Parsifal: The Search for the Grail

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LABELS: Voice Print
WORKS: Parsifal: The Search for the Grail ; A documentary by Tony Palmer
PERFORMER: Plácido Domingo, Violeta Urmana, Matti Salminen, Nikolai Putilin, Feódor Mojhaev; Mariinsky Theatre Chorus & Orchestra/Valery Gergiev


Tony Palmer’s 1997 documentary set out to address the controversies surrounding Wagner’s final, most mystical masterpiece. A Christian tract, as Nietszche and others assumed? Or, claim hostile commentators like Robert Gutman, a racist rant that inspired Nazism? Palmer includes some of the right elements, but also, unfortunately, much more that’s less relevant.

Gutman advances his thesis that every Wagner opera is not a ‘medieval pageant’ but a pre-encoded Nazi tract; the elderly Wolfgang Wagner more trenchantly points out how Parsifal, with its inescapably quietist, even pacifistic story baffled and embarrassed the Nazis. Excerpts from The Seventh Seal and, inevitably, Monty Python and The Holy Grail invite interesting speculations about faith, but are left largely hanging.

So, more seriously, are shock-jock jump-cuts from Parsifal to Nazi rallies or appalling atrocity footage. Equally irrelevant are Palmer’s overworked snippet montages from his other films; sometimes film and opera seem rewritten to fit, a bogus ‘magic lake’ introduced so he can use Rhinemaidensas Flower Maidens.

Transcending all this, when not interrupted, are Parsifal extracts – Palmer’s own Mariinsky staging, with Valery Gergiev’s vibrant conducting; Plácido Domingo, who also narrates, a passionate if elderly hero; and, glimpsed as a Flower Maiden, the young Anna Netrebko. Significantly this straightforward ‘medieval pageant’ is filmed on stage, in woodland and magically in the Ravello gardens which inspired that of Klingsor’s.


But this is an inconclusive meandering. It has never aired on British TV, Palmer complains, because one executive called it ‘silly’. A philistine opinion, no doubt, but not without point. Michael Scott Rohan