“Parsifal,” which premiered on July 26, 1882, is Wagner’s final opera, and for many, his greatest.
It is undeniably unique in its conception, the work created with the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in mind (the Festspielhaus was conversely created for the “Ring” operas).
Wagner actually conceived the work in 1857 but did not complete it for 25 years and is often regarded as “Ein Bühnenweihfestspiel (A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage.” At Bayreuth, there is a tradition not to applaud after the first act of the work.
The music drama has experienced a rather difficult history but is the touchstone of the modern repertoire.
Short Plot Summary
Gurnemanz tells the Knights of the Grail how their King Amfortas came to suffer his injury that continues to torture him. He tells the story of the dark wizard Klingsor, who was once a follower of the Knights, who used a beautiful woman to lure Amfortas into his realm where he injured him with his Holy spear. A prophecy notes that only a pure fool, enlightened by compassion” can heal Amfortas.
Suddenly a swan is murdered by a young man, who is chastised by Gurnemanz for his deed. When questioned, the young man has no idea of his identity except for his mother. Kundry, who has come to bring healing salts from Arabia for Amfortas, overhears the story and reveals the young man’s past to him.
Gurnemanz takes him to Monsalvat to observe the Grail rite. Amfortas arrives, writhing in pain throughout. When the rite is over, Gurnemanz asks the young man about what he has observed but finds that he has no idea. He banishes him from Montsalvat.
The young man arrives at Klingsor’s magic castle where he is tempted by Flower maidens and then eventually Kundry, who is Klingsor’s slave. She reveals his name to be Parsifal. Parsifal resists her temptation, feeling compassion for Amfortas’ plight. She asks for compassion for her, as she has been cursed for centuries after laughing at Christ’s death on the cross. Klingsor arrives to kill Parsifal, but he stops the Spear in midair and defeats Klingsor, destroying his castle.
Years pass and Gurnemanz is now old and ragged. The Knights have dispersed without a clear leader. He finds a broken Kundry and revives her. Moments later, a mysterious knight appears – Parsifal. He recounts his lengthy search for Amfortas, noting that he has never used the Holy Spear in battle. Kundry washes Parsifal’s feet and Gurnemanz anoints him with water from the Holy Spring, recognizing him as the “pure fool, enlightened by compassion.”
Parsifal heals Amfortas, Kundry is released from her curse and dies, and the Grail is unveiled.
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Watch and Listen
Here is a famed production of the work from Bayreuth with Siegfried Jerusalem, Hans Sotin, Bernd Weickl, and Eva Randova, among others.