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Theatre in Review: My Parsifal Conductor (Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater)

Eddie Korbich, Geoffrey Cantor, Claire Brownell. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Allan Leicht's new comedy focuses on that wacky, crazy, fun-loving couple, Richard and Cosima Wagner, embroiling them in a series of farcical mix-ups that play like the pilot for a sitcom called That Darn Composer, or, perhaps, My Favorite Anti-Semite. Not only ardent Wagnerites should be appalled; the trouble isn't the decision to mine their lives for laughter. Wagner, who turned the opera world upside down with his solemn, pageant-like Gesamtkunstwerks, led a feverish life that -- filled as it was with bankruptcies, failures, triumphs, and tumultuous affairs -- could have been the basis for an opera, or an opera buffa. Cosima, the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt, fled her first, unhappy marriage to the conductor Hans von Bülow to become Wagner's ruthless helpmate; the fact that she managed to produce three children by Wagner while remaining more or less respectably married to von Bülow is only one of many comic possibilities. But there's a difference between low humor and second-rate clowning, a distinction that is apparently lost on everyone here.

The play is framed as a kind of death dream, the senile ravings of the ninety-two-year-old Cosima, who principally recalls, through the filter of her crazily distorted memory, the events surrounding the creation of Parsifal, Wagner's final work. Teetering on the edge of death, she addresses an unseen tribunal of angels, desperate to make her case that she belongs in heaven. It is 1930 and Wagner, gone for decades, appears out of nowhere to praise her handling of the Bayreuth Festival, which she saved from fiscal mismanagement. "Don't be self-centered, Cosima," he says, complacently. "You know that my posterity takes precedence over your place in paradise."

They are not alone. Friedrich Nietzsche frequently pops out from under Cosima's bed, a handsome, strapping young fellow eager to renew his wooing of her. The giant portrait of Ludwig II, Wagner's principal benefactor, slides open to reveal the young, mad king, eager to dictate terms to "his" composer. And Hermann Levi, the conductor most associated with Wagner's works in his twilight years, throws the household into a tizzy simply by showing up.

The problem sending Wagner and Cosima into such hysterics is that Ludwig, who controls the financial tap, insists that Levi conduct Parsifal, which, everyone agrees, is destined to be a world-altering work -- which is exactly why, Wagner insists, Levi is not an appropriate choice. He has no objection on aesthetic grounds, being well aware of the conductor's extraordinary talent. But Parsifal, he insists, is a profoundly Christian work, and Levi is, well, a Jew. You won't be surprised to hear that the author of the scandalous essay "Judaism in Music" -- and a lifelong anti-Semite -- feels as he does. His condescension knows no bounds: He even says he respects Levi because, "for instance, he has not changed his name. Other Levis change to Levkind, Lowe, Lowie, Lala, who knows what." But, he adds, "Parsifal is sacred." So frustrated is he by Ludwig's demand that he practically froths at the mouth, accusing "the scheming of perfidious Jews" who will "crucify Parsifal and the guardians of the Holy Grail," before falling on the floor in a fit. Cosima, taking us into her confidence not for the last time, says, "This is what happened. I am not making this up."

The rest of the first act consists of schemes hatched by the Wagners to get Levi baptized. First, they present him with a gift of a golden cross -- "to correct your birth defect, Friend Levi," Cosima says. (The unflappable Levi says, "How could you possibly divine that this gold cross was the one gift I did not get for my bar mitzvah?") Trying to lull him into a false sense of security, they produce a bottle of "Hebrew wine," adorned with a big Star of David. Trying to strike a cosmopolitan note, Cosima says, "You see, Friend Levi? You are turning Wahnfried [their home] into a synagogue. Perhaps we should put those Methuselahs on the doors." "Mezuzahs, Cosima, mezuzahs," is his patient response. When all else fails, Wagner sneaks up behind Levi with a pitcher of water, dunking him in an impromptu baptism. There may well be a comedy inside this rather bizarre material -- in fact, comedy may be the only sensible way to treat it -- but this sort of fooling around is desperately in need of a laugh track.

Having driven Levi from their home by intermission, Act II is starved for meaningful action. The elderly Cosima is scandalized to get a letter requesting permission to play the overture from Tannhäuser at the Second Zionist Congress; it is from the great Zionist Theodor Herzl, whom she keeps misremembering as "Dr. Pretzel." She fends off Nietzsche's advances and burns some of Wagner's romantic correspondence, obsessing over his possible affair with the soprano Carrie Pringle. Levi returns in triumph, exacting sweet revenge by requiring seats down front at Bayreuth for his father and several other prominent rabbis, all of whom are to be fed kosher meals. But even as Parsifal wins audience huzzahs, Nietzsche - who, by this point, had broken with the Wagners - pops up to denounce it as "constipated Christian claptrap!"

Silly as it is, at least Act I has a conflict to dramatize; Act II is an exercise in marking time. And, throughout, the jokes are tired. ("Don't worry, Cosima. Some of my best friends are anti-Semites.") The solution provided the director, the eminent Robert Kalfin, is to keep everyone bouncing around the stage like so many wind-up toys, which, at least, guarantees a fast pace. Claire Brownell's Cosima has a germ of wit, but her work is awfully fussy, especially when she is doddering around as a nonagenarian. Eddie Korbich, best known as a dancing character man in Broadway musicals, follows Cosima's comment that Wagner is "a seventy-year-old baby," but it is awfully hard to imagine this immature figure composing anything as monumental as the Ring Cycle. It's an approach that recalls Peter Shaffer's portrait, in Amadeus, of Mozart as a spoiled brat, but isn't nearly as successful; a low point occurs when Wagner and the missus launch into an impromptu aria, singing, "Brahms, boring Brahms/Oh Brahms, very boring Brahms/Brahms, boring Brahms!"

The supporting cast fares rather better, possibly because the script gives them some support. Next to the Punch-and-Judy show of the Wagners, Geoffrey Cantor's Levi is a cogent, dignified figure -- indeed, the only adult in the room. He also gets the play's best speech, which demolishes the idea that he is a "pretend German," given his nine hundred years' of ancestry. (Cosima, for one, is furious at his insinuation that she, the illegitimate daughter of a Hungarian and a Frenchwoman, might not be of true Saxon stock.) Carlo Bosticco brings plenty of amusing hauteur to the role of Ludwig, who cultivates a studied boredom even as he orders Wagner about. Alison Cimmet has some good moments as Cosima's long-suffering maid. Logan James Hall is an attractive presence as Nietzsche, even if the role is little more than a cardboard lover.

And the production is well turned out. Harry Feiner's set, depicting Cosima's bedroom, is a riot of aristocratic pretension, complete with the sacred mural over the canopy and that life-size portrait of Ludwig. Gail Cooper-Hecht's costumes include some sumptuous ladies' gowns and a finely detailed military uniform for Ludwig. The projection design by David Title, of Bravo Media, includes Bavarian castles, heavenly gates, and the auditorium at Bayreuth. Paul Hudson's lighting is solid, as is the sound design by Andy Evans Cohen, which includes plentiful selections from Wagner.

But this is a tiresome, trivializing work that diminishes its characters while failing to engage with the very ugly issue at its heart. Music fans might be mildly amused from time to time, but My Parsifal Conductor is no Gesamtkunstwerk. -- David Barbour

(19 October 2018)

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