Adès contra Parsifal

Ever notice that conversations can reinforce and honour contrary positions? When you sit down with someone over latkes, beers or (name your pleasure), the celebration and enactment of community & indeed, communion, makes the points where you diverge immaterial. You have the affirmation of life in the filling of your tummy, and so what if your brains and your arguments go in different directions?

At least that’s how I feel. You may disagree(!).

I find that the way the media portray ideas, they tend to view debates like football. One side wins and one side loses. When there’s disagreement it must be resolved in a shoot-out or sudden-death overtime. There’s no tolerance for ambiguity, no subtle equivocal position allowed.

I bring this up because I am noticing how many possibilities there are for big ideas in theatre. In the past year I had already tossed out a few thoughts on Regietheater (director’s theatre), where the original text becomes a site of contention, as the audience seem to witness a multi-level conversation, or even a kind of debate, where the text and its encoding (both as a performance and as a series of remmants of a moment in time) collide with the present, both in the audience’s demands and the layers of meaning added by the mise-en-scène.

I am realizing now that this conversation –very contentious in some quarters—is really a small part of a bigger tension that we may lose sight of, that shows itself in works that have been adapted multiple times. Over lunch yesterday it was as though I heard a younger version of myself declare its love for Verdi’s Otello, an opera that I once had placed at the very top of the heap. I’d seen Jon Vickers, Louis Quilico and Theresa Zylis-Gara at the Met in Zeffirelli’s production, conducted by a young James Levine, and had in various ways had tried to scale Parnassus by playing the score & hearing singers, enlightening me while deafening me. Having later seen a few productions of Shakespeare’s play, including one where I deconstructed the play in the role of composer, I lost my adoration for what Verdi and Boito had done. Their opera is still fascinating, brilliant in so many ways, yet their Iago is so different from Shakespeare’s. The divergence is substantial, revolving around the nature of good and evil. There’s room in my life for multiple adaptations of this story, as I realize that I’d like to have another look at Rossini’s Otello (which I recall dismissing, when I noticed the uncanny resemblance between the music where the Moor stalks his wife to the music where Elmer Fudd hunts Bugs Bunny in The Bunny of Seville).

Composer Thomas Adès

It’s perhaps a matter of emphasis. While I enjoyed & admire Adès’s Tempest I recall that its emphases are displaced in some of the same ways (albeit with the exactly opposite metaphysical assumptions… but more on that in a moment) from the original play, as to what I observe with Verdi/Boito and Otello. I am in awe of the intelligibility of the libretto, which surely is at least partly the work of Meredith Oakes, a series of short lines that flush iambic pentameter down the toilet. Mark Shulgasser’s libretto –for Lee Hoiby’s Tempest—has much more of a feel for the Shakespearean line: which makes it less intelligible in the theatre.  Recalling what Mallarmé said about Debussy (when Debussy set his “afternoon of the faun”, he said something like “but it’s already music”): poetry is already music.  Why (and how?) would you set iambic pentameter to music?  Oakes made a canny choice, sacrificing a certain sacred cow –Shakespeare’s diction—on the altar of dramatic expediency. And I believe it was the right thing to do. Boito cut the first act of Othello more or less for the same reason: because opera is not the same medium and so compromises are necessary.

I am thinking, too, of the way Oakes / Adès end their Tempest, which seems to sacrifice a key element of the play. As I recall one of the best productions I saw at the Stratford Festival in the 1980s, directed by John Hirsch, music by (?), the masque element of celebratory performance was front and centre in all its delicious redundancy.  I’ve never seen Shulgasser/Hoiby’s opera, but as I recall they do not minimize this element. The lovely ending of the Adès opera we saw at the Met last year has a decidedly ecological slant to it, with a sort of epilogue showing us the natural world of the island after Prospero et al have buggered off back to their homes in the civilized world. If one has no use for the celebratory (and sees nothing transcendent in this) then of course this makes sense, and is surprisingly satisfying, even as it is itself somewhat counter-discursive, an anti-Tempest.

I was playing through some of Parsifal at the piano again this morning, as Toronto eases slowly into spring, after yet another storm. I’m still enjoying the endorphins, the rush I get playing it. I think I’ve found at least part of the nub whereby Adès diverges from some composers & theatre artists, and it’s at the core of that divergence I spoke of in Tempest. Speaking of storms, it doesn’t matter that we have at least two Tempests, as there’s room for all these different views.

In Adès’s book Conversations with Tom Service the composer savages Wagner (and i addressed some reasons why this is at the very least a good career move a few days ago). I am thinking of my lunchtime conversation because there’s surely room for his viewpoint and mine, the same way that there’s room for those of us who go to church and have a powerful experience, and those who are unmoved. Unlike some, I believe God does not punish those who don’t believe, as their unbelief is its own reward. You don’t go to Hell for not believing, as “hell” or “Hell” is a primitive construct that’s nowhere to be found in the Bible, at least not in the variants we see in Medieval drama or in Dante.

Adès tells us very plainly in his book about his metaphysics, and that’s really all I needed to understand his response to Parsifal, and by implication, why his Tempest goes off in the fascinating direction it goes. I pair it in my mind with Boito’s paraphrase of Otello because in each case, one can see just how many possibilities are possible in the magic of adaptation.

In rejecting Wagner he says the following:

I mean, so much of Parsifal is dramatically absurd, which would be fine if the music was aware of the absurdity, but it is as if the music is drugged and we all have to pretend that it’s not entirely ridiculous. And it seems to me that a country that can take something as funny as Kundry seriously, this woman who sleeps for aeons and is only woken up by this horrible chord, a country that can seriously believe in anything like Parsifal without laughing, was bound to get into serious trouble. (Adès 15)

Please don’t accuse me of taking this out of context. Adès goes on quite a bit longer, but always taking huge pot-shots at the mysterious cultural assumptions underlying this, calling Wagner & his music a fungus, that the music works as though someone had drugged you. Sounds like maybe he resents its power? Or is even susceptible at some level? Don’t get me wrong, I am very impressed by much that Adès says, particularly in his understanding of the epistemology of music itself, his understanding of the magic that music has to prolong a moment, even if he seems to reify a great deal, and speak in metaphors from deep inside his head. But it’s okay, because they’re illuminations rather than evasions, whereby we come closer to his process and the music itself.

But the key that unlocks it all –his response to Wagner & his particular paraphrase of Shakespeare—came in a discussion far removed from music:

For some reason I started reading positivist philosophers when I was about fourteen. I can’t remember why. Around the same time I was being introduced to Schenkerian analysis at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and I suppose you might say it was a time when that part of my brain, such as it is, was beginning to function. To try to put the logical positivist idea very simply –I believe it starts from Wittgenstein: there are only two types of statement, types of sentence that you can say, apart from ordering or questioning. Those two types are an observation based on reality, or a tautology. There’s nothing else. And that made me think: ‘What does that leave us?’ If that’s true, there are no relationship, there’s nothing. Everything is simply dead, you put something down on paper and it’s dead. There’s no echo to anything. There’s just a kind of matt surface that soaks everything up. (Adès 65-6)

It seems fitting –in this Easter season particularly– that Adès first name is “Thomas”.  And so no wonder that Adès sees no point in Parsifal and ended Tempest as he did. The celebratory element of music –which is surely a tautology—doesn’t seem to reach him. I played the Good Friday music from Parsifal this morning precisely because it’s redundant & a tautology, to repeat something that’s an affirmation of something permanent.  It’s a curious piece the way I decode it these days (with the help of Girard’s production, as i look forward to the encore next Saturday at this time), sitting on the boundary of a church that affirms and heals, and a church that is itself human, deeply flawed, wounded, and in need of healing. Such transcendent possibilities bounce off a positivist. Yes the music is manipulative, and afterwards maybe I too feel “as though someone had slipped something into my drink” (Adès 60)

I’ll take my chances.

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4 Responses to Adès contra Parsifal

  1. Pingback: Esprit’s brassy Polaris | barczablog

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  3. Pingback: Sounds like hell Mr Adès: Looking in the mirror of The Exterminating Angel | barczablog

  4. Pingback: Composers dissing composers | barczablog

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