The Story of the Opera Parsifal

Vision of the Grail Castle, based on a drawing by Franz Stassen

The opera is set in the domain and in the castle of the guardians of the Grail, Monsalvat, where the landscape resembles the northern mountains of Gothic Spain. Afterwards in Klingsor's magic castle on the southern slope of the same mountains facing Moorish Spain.
The costume of the Knights and Squires resembles that of the Templars: a white tunic and mantle; but instead of the red cross there is a dove flying upwards.

Summary of Parsifal Act 1

G urnemanz, Knight of the Grail, rises from sleep and rouses his two young esquires in a forest near the castle of Monsalvat in the Spanish Pyrenees. Two other knights arrive to prepare a morning bath for the King, Amfortas, who has an apparently incurable wound. They are interrupted by the wild woman Kundry, who has brought balsam from Arabia to alleviate the King's suffering. The King, carried in on a litter, recalls the prophecy that told him to await a pure fool made wise by compassion. He accepts Kundry's gift and proceeds to the lake. Gurnemanz tells his companions how a beautiful woman betrayed Amfortas into the hands of the magician Klingsor, so that the sacred Spear was lost and with it the King wounded.

Gurnemanz shows Parsifal the face of the dying swan, in a production by Wolfgang Wagner.

Suddenly there are cries from the lake and a swan falls to the ground, fatally injured by an arrow. The knights drag in a youth who, rebuked by Gurnemanz, breaks his bow but cannot give his name. Kundry is able to do so: the youth is Parsifal, son of Gamuret and Herzeleide. As Kundry crawls away to sleep in the undergrowth, the knights carry Amfortas back from the lake. Gurnemanz follows them with the boy, wondering what to make of him.

In the hall of the Grail Castle, Amfortas is surrounded by his knights who prepare for the Grail ritual. The voice of his father Titurel is heard from the crypt, bidding Amfortas uncover the Grail and perform the magic that sustains the aged hero. Amfortas at first refuses, as the ritual brings on his pain. At length he submits and allows the esquires to uncover the chalice, which produces food and drink to sustain the knights. Parsifal watches but seems to understand nothing; although at one point when Amfortas cries out in pain, he lays his hand on his heart. At the end of the ceremony, Gurnemanz angrily drives the boy away. As he is about to leave, the knight hears a mysterious voice repeat the words of the prophecy.

Summary of Parsifal Act 2

Klingsor's garden is found! Gardens of the Villa Ruffolo at Ravello. Inspiration for the 1882 staging of Act 2 of 'Parsifal'.

Seated in his dark tower, Klingsor summons Kundry and instructs her to seduce Parsifal, whom he has seen approaching in his magic mirror. Kundry resists in vain, since the magician knows how to control her through the curse. She disappears and the scene changes to a magic garden, in which the Flower Maidens bloom. They attempt to seduce Parsifal, who plays with them, until the appearance of Kundry, transformed into a beautiful siren. She awakens his memories of childhood and of his mother. His resistance apparently broken, she offers him a passionate kiss.

To her amazement, the youth recoils in horror. At last he understands the nature both of Amfortas' suffering and his own mission. Kundry tries to win him through pity for her, accursed since she laughed at the suffering of Christ. In desperation she calls for help from Klingsor, who appears on the rampart and hurls the spear at Parsifal.

The spear stops in the air, suspended over Parsifal's head. He grasps it and makes the sign of the cross, at which Klingsor's tower crumbles and the garden withers. You will know where to find me again, he tells Kundry as he walks away.

Summary of Parsifal Act 3

G urnemanz, now an aged hermit, once again finds the sleeping Kundry, still and apparently lifeless, in the undergrowth near his hut. As he revives her, a strange knight, in full armour and carrying a spear, approaches. Gurnemanz reproaches him for bearing arms on this most holy of days, Good Friday. Then he recognises the sacred spear and the knight as the boy who had once killed a swan. Parsifal describes his long and weary wanderings in search of Monsalvat. The hermit reveals that the Community of the Grail has long been in decay, since Amfortas refuses to uncover the chalice, and Titurel has died. Parsifal laments that he had arrived too late to save him. Kundry's baptism in Act 3 of the famous 'New Bayreuth' production of Parsifal by Wieland Wagner

G urnemanz and Kundry help him to remove his armour. Today shall Parsifal bring healing to the Grail King and take over his office and duties. Gurnemanz first baptizes Parsifal with holy water and then anoints him as King while Kundry washes his feet. In return, as the first duty in his new role, Parsifal baptises her and kisses her on her forehead. She weeps. Parsifal gazes upon the beauty of the spring meadows. The hermit tells him that this is the magic of Good Friday, when all creation gives thanks. The tolling of distant bells summon them to the funeral rites of Titurel.

In the hall of the Grail Castle, all is gloom and despair. The knights, long deprived of the divine nourishment, are barely alive and approach Amfortas threateningly. Amfortas begs them end his suffering by taking his life. Parsifal, followed by Kundry and Gurnemanz, strides into the centre of the hall and touches Amfortas' wound with the sacred spear, declaring him healed and relieved of his duties. He returns the spear, which begins to bleed. Parsifal orders that the Grail shall be uncovered and raises it aloft as the knights, including Amfortas, kneel in homage. Kundry falls dead at his feet.

Parsifal: a design for the final scene, by Alfred Roller, 1913 Above: a staging design for the final scene of Parsifal. Alfred Roller, 1913. From the collection of Theatermuseum Wien.

The Characters of the Drama

There are seven primary characters or persons in Parsifal. What we know about them from internal evidence might be (cautiously) supplemented by details in the pre-existing stories from which Wagner drew his material. For example: Wagner does not tell us how Parsifal is related to Amfortas but, given that Parzival's mother is a sister of Anfortas in Wolfram's poem, we can assume that the same relation exists in the opera. This helps to explain why Parsifal is the next in line to become Grail King. We also "know" about the characters as they have appeared in stagings of the opera, in a performance tradition that has accumulated over nearly 140 years and that is being increasingly challenged in modern productions. Here are the seven persons that I consider to be of primary interest and significance.

(tenor) is the pure fool. Parsifal is not, it should be noted, a sinless fool, since he admits in the third act that he carries a burden of sin and guilt. Neither is he a holy fool, which is an archetype found mainly in Russian literature. Wagner's character is based upon the protagonist of Wolfram's Parzival, a young man growing slowly wise. He can also be seen as a distillation of the questers or Grail-seekers we can read about in other Grail Romances. Parsifal, however, does not (as many people apparently believe) embark on a quest for the Holy Grail. At first he has no mission, or perhaps he does not know that he has a mission. Then he is kissed by Kundry and in a flash of Welthellsicht he knows that his mission is to return the Holy Spear to the Grail Temple and with it to heal Amfortas. Wagner wrote in his diary: As a relic, the spear goes with the cup ... The two are complementary. From that moment on, Parsifal is, in a sense, on a quest for the Grail but only so that it can be reunited with its counterpart the Spear, which is in Parsifal's hand at the end of act two. Although Parsifal, especially in the third act of the opera, has been depicted as a Christ-figure, Wagner repeatedly denied that he was thinking of the Saviour when he wrote the opera. But perhaps we should take that with a pinch of salt. Parsifal was, like Siegfried, brought up in an isolated place in the depths of a forest; in Parsifal's case by his mother, Herzeleide. She kept her son from all knowledge of weapons and knighthood, and sheltered him from the world, until he left her to pursue boyish deeds, armed with a bow and arrows that he had made for himself. Here Wagner is following Wolfram although he soon departs from the poem. Wagner's Parsifal and Wolfram's Parzival are examples of the archetype of "the sheltered youth". Musically, Parsifal is represented by a chord that contains the first four notes of the opening theme (Grundthema #1) which becomes a fanfare-like motif (Parsifal #16) that develops through the opera as the character it depicts also develops. More about Parsifal.

(mezzosoprano or soprano) is not only the most complex character in any of Wagner's operas but also she has few if any parallels in opera or theatre. According to Wagner's 1865 Prose Draft, Kundry is trapped in an apparently endless cycle of rebirths, each time in a new (female) shape. Like the Flying Dutchman she is being prevented from finding eternal rest by a curse. It is implied in the second act that as Herodias, she laughed at Christ on his way to be crucified, and so she was cursed. One consequence of Kundry's curse is that she can only laugh and never cry. At appropriate points in the opera, seen in relation to Wolfram's poem, Kundry variously corresponds to sharp-tongued Condrie the sorceress, high messenger of the Grail; to Parzival's cousin Sigûne, who like Condrie provides him with information but usually too late to be useful to him; and Orgelûse the proud Duchess, who is somehow involved with the sorcerer Clinschor. In a letter of August 1860 to Mathilde Wesendonk Wagner wrote that the fabulously wild messenger of the Grail is to be one and the same person as the enchantress of the second act. Also that once he had realised this, everything else fell into place. So in the opera there are two different Kundry's: the penitent who serves the Grail Community with dog-like devotion, wild in the first act and calmer in the third act; and the seductress of the second act, who serves the sorcerer Klingsor. This second act Kundry is almost but not quite like Wolfram's Orgelûse but more like Venus in Tannhäuser. This makes sense because Venus was Holda, and Holda was Diana, and Orgelûse resembles Diana Nemorensis. Indeed, the entire story of Wagner's opera can be related to Frazer's The Golden Bough, since it is a story about a royal succession: instead of a golden bough from the grove of Diana, however, Parsifal has to recover a magic weapon from the garden of Klingsor. Kundry, like Parsifal, has had many names: perhaps her real name is simply Woman? Musically, Kundry is represented by the interval of a tritone or augmented fourth, for example in the motif of Kundry's Laughter #11. More about Kundry.

(baritone) is another character at the centre of the story. Indeed he is the cause of the action, since it was Amfortas who lost the Holy Spear that needs to be recovered out of the unholy hands of Klingsor. Like Parsifal and (in part) Kundry, Amfortas is a character from the Grail Romances: the Fisher King (le roi pêcheur) and the Sinner King (le roi pecheur). He is the Grail King (Gralskönig). In the opera he is also the High Priest of the Grail cult, presiding over Grail ceremonies that nourish the community while causing Amfortas more suffering. Amfortas has sinned by carrying the Spear, a holy relic, into battle against Klingsor. He was wounded by that Spear and so he bears the Amfortas Wound: a wound that will not heal. Each time the Grail is uncovered, the wound reopens. Both Kundry and Gawain are searching throughout the world to find a cure that will heal Amfortas but, as Parsifal eventually realises, the king's wound is as much psychological as physical. Wagner makes a repeated play on the word Heil, which can mean either healing or salvation. When Kundry presents the balsam to Gurnemanz, she says that Arabia has nothing more to offer zu seinem Heil. In 1860 Wagner described Amfortas as his third-act Tristan inconceivably intensified. At the symbolic level, Amfortas represents sickness. Musically, Amfortas is represented by a theme Amfortas #5 that contains an accented descending triplet.

(bass) takes his name but not much more from a character only mentioned in Parzival, the absentee landlord of the Castle of Marvels or Chastel Merveilleus: which in Wolfram's Parzival is also the Castle of Maidens and the Proud Castle (of Orgelûse). According to Gurnemanz, Klingsor wanted to join the Grail Knights but he was rejected by Titurel because, unable to control his sexual urges, Klingsor had castrated himself. Somehow this helped Klingsor become a master of the dark arts and also enables him to resist Kundry, who is under his control with the help of her curse. In the opera, Klingsor is trapping the knights one by one, with the assistance of the beautiful Kundry and magic maidens who grow in his garden. As a result, Amfortas has commanded that no knights are to venture out from the Grail domain, and so the Grail Community has ceased to function. As many other religious communities have done, it turned inward and became irrelevant. Musically, Klingsor is represented by a highly chromatic theme Klingsor #15 that dominates the prelude to and first scene of the second act.

(bass) was a pious knight into whose care angels entrusted the holy relics. To protect these hallows, Titurel recruited a group of followers and they built the Grail Temple, deep in an almost impenetrable forest in the mountains. This community was kept young and vigorous for centuries by the powers of the Holy Grail which provided divine sustenance to them. In many of the Grail Romances the Grail Castle holds two kings: the Fisher King (or Maimed King) who serves the Grail, and his father the Unseen King, who is served by the Grail and who is too old and weak to leave his room. Titurel in the opera is based on the Unseen King of the Romances. In Wolfram's poems (one of which is called Titurel), Anfortas (sic) is the grandson of Titurel but Wagner simplified the family tree by making Amfortas the only son of Titurel. According to Wagner, when Titurel finally became too old to lead the community, he abdicated in favour of Amfortas, who has now failed as king and priest, and who awaits a young and vigorous successor to take over from him. At the symbolic level, Titurel represents old age. Musically, Titurel is represented by motif Titurel #7, a variant of Faith.

G urnemanz
(bass) was Titurel's squire, who has been by his side for centuries. As the opera begins he is a mentor for the young recruits. Although Gurnemanz, like Titurel, is very old, the weekly Grail ceremonies had kept him young and vigorous until Amfortas refused to reveal the Grail any more. In the 1865 Prose Draft Wagner wrote that, in the third act, Gurnemanz has rapidly aged and become a childish old man. It was probably his intention to create a symmetry: in the first act Parsifal is a young and ignorant fool, who is guided by the wise Gurnemanz; by the time he arrives at the Grail domain again, in the third act, Parsifal has become wise, while Gurnemanz has become old and foolish. So that their relationship becomes reversed. Musically Gurnemanz is the only main character who does not have his own "calling card": instead, his music portrays other people and events.

The Swan
(non-singing role, sometimes represented by a dancer) is an important if silent character in the first act. At the symbolic level, the Swan represents death. The scene with the swan is peripheral to the outer action but crucial to the inner.Carl Dahlhaus. Musically, the swan is represented by the Swan motif from Lohengrin.

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