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Thursday, February 2, 2017

"So This Is How You Spend Eternity"

Time, Groundhog Day and Wagner's Parsifal.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Two fools a minute: Bill Murray and Richard Wagner.
Photo of Bill Murray from promotional art for Groundhog Day © 1993 Columbia/Tri-Star Pictures.
It's Groundhog Day...again, and this morning's entertainment was a rewatch of the 1993 Bill Murray comedy. If you've never seen it, Groundhog Day is the Harold Ramis film about a Pennsylvania weatherman who travels to sleepy Punxsatawney, PA only to find himself trapped in a (seemingly) infinite time loop where it is always February 2nd. In this essay, we will explore how Phil's plight mirrors the plot of Wagner's final (and most mysterious) opera, Parsifal.

Nobody (not even Mr. Murray himself or the film's late director and co-writer Harold Ramis) can quite calculate how long Phil Connors spends trapped in his loop, which has been measured as 38 days (the number shown in the film), ten years, and even 10,000 years. At its start, he is brutish and violent, assaulting several innocent bystanders, getting arrested, robbing a bank and raping an unwitting woman by obtaining her personal information. The film's "stretchy" sense of time (Phil's quest includes repeated suicides,  creepy seduction attempts of Andi MacDowell's Rita and mastering both chiropracty and playing Rachmaninoff at the piano) is deliberately unclear, leaving the viewer unsure of how much time Phil spends in limbo before he decides to redeem himself.

The composer's libretto plays fast and loose with time and location, giving the listener (and Parsifal himself) little to no information as to how time actually works, or even where the opera itself takes place. (The stage directions indicate "mountains in the character of Gothic Spain" but offers no further details.) The music is "stretchy" too and performances (depending on the conductor) can be as short as three and a half hours (Richard Strauss) or five hours (Sir Reginald Goodall). Neither conductor cut the score.

The lack of temporal definition in Parsifal is not an omission or laziness but rather, crucial to the opera's plot. The opera opens on a peaceful landscape "in the domain of the Grail." In a series of narrations, the knight Gurnemanz explains that the King of the Grail Knights, Amfortas was wounded when he lost the sacred Spear that pierced Christ's side as he suffered on the cross. However, while we see Amfortas suffer, we have no indication how long the King has been in agony. Suffering is now infinite. Gurnemanz further explains that Kundry, the Grail Knights' messenger, may be cursed (more on that in a minute.) In still more narration, he relates how Brotherhood of the Grail was founded by Titurel, (Amfortas' father) in a vision. The domain was betrayed by Klingsor, who later wounded Amfortas and stole the Spear.

An hour into the opera, the action finally starts. Parsifal enters and commits an act of violence, killing a swan with a bow and arrow and attacking Kundry.  Like Phil, he is a fool, who does not understand right and wrong. Gurnemanz brings Parsifal to the daily Grail ceremony (where Amfortas presides: his wounds break out afresh every time the Grail is unveiled) and meet Titurel, confined to a living death in a cell beneath the Grail temple. However, the fool does not comprehend what he is seeing and is thrown out of the temple for his ignorance.

In the second act, Parsifal blunders into Klingsor's castle and meets Kundry again, now a seductress who leads the Knights to their doom and helps enslave them. In the course of her attempt on Parsifal's virtue, she tells the would-be knight his name, the names of his parents and kisses him for the first time. This is the beginning of his wisdom as he suddenly understands Amfortas' plight and that the wound must be healed. Then she reveals her own origin, that she is a woman who laughed at Christ on the cross and was cursed by his glance. Finally, we have a fixed point in time--but as with Amfortas, we do not know how long she has been suffering.

Parsifal obtains the Spear, uses it to defeat Klingsor, and journeys back to the Grail domain to save Amfortas. He arrives on a Good Friday (another fixed point) but there is no indication of how long or how far he has traveled. Amfortas is still suffering, and Titurel has died. Groundhog Day has death too: Phil repeatedly commits suicide only to realize that death offers no release from his suffering/ignorance, and at one point tries to help an old homeless man (Titurel?) who dies (several times) in his arms. At this point, he realizes (like Parsifal) that he has to save himself, and starts his path to redemption and eventual escape from February 2nd.

There's one more parallel: just as Parsifal ends the opera by becoming the new King of the Grail, Phil must remain too: the last line of Groundhog Day is: "Let's LIVE here!"

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.