THE UNITED STATES PREMIERE OF
RICHARD WAGNER'S PARSIFAL, DECEMBER 24, 1903



Review of Richard Aldrich in The New York Times

For the first time since it was produced in Bayreuth in 1882, Wagner's “Parsifal” was performed yesterday outside of the Festival Playhouse for which the master composed it. A vast assemblage was gathered at the Metropolitan Opera House to witness it—an assemblage most brilliant in appearance and in quality, following the drama with the keenest attention, with breathless silence and submitting eagerly to its spell.

It may truly be said that the eyes of the whole musical world were turned upon this performance, and the outcome of it has been awaited with widely varying emotions on the part of many who have been for or against it on diverse grounds. Never before, perhaps, has a stage production of any kind in this country so stirred the imaginations of so many people or been so widely discussed or so urgently debated. In many of its aspects it was one of the most important and significant musical events that Americans have been concerned with.

At the very outset it must be said that yesterday's production of “Parsifal” went far to justify the bold undertaking of Mr. Heinrich Conried, the new director of the Metropolitan Opera House and that, whatever else he may in future accomplish as head of the chief operatic institution in this country, he has made his incumbency long memorable by what he then achieved.

“Parsifal” was presented in a manner wholly befitting its distinctive character as a work of art--a manner that recognized and gave a full exposition of the solemnity and dignity of its theme, the lofty eloquence of its treatment and the overpowering impressiveness of the drama. This much must be clearly made known, to serve as it may and as far as it can, to answer the sneers that have been leveled at the artistic appreciation, understanding and standard of achievement of the New York public.

The artistic value of the “Parsifal” production was of the very highest. It was in many respects equal to anything done at Bayreuth and, in some, much superior. It was without doubt the most perfect production ever made on the American lyric stage. Those who wish to quarrel with the performance on aesthetic, moral or religious grounds have still as much upon which to stand as before. Artistically it was nothing less than triumphant.

The spirit that filled the representation in most of its elements and that animated all who participated in it was one of reverence and devotion to the ideals of the master and of zealous eagerness in carrying out his intentions in all things great and small in the score. The interpreters of the chief personages of the drama were singers who have drawn knowledge and understanding of its requirements from the fountain head at Bayreuth and who have been among the most distinguished participants in the festival performances there—Mme. Ternina, Mr. Burgstaller and Mr. Van Rooy.

The chief masters of stage craft and of scenic manipulation had been summoned from Germany to superintend and co-ordinate the material factors. Scenery and costumes had likewise been brought from German ateliers, the work of artists and of artisans intimate with the necessities of the drama, instructed by the exposition of them made at Bayreuth, and willing to improve on those models and actually doing so.

The musical direction was in the hands of a master-conductor thoroughly imbued with the style and significance of Wagner's music, a man with the authority to compel a realization of his wishes—Mr. Alfred Hertz.

All that money, thought, care and incessant and intelligent labor could do had been lavished upon the production of “Parsifal.” The results, as shown in last evening's performance, nobly crowned the work of many months.

It must be said, also, that these results allayed many fears and put at rest many doubts and uncertainties that had beset even those most disposed to regard Mr. Conried's ambitions with friendly sympathy.

“Parsifal” presented with technical blemishes and with an outfit, in any respect, inadequate; “Parsifal” without the uplift, the spiritual quality that keeps it aloof from all other works of art of its kind, “Parsifal” brought down in any way to the level of an operatic performance, even of the most finished that the Metropolitan Opera House can offer, would have put the whole undertaking in the wrong. It would have given justification to the prophets of evil at home and abroad who have lifted their voices in chorus against Mr. Conried ever since the disclosure of his plan last Summer set the musical world in a ferment.

It is precisely at this point that the greatest victory has been won. The primary condition of success was to rise superior to all the technical difficulties in the way of mounting the work and securing the perfect co-operation of all the elements—musical, dramatic, scenic—which are so intimately fused together in Wagner's art work, but an equally essential condition was the attainment of the intangible aura that surrounds the drama. It was essential that the audience should be brought to envisage “Parsifal” as something other than an opera at the corner of Broadway and Thirty-ninth Street.

Now there need be no beating about the bush as to this matter that has caused heart searchings on the part of many thoughtful and sincere music lovers. Broadway is not Bayreuth; the Metropolitan Opera House cannot become transfigured on Thursdays into something different in essence from what it is on Wednesdays and Fridays; people who enter its portals out of the business and the bustle and the pleasure of New York cannot be transported as by magic into realms of art unknown to the daily life of the city. But Mr. Conried has done all in his power to signify that there is a difference and that was borne in upon everybody who went to yesterday's “Parsifal” performance.

All the outward circumstances were calculated to enforce it. The performance began at 5 o'clock in the afternoon, the first act ending a little before 7. There was an intermission of an hour and three-quarters for rest and refreshment—meditation, if any were so disposed. The beginning of each act was announced by trumpeters intoning motives from the music drama—not, indeed, to the throngs on Broadway, but to the waiting multitudes within. The rule was put forth, though not strictly enforced, that admission should be denied to all after the beginning of each act. The house was shrouded in darkness while the pictures upon the stage were unfolding. There was a hush—if not a "Bayreuth hush," at least one to make it plain that this New York audience was quite as disposed as any at the Festival Playhouse to preserve the impressiveness of the occasion.

The occasion was, in truth, profoundly impressive. It was clear that the whole audience was under a spell, as, perhaps, no audience in Broadway or in New York has ever been before. There was every reason why it should be so at this first performance. It may, perhaps, turn out to be a different question as to how long “Parsifal” will continue to hold its listeners as it did yesterday.

As a performance in New York, for an audience not influenced by the very special circumstances that prevailed yesterday, without the newness, the strangeness, the tension of anxiety and eagerness of desire to test a new thing, it is likely that there will be much to weary the most intelligent, the most open-minded. There are long stretches in Wagner's most didactic manner{ long explanations, such as those of Gurnemanz in the first act and even of Kundry in the second, who intermits her blandishment of Parsifal to instruct him in a specious theory of love, that are meaningless without exact comprehension of the declaimed word and not alluring even with it.

The performance had a unity of effect that does not invite to a discussion of the individual artists concerned in it. Every one was absolutely at home in the work; the music was sung with absolute confidence and certainty. All seemed on the keenest edge of fitness and eager to put forth their best powers.

Mme. Ternina's Kundry is an impersonation that has taken its place high in the annals of Bayreuth. As the penitent servant of the Grail she is a figure of savage impulsiveness with an undertone of sullen desperation; as the seductive instrument of Klingsor's magic, a vision of entrancing beauty and alluring charm. But there is so much more than the outward effect in the potency of her appeal that seems but the agency of raising to a higher power the subtle and insinuating eloquence that she imparts to her voice, her gestures and her action. It was a performance of supreme beauty. In voice it was not the Ternina of old, but, though she lacked sometimes in sensuous beauty of tone, there was that in her declamation and the sustained phrasing that went far to atone for the quality of her voice.

Mr. Burgstaller is also a Parsifal of authority and individuality of characterization. He hit precisely the note of gaucherie in his portrayal of raw youth and guileless simplicity—it is a natural one to him. As the knight bearing his burden of grievous woe he had a lofty dignity and impressiveness of bearing only less convincing in the expression of it than of the different quality of the earlier scenes. His voice, which has not been heard in the Opera House this season before, sounded of a richness and power that filled his declamation with a thrilling expressiveness.

Another authoritative exposition was Mr. Van Rooy's Amfortas -- noble, heart-rending in its pathos, deeply moving in its utterance of the agony of soul which he bears, sometimes denoting a greater robustness of body than the posture of circumstances would seem to warrant, yet perhaps thereby only increasing the poignancy of the pain under which he suffers.

Mr. Blass impersonated the old Grail knight Gurnemanz for the first time, but with so complete an identification with the character of the part that he fell little if any behind the achievements of his companions in the cast. It was a beautifully modeled and plastic representation in its spirit as well as in its outward embodiment—full of the originality and drastic vigor, not lacking the occasional touch of humor in the first act and the sweet gentleness in the third with which Wagner conceived the part—certainly one of the most humanly sympathetic in the whole work.

Mr. Otto Goritz made his first appearance in this country as Klingsor and with it a highly favorable impression. His style is somewhat lacking in flexibility, but he impressed the diabolic malignity of the magician upon his interpretation.

The chorus of the flower maidens was one of the greatest delights of the whole performance, a body of singers of personal attractiveness and of lovely vocal quality singing the music with luscious beauty of tone and accuracy of ensemble. But more delightful still were the grace and individuality of their action, their wanton vivacity and their languorous wooing of the guileless simpleton. Both singing and action were a part of one and the same thing, and seemed the natural and spontaneous expression of the exact object at which Wagner was aiming. Their costumes were flowing robes decked with flowers, rather than the short petal-like skirts that prevail at Bayreuth, and here, too, it could scarcely be denied that the new way was the better one.

Less credit can be given to the chorus of the Grail knight, which was lacking in volume of tone and, at some points, sang off pitch. There was an anxious moment for Mr. Hertz at their first entrance when they missed their cue, but the address with which the error was rectified and disaster averted spoke volumes for the skill and knowledge of the orchestra in following the conductor's guidance out of a tangle. The boy choir in the dome did wonders, keeping closely to pitch and delivering the music with some of the celestial quality that belongs to it.

Finally, there must be mention of the self-sacrificing devotion of Mr. Journet and Mme. Homer in singing the music of Titurel and the unnamed voice behind the scenes.

Mr. Hertz's conducting of this performance, his complete control of the widely diverse elements of the score in the orchestra and on the stage, were remarkable and thrice remarkable. His reading was one of the most essential points of departure from the Bayreuth traditions in that his tempos were in general considerably faster than those there taken. There were points in which they seemed too fast, as in the marvelous music of the Good Friday spell at the beginning of the second act. But for the most part they were such as to earn for him the gratitude of those who know the Bayreuth way. It imparted energy, life, movement to the whole that were, in this performance and under these circumstances, qualities of inestimable value destined to do great service to the work.

It is not to be supposed that Mr. Hertz adopted his views without the fullest consideration of all the conditions. Whether they be from conviction or not—and there have been evidences in the past of his sympathy with the school of sluggishness—they are such as helped make “Parsifal” possible in New York. His reading otherwise was indescribably rich and glowing in color, of subtle elaboration of detail and lucid exposition of the vast thematic plexus. The proclamations that usher in the scenic transformations were played with stupendous power and nobility of utterance. Yet throughout most of the drama the orchestral part was notable for its reticence and its perfect adjustment in the scheme of things.

The chief problem posed by a performance of Parsifal is to attain the exact co-ordination of all the different factors that go to make up its whole. There are other music dramas of Wagner's that are much more taxing to singers and orchestra, that require on the part of the conductor greater preoccupation with the nuances of dramatic expression and tempo modifications. But in “Parsifal” the effect depends upon the perfection of every detail in its relation to every other. The slightest noticeable slip means in so far the destruction of illusion. The way in which this co-ordination and perfection have been attained in the Metropolitan Opera House must needs command the admiration of those who know the difficulties of it all.

The performance presented a beautiful series of stage pictures. As every admirer of Wagner knows, he counted much upon them and their contribution toward the effect of his "art work," and they have their proper place in the production at the Metropolitan. The scenery is artistic in the sense in which a painter might regard it; it is "composed" and proportioned with a view to its pictorial as well as its purely theatrical effect.

There has been a departure from the Bayreuth model in some respects. Klingsor's castle in the second act is somewhat different in its architectural details. The most important of them is that which gives him his view of the approaching Parsifal as he looks out. The outlook is not quite so clearly presented as at Bayreuth, but the difference is really non-essential.

In the magic garden shown in the next following scene the departure is greater. It is a place of much greater allurement than Bayreuth shows. Instead of enormous blooms of crude and garish color with no element of charm, there are luxurious growths of vines climbing everywhere and blossoming in gorgeous and variegated masses of color—tender, delicate, skillfully contrasted in tone. There is a distance of green clad mountain slopes and snowy peaks bathed in pale, shimmering sunlight.

The first picture of the forest glade, with its near-by lake, is a charming wood interior. A great tree occupies nearly the middle of the stage, overhanging with its foliage; in the background gleams the blue water of the lake; sifting through the leaves, glowing upon the lake, is sunlight—not the sunlight of the limelight but of skillful landscape art.

Similar is the nature of the picture of the meadow, the thicket and the hermit hut of the last act; it is beautiful in a higher sense than as mere stage decoration, and it presents effects of light and atmosphere of great loveliness. The hall of the Grail castle closely follows the design of Wagner as embodied in Bayreuth—it is Moorish in its architectural style of circular arches and arabesque decoration. So, too, is the glimpse we get of the exterior of Klingsor's castle in the scene of the magic garden.

The two changes of scene, those in the first act, from the forest glade to the Hall of the Grail, and in the third, from Gurnemanz's hut in the meadow to the same hall, offer some of the most fascinating opportunities to the painter of imaginative power to touch the imagination of the spectator. The scenes show rocky cliffs, mysterious passages, arches and strange distances. They are well painted. The transitions were made admirably: a few little unevennesses of the motion will be obviated later. The Hall of the Grail as it glides into view is in every respect similar to that shown on the Bayreuth stage, touched with the Moorish character that was in Wagner's mind all through the drama.

There was a great outburst of enthusiasm at the end of the second act—the point which Wagner indicated as the proper one for applause and which is even more unmistakably indicated by the conformation of the drama. Mme. Ternina and Mr. Burgstaller were again and again recalled. Then came with them Messrs. Fuchs and Lautenschläger, justly honored as the creators of the marvelous stage management and technical effects that contributed so greatly to the beauty and perfection of the representation. Again and again they too were summoned.

There were calls for Conried all over the house, and finally the director appeared to bow his acknowledgments to a storm of applause.







Alfred Hertz, Conductor.
Photograph by Aimé Dupont.










Alois Burgstaller in the title role.
Photographs by Aimé Dupont.






Milka Ternina as Kundry.
Photograph by Höffert.






Robert Blass as Gurnemanz.






Anton Van Rooy as Amfortas.
Photograph by Aimé Dupont.






Otto Goritz as Klingsor.
Photograph by Aimé Dupont.






Ellen Förnsen as one of the
Flower Maidens.
Photograph by Aimé Dupont.






Act I, Scene 1: A Forest.





Act I scene change.





Act I, Scene 2 & Act III, Scene 2:
The Temple of the Grail.





Act II, Scene 1: Klingsor's Castle.





Act II, Scene 2: The Enchanted Garden.





Act III scene change.