“My Parsifal Conductor”: A Review
“My Parsifal Conductor,” written by Emmy Award-winner Allan Leicht and directed by Robert Kalfin, retells the historical story of the premiere performance of Richard Wagner’s (Broadway actor Eddie Korbich) famed opera “Parsifal.” Meant, according to Wagner, to be “a festival play for the consecration of the stage,” “Parsifal’s deeply-religious themes ran through the roots of the opera and its music. Wagner and his wife, Cosima (Claire Brownell), could not imagine anyone other than a Christian conducting the orchestra for the performance, so, when King Ludwig II of Bavaria (Carlo Bosticco) chooses highly-acclaimed Jewish conductor Hermann Levi (Geoffrey Cantor), to lead the opening performance of Wagner’s last opera, Wagner and Cosima immediately object, leading to the opening plot of the play.
Set in the 1930s by Cosima Wagner’s deathbed her home, Haus Wahnfried, in Bayreuth, Bavaria, “My Parsifal Conductor” retells the series of events between the appointing of Levi as conductor, the first ever “Parsifal” performance, and the death of Richard Wagner, through the words and eyes of Cosima as she attempts to prove to the angels that she deserves a spot in heaven despite her history of anti-Semitism and bigotry. During her story, we meet not only Wagner, Levi and Ludwig, but also Friedrich Nietzsche (Logan James Hall), Cosima Wagner’s one-time love.
One can know nothing about Wagner or be able to sing every note in “Parsifal” and they will enjoy the story, acting and script. Leicht’s writing allows each of the characters to shine, molding and shaping them through both serious soliloquies like those of Cosima and comedic quips like those of Nietzsche.
One character, however, remains relatively stoic and static throughout the play, showing little comedic acting or nuanced human flaws — Hermann Levi. Perhaps the strong undercurrent of anti-Semitism put Leicht on the defensive when it came to writing Levi’s lines, making him a relatively calm, intelligent character to ensure that, as Michael Dale wrote in his review of the play for Broadway World, “the audience to laughs at Wagner's anti-semitism, rather than with it.”
Leicht’s theme of anti-Semitism takes on a character of subtlety as we discover that while Wagner and Cosima decried Jews in Bavaria, they adored their “friend” Levi — as they so endearingly called him throughout the play — and his musical brilliance. Their objection to his conducting the premiere “Parsifal” performance had nothing to do with his character, but rather his Jewishness. From this subtle theme arises a nuanced question: Can a general criticism of one’s religious identity really stand separate from criticism of one’s character?
Once brought to light by the beginning scenes of the performance, this question of separation and specificity begins to weave its way into the underlying fabric of the play and its historical foundation. Can we separate Wagner’s art from his atrocious anti-Semitism? Does Cosima’s friendship with Levi counteract her lifelong hate of the Jews in Bavaria? Can we sever the association of Wagner’s music from Hitler and simply view Wagner’s art in a vacuum?
Many themes run through the play — anti-Semitism, marriage, friendship, religion — each illustrated with a balance of class and comedy by the talented actors and Leicht’s wonderfully effective and alliterative writing. One of the play’s greatest talents, however, lies in its ability to depict the lives of a series of complex and intertwining historical figures in a manner expository enough to understand, yet entertaining enough to remain engaged. The added character of rambunctious Nietzsche — both a friend and critic of Wagner — helps create a well-rounded historical picture, adding depth and layers both to the depiction of “Parsifal” and its critical reception as well as to Cosima’s character and marital relationship with Wagner. One who sits down in those velvety seats with no knowledge of the historical context stands up with a historical gap in their education filled.
Littered with chuckle-filled moments as well as thought-provoking themes, “My Parsifal Conductor” manages to make an entertaining evening from some well-told history. Playing for a limited time at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at the West Side YMCA, “My Parsifal Conductor” will surely prove to be an afternoon, or evening, well spent at the theater.
“My Parsifal Conductor” is playing now until Saturday, November 3rd, 2018. Tickets are available here.
Photo Credit: Official Website