. One of my professors told me (after I’d complained about Kundry’s boring-ass soliloquy about Parsifal’s origins) that Kundry’s character is supposed to be delineated and grow and change as she sings that part. But if she can’t gesture naturally, move her face normally, act, for fuck’s sake, that can’t happen, especially if the singer isn’t a good vocal actor. Characters can’t grow and change if they can’t move or interact with each other. You can tell us that they’re changing until you’re blue in the face (or white, as Wilson would prefer), but we’re not going to feel it. The only “interaction” the characters are allowed (and the only staccato bits in the production) are the ridiculous, Mr. Roboto hand gestures that some of the characters have to do. These are another pointless conceit that Wilson uses over and over again. The little gestures never mean anything, and they don’t relate to the music or the libretto at all. If that’s non-verbal communication, then the characters might as well be doing bee dances and speaking in tongues for all that they or the audience can understand each other. Kundry (or maybe it was Amfortas, they were both large plum-colored masses) did something that looked like one of Conan O’Brien’s little dances, the semi-Robot one that seems to have evolved from his Al Gore impression. Can the String Dance in Robert Wilson Presents A Robert Wilson Production of Robert Wilson’s Turandot (A Robert Wilson Joint) be next?

The set design and props (or lack thereof) were also terrible. The set looked like a bunch of cords that had been taped to the floor with gaffer’s tape. Every once in a while, some stupid abstract scenery would be ponderously dragged across the floor, but that was about it. Klingsor’s tower was rather cool, and the fire in the last scene was a bit of a surprise, but the rest was monochromatic and dull. Way to turn a beautiful, vibrant flower like a bird of paradise into a rigid, gray, sharp-angled, meaningless nothing, Robert Wilson. Mother Nature is so burned. The Flower Maidens carried what looked like pickaxes or pennants instead of flowers. The holy spear that Parsifal takes from Klingsor to heal Amfortas was a fluorescent lightbulb tube that came from the ceiling on a very shaky and very visible wire. I thought Parsifal was going to go all Darth Maul like that Jedi Kid.

The Grail-y bits were confusing. Every time the Grail was supposed to be presented, a big white thing (someone much cleverer than I called it a spearmint Lifesaver) would come down (slooooowly) from the ceiling. It looked a bit like a particle accelerator from πkea made out of bathtubs. I thought maybe that was the Grail, and it was supposed to be some sort of Biblical Lazy Susan. But then Amfortas, Gurnemanz, and some shirtless guy who didn’t do shit except dumb-ass hand gestures started sloooowly walking in circles on it, so that blew my Giant Bathtub Bagel=Grail idea out of the water. The first time the Grail was opened, there was also a blue rock thing in the middle that looked like it had been stolen from the cheesy ice scene inside the Matterhorn, which I guess would make Matti Salminen’s Gurnemanz the Abominable Snowman. I was confused about which thing was supposed to be the Grail, since in my vast research (and by research, I mean watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), the Grail has always been a cup thing. Scaroth, last of the Jaggaroth (through him, his people will live again!) drank out of a cup at the end of Indiana Jones and insta-aged, right? Then I realized that there was no Grail in this Parsifal (unless it was the Grail within), so I mentally shook my fist at Robert Wilson. Bastard.

The costumes were, not surprisingly, almost exactly like the ones from Robert Wilson’s Madama Butterfly production (and his Pelléas production, and his Orfeo production). In fact, I think that Parsifal’s white costume was Pinkerton’s white Naval costume, only with the shawl collar torn off. I have nothing against simple costumes; in fact, the best costumes I’ve ever seen were Moidele Bickel’s very simple costumes for the Chatelet Don Carlos. The difference is that Bickel took costumes from the period when the opera was set (the late 1500s) and streamlined them. Wilson’s costumes are just always the same Japanese-inspired stuff, whether the opera is set in turn-of-the-century Japan or in medieval Spain. While Wilson’s gestures are incomprehensible, his costumes are anvilicious. All the Knights wore black, even Klingsor (though his had a stand-up collar to show that he was eeeevil; I just realized that Klingsor totally stole the Black Guardian’s costume). I guess in this opera, black=Grail Knight, whereas in Pelléas, black=bad, and in Butterfly, black=Japanese. Parsifal wore white in the first two acts, when he was still a “fool” who didn't fit in with the other Knights. When he was accepted in the last act, he wore, you guessed it, black. Amfortas and Kundry were both wearing dull plum/maroon. Maybe in Wilson’s mind, plum/maroon=dirty, dirty sex or lapsed morals or something.

I have to kind of pity the singers in all this, because Wilson’s crap probably goes against almost everything they’ve ever done. Albert Dohmen as Amfortas looked like he’d stepped off a Nazi propaganda poster, in that he was a big slab of a man and completely two-dimensional. Part of it was the rigid direction, but he never seemed to be in horrible pain, or consumed with guilt for getting a little something-something from Kundry, or anything. He just came out, sang, walked in his circle around the Spearmint Lifesaver, and left. Michael Hackett had said in the pre-opera lecture that Amfortas’s unhealable wound was probably meant to signify a syphilitic sore (he caught the syphilis from being weak and banging the Flower Maidens in the Grotto at Klingsor’s Castle), so—what a surprise—a Bible-related story in which the moral is that vaginas are bad!

Matti Salminen seemed to fit into Wilson’s production fairly well, but he plays the Commendatore in Don Giovanni quite a bit, so he’s used to standing around like a statue. With all the makeup, he looked like a drawing of Confucius. He has a very big, Wagnerian voice, but in his long monologues, it tended to drone. Part of that is Wagner’s libretto, in which the characters give tons and tons of backstory in long solos that have very little musical variation or sense of building to a climax. How silly, there’s no climaxing in Parsifal! Knights must be chaste. Anyway, Gurnemanz and Kundry are like King and Queen Infodump in Parsifal, and unfortunately neither Salminen nor Linda Watson as Kundry had the vocal color to make their long backstory passages the slightest bit interesting or character-developing.

Linda Watson was competent as Kundry. She probably would’ve been more compelling if she’d been allowed to move. There was nothing enticing or seductive about her. Most of the time, she laid on the stage. I almost laughed out loud in the first act, because she’d been laying on the stage during the whole overture, and she was supposed to have just arrived at the Knights’ castle. Gurnemanz asks her to tell them something, and she’s like, “I’m tired!”. I was thinking, “Bitch, you’ve been laying there for the last 20 minutes!” Because of the direction, sometimes she’d just randomly shriek. I think during those parts, Kundry was supposed to be sleeping and having nightmares, but oddly, when Kundry was supposed to be asleep, Wilson had her sitting upright, and when she was supposed to be off-stage, he had her be asleep. One time, she shrieked and Klingsor asked her what had troubled her, to which she answered, “My curse!” Yeah, Kundry, my cramps keep me awake sometimes too. Because we have vaginas and are therefore eeeeevil.

Hartmut Welker as Klingsor didn’t have much to sing aside from some diabolical “HA HA” laughing at Kundry’s expense. He was pretty non-extistent as a villain and he looked like Death from The Seventh Seal. He should’ve challenged Parsifal to a game of chess; since Parsifal is supposed to be such a fool, Klingsor would’ve won easily. I find it more than a little disturbing that Klingsor castrated himself in an effort to be holy enough to be a Grail Knight. I guess that means that wanting sex (Klingsor) or having sex (Kundry) makes you evil. Maybe the moral of the story isn’t so much that vaginas=evil, but that testicles=good. What-fucking-ever.

Placido Domingo was surprisingly good. A lot of people complain about his aging voice, and he hadn’t sounded much like himself last year in Idomeneo, but he sounded more like his former self in Parsifal. The only reason he can still perform this role live is that there’s not much singing in it, but it sits in a very favorable place for his voice. Some of his old trumpety sound was back. He just doesn’t fit in with the production though, and toward the end, he was giving up a bit and being Domingo, which was so much better and more interesting. Domingo is a wonderful physical actor, and not being able to have facial expressions or gesture normally was really wearing on him. He’s lost almost 30 pounds, so from far away, he looked quite good. The slowness of Wilson’s movements showed some of Domingo’s creakiness, but the man is almost 65, so he’s entitled to stiff knees. Yeah, he doesn’t look like a youth, but Linda Watson doesn’t look like a seductress either. I did wish that when Gurnemanz demanded why Parsifal killed the swan, Domingo had replied, “Because it kicked my puppy and stoned my mother!” Because I was really bored, and it would’ve been funny, I don’t know.

Two positive things about my Parsifal experience: No Peggy Hickey “I will kick your ass with dance!” choreography and no Lord and Lady Douchebag. I don’t think I could’ve survived five hours of Wilson, Wagner, and Captain Obvious kicking my seat.

Richard Wagner and Robert Wilson have one more similarity—we’re both told how great they are over and over, but they are really both pretentious and too in love with their own singular visions to be great. Versatility has got to have something to do with greatness, I think. And Robert Wilson just flat-out sucks an asshole inside out. I mean, Hoover-grade sucking here. I don’t know what Wilson’s vendetta against opera is, but in Wagner’s case, I think he wanted the costumes, the makeup, the sets, the acting, the orchestra hidden or completely gone,—his “invisible theater”—just so his huge, bloated ego could take center-stage. Too bad that his operas don’t “appear out of the ether”, they appear out of Bobby Brown’s Butt**.

**According to my brother, whose final boss is Bobby Brown, all bad things originate from Bobby Brown’s Butt.

On Saturday night, I vowed that I would never sit through Parsifal or any Robert Wilson production ever again. Unfortunately, a few minutes after making that pronouncement, I remembered that my mom had gotten us tickets for Parsifal at the Met next year when we’re there for Rodelinda. At first, I was OK with it, because at least I’d be able to see if it’s Parsifal I hate or Wilson, but then the next morning, my mom told me that we’re seeing Robert Wilson’s Lohengrin on the same trip. I might have to bring a blindfold and/or a suicide pill.

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