Parsifal - The Story of the Opera
TIME: The Middle Ages
PLACE: The northern mountains of Gothic Spain
Before the opera begins
The spear that pierced Christ’s side during the Crucifixion and the Holy Grail in which Joseph of Arimathea caught His blood were entrusted by a band of angels to Titurel. He and his fellow warriors established the kingdom of Monsalvat as a shrine for the relics. One postulant for Grail knighthood was Klingsor, a man with a disabling weakness for carnal thoughts and behavior. To further his candidacy, Klingsor castrated himself; but at Monsalvat, chastity was a matter of choice, not compulsion. Exiled from the brotherhood of knights, Klingsor built his magic castle in the desert near Monsalvat. In his garden, the Flowermaidens lie in wait to corrupt the questing Grail knights.
In spite of the Grail’s life-enhancing qualities, Titurel drifted into old age and abdicated in favor of his son, Amfortas. The new king resolved to end the conflict with Klingsor and set off for his domain, armed with the spear. But Amfortas was seduced by a beautiful woman in Klingsor’s service. While the couple was lost in passion, Klingsor stole the spear, and struck Amfortas in the side, leaving a Christ-like wound that would neither heal nor allow him to die. Amfortas has lived on in agony, while Klingsor plots to capture the Grail itself. Amfortas’s only hope is the coming of a prophesied hero to vanquish Klingsor, return the spear, and restore the brotherhood of Monsalvat.
Scene One: A forest in the Grail kingdom of Monsalvat
At daybreak, a group of young esquires are awakened by Gurnemanz, an old knight, and they say their morning prayers. Two other knights herald the approach of Amfortas for his daily restorative bath in the lake. The wild sorceress Kundry arrives through the air on her magical steed, bringing a balsam from Arabia to ease Amfortas’s pain. The king is carried into the clearing, still suffering after a terrible night. He is resigned to await the prophesied savior, one “made wise through compassion – the holy fool.” Amfortas thanks Kundry for her efforts, but she is scornful. After he is carried to his bath, some of the esquires torment Kundry, but Gurnemanz protects her, telling of her years of service to the knights, and that she may be atoning for transgressions in a former life.
Gurnemanz now explains how the Grail community came to be (Narration: Ja, wann oft lange sie uns ferne blieb) and repeats the prophecy of the holy fool. A swan rises from the lake and the youthful Parsifal appears and shoots it down. He is soon captured, and unaware of any wrongdoing, he freely confesses to killing the swan. When Gurnemanz shames him for destroying one of God’s most beautiful and harmless creatures, Parsifal weeps. Gurnemanz discovers the depth of his innocence: he does not know his home, who his father was, or even his own name. Kundry reveals that the boy’s father, Gamuret, perished in battle and that his mother, Herzeleide (Heart’s Sorrow), raised him in the wilderness to keep him ignorant of the knightly arts that caused her husband’s death. Parsifal remembers how he once saw a group of knights riding through the forest and followed them to the outside world. When Kundry reveals that Herzeleide died from grief when her son deserted her, Parsifal furiously springs at her and has to be restrained by Gurnemanz. Kundry disappears from sight, drawn into some other place and time.
It is noon, and Amfortas’s bath has ended. As a test of his purity, Gurnemanz invites Parsifal to the ceremony of the Grail. Parsifal can only ask, “Who is the Grail?” Gurnemanz responds that if he is chosen, the Grail will answer all his questions.
Scene Two: The sacred hall of Monsalvat Castle
The Grail knights file into the sacred hall of Monsalvat Castle (Chorus: Zum letzten Liebesmahle) with Parsifal observing them in stunned silence. Amfortas is carried in, while unseen choirboys intone the invitation to the Communion celebration of bread and wine. Titurel demands that his son fulfill his ritual office and uncover the Grail, but Amfortas knows that renewed sight of the holy relic will refresh his agony (Monologue: Nein! Lasst ihn unenthüllt!).
Finally Amfortas orders the Holy Chalice to be uncovered, using it to bless the bread and wine of the communion feast. He cannot partake himself, for his wound has started to bleed afresh. Gurnemanz motions to Parsifal to join in the feast, but he remains transfixed, unable to understand what he sees or to feel compassion for Amfortas’s suffering. The knights proclaim their resolve and unity (Chorus: Nehmet vom Brot). When Gurnemanz asks Parsifal to react to what he has seen, Parsifal can only shake his head. The old knight, disappointed that Parsifal has not identified the prophetic hero, gruffly sends him on his way as an unseen voice intones the prophecy of the Holy Fool.
Scene One: Klingsor’s castle
In a mirror, Klingsor watches the exploits of the approaching Parsifa; (Monologue: Die Zeit ist da). When the sorcerer summons Kundry, she rails against her accursed life. He gloats over his victory against Amfortas, revealing that Kundry had been the one who seduced the king. Now Klingsor awaits his confrontation with Parsifal. Kundry tries to resist being the instrument of another righteous man’s downfall, but Klingsor has her in his power and forces her to do his will. She infuriates him by asking if castration has made him chaste, though he consoles himself by looking forward to the day when he will control both spear and Grail. Kundry longs for eternal sleep and salvation. Klingsor transforms his castle into a lush garden and disappears.
Scene Two: Klingsor’s magic garden
Klingsor’s Flowermaidens lament the defeat of their lover knights, but they are delighted to encounter Parsifal (Chorus:
Komm, komm, holder Knabe!). Initially entranced, he is becoming irritated by their demands when an enticing voice calls his name – the first time he has heard it pronounced since his mother said it to him in a dream.
The voice belongs to Kundry, who orders the Flower Maidens to disperse. Kundry now appears, breathtakingly beautiful, and speaks to Parsifal about his childhood (Narration: Ich sah das Kind). The evocation of Herzeleide’s love for her son leads Kundry to kiss Parsifal. When the kiss turns passionate, a wave of empathetic understanding for Amfortas overcomes Parsifal (Monologue: Amfortas! Die Wunde!). He traces the line of compassion back to the bloodshed of Christ’s Passion, and knows that in expiating his own guilt, he can close one circle of God’s redemptive work. Kundry pleads for redemption from the curse incurred when, in an earlier life, she laughed at Christ on the Cross. But she defines redemption in terms of a sensual union, which Parsifal knows would be disastrous for them both. When he continues to resist her, Kundry curses him to an existence of bitter wandering and summons Klingsor to destroy him. Klingsor hurls the spear at Parsifal, who seizes it in midair and uses it to make the sign of the Cross. Klingsor is destroyed and his castle crumbles into dust. Parsifal tells Kundry and the other surviving women of the realm: “You know where you can find me again.”
Scene One: A flowering meadow in Monsalvat
Ten years have passed. On Good Friday morning Kundry returns to Monsalvat. The aging Gurnemanz appears and manages to wake her from her enchanted sleep. Dressed as a penitent, she has lost her former wildness and begs only to be allowed to serve. Gurnemanz reveals that the Grail community has fallen into decay and despair.
A knight in black armor now approaches, armed with a spear and wearing a helmet with its visor closed. Gurnemanz chides him for bearing arms on such a holy day. The mute stranger thrusts the base of his spear into the ground, removes the helmet, and kneels in prayer. Gurnemanz recognizes the wild youth of ten years ago in the life-hardened Parsifal of today, his mind seasoned by time and circumstance. He shares the story of his years of wandering (Narration: Der Irrnis und der Leiden Pfade). Although he sustained many wounds in his violent encounters, he never used the holy spear in combat.
Gurnemanz enlightens Parsifal about the Grail community’s wretchedness: Amfortas, wishing only for death, refuses to uncover the Grail and perform his office. Titurel, whose fragile life had been sustained by the sight of the Grail, has died. Without the divine bread of the communion feast, the knights have lost their heroic strength and now wander aimlessly, unable to embark on their righteous quests. (Narration: O Gnade! Höchstes Heil!). Parsifal’s emotion is so intense that he nearly loses consciousness. Gurnemanz and Kundry bathe the dust from his feet, and sprinkle his head in baptism. Kundry dries Parsifal’s feet with her hair, and she and Gurnemanz apply oil to his head. Parsifal, in turn, baptizes Kundry.
Gazing at the morning sun on the meadow, Parsifal is reminded of the flowers he met in the magic garden and comments on the discrepancy between the beauty of nature and the deep sadness of Good Friday. Gurnemanz responds that all living things die; these flowers cannot see Christ as He was on the Cross, but smile and shed tears of dew on a redeemed world. With full understanding, Parsifal now accepts his kingship.
Scene Two: The ruined hall of Monsalvat Castle
In great sorrow, the Grail knights blame Amfortas for Titurel’s death and demand that he perform his duties one last time (Chorus: Geleiten wir im bergenden Schrein). Amfortas tears open his tunic and begs the knights to end his misery with their swords (Monologue: Ja, Wehe! Wehe über mich!). Parsifal now steps forward with the spear and touches it to Amfortas’s side, instantly healing his wound and simultaneously redeeming Kundry. Assuming his kingship and restoring Monsalvat to spiritual health, Parsifal commands that the Grail be kept unveiled for all time. As all the men and women declare, “Redemption to the redeemer,” the Grail begins to glow and a white dove descends.
Parsifal draws us into its own universe, creating its own mesmerizing spell.
Richard Wagner’s final opera achieves something possible with only the greatest works of art: as baritone Thomas Hampson says, “it invigorates our inner life as human beings.” The opera returns to Lyric this season in a magnificent new production by debuting director John Caird, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.
For general director Anthony Freud, Parsifal is “one of the most alluring, magically compelling scores ever created. In many ways it’s Wagner’s most beautiful and mysterious score, compelling in its breadth, atmosphere, and emotional impact. It can be enjoyed purely as a narrative – a mystical, mythical story of the knights of the Holy Grail – but underlying it is a range of complex theology that also offers endless opportunities for thought and discussion.”
With a story taken from the medieval poem Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, the opera transports us to Monsalvat, the castle where, surrounded by a brotherhood of devoted knights, Amfortas (Hampson) guards the Holy Grail. In the castle’s forest a youth, Parsifal (tenor Paul Groves), is apprehended for killing a swan. Gurnemanz (bass Kwangchul Youn/debut), a venerable knight, senses that this may be the “pure fool” prophesied as the savior of the physically and emotionally wounded Amfortas. When the brotherhood’s sacred rituals leave Parsifal uncomprehending, Gurnemanz sends him away. Parsifal finds himself in the magic garden of Klingsor (baritone Tómas Tómasson), a sorcerer previously rejected for membership in the brotherhood. Klingsor sends the mysterious, tortured Kundry (mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas/debut) to seduce Parsifal. When she kisses him, he instantly understands Amfortas’s suffering. Rejecting Kundry, he leaves to wander the world. Years later he returns to the Grail knights, mature and wise. He baptizes Kundry, heals the wounded Amfortas, and becomes the new guardian of the Grail.
Those are the basic events, but what is the opera really about? “For me,” says Sir Andrew Davis, “it’s about community, forgiveness, redemption – the ability that people have to find grace.” The quality of compassion is essential: according to the prophecy, “made wise through compassion, the pure fool” will heal Amfortas.
“Compassion and redemption – one is very dependent on the other,” notes Caird. “Parsifal’s redemption is entirely tied up with whether or not he learns compassion.” The piece may be awash with Christian symbolism (elements of Buddhism enter into it as well), but “Wagner’s essential message remains a huge mirror to the human condition,” says Hampson, “and the challenge to each individual to resolve that mirror in their life.”
A deep complexity pervades the major characters – particularly Amfortas, who embodies the opera’s essential conflict between the sacred and profane. Before the opera begins, he’d yielded to sensuality in the seductive form of Kundry. The spear with which Christ was wounded on the Cross had been Amfortas’s to guard, but he lost it to Klingsor, who then wounded him with it. The core of Amfortas’s despair, says Hampson, is that “he has betrayed himself, his own soul, his own heart, his own existence. He must find a way to make himself whole again. In some ways it’s a wound that can be closed only by this other person [Parsifal] who understands and forgives him as he forgives himself – that is the essence of compassion.”
For Amfortas, as well as for Kundry, Gurnemanz, and the title role, Wagner created devastatingly moving arias. The grandeur of the choruses and extended orchestral interludes remains unsurpassed anywhere in the entire operatic repertoire. “It took so long for Wagner to get Parsifal written,” says Hampson. “Perhaps he knew that he had to wait to find his musical language. It seems to me that Wagner is reinventing himself in Parsifal. The piece doesn’t seem to knock open the edges of atonality the way Tristan does, but I don’t think you can listen to Act Two of Parsifal and not completely accept that Elektra was around the corner.”
The Bayreuth theater was ideal for the musical side of Parsifal, but Wagner also wanted his detailed stage directions (spelled out in the libretto) brought to life in performance. “You don’t ignore Wagner’s stage directions,” explains production designer Johan Engels. “You absorb them. I think opera is a living piece of art. There’s always a danger that if you slavishly follow the directions, you end up with a piece that should be in a museum somewhere as the one and only production of Parsifal! As with Shakespeare, each new production of the piece can take on new meaning for each generation.”
Caird’s thinking began with his desire “to come up with visual imagery that is comparable in some way with the sheer scale, beauty, and majesty of the music.” Collaborating with his designer, he had to examine how to present the opposites existing in this piece: “a natural and an unnatural world, a world of monasticism and a world of sensuality, a world that is strictly regimented that turns into a world that is destroyed and dysfunctional.” The formidable visual challenges of each act include “the very long transformation scenes in which something has to be continuously happening in order to keep the stage picture alive.”
Lyric’s new production begins in the forest where we first meet Gurnemanz, Kundry, Amfortas, and finally the youthful Parsifal. The stage eventually transforms itself for the opera’s second scene in the hall of the Grail. Within the hall is a symbol created by Engels as a strong focus of the space: a large, open, gold-colored hand. This, for Caird, is “a metaphorical symbol of brotherhood” and “an emblem that unites the brotherhood in its quest for simple humanity.”
Act Two brings more challenges, beginning with the opening scene: Engels has given Klingsor “a lava-like world of pulsing red,” in which Klingsor summons Kundry to his service. “He’s set himself up as a god,” says Caird, “so his world has to be intensely sensual but completely unnatural.” Then, in Klingsor’s magic garden, Parsifal is tempted by the Flowermaidens. Engels’s inspiration here is Loie Fuller (born in what is now Hinsdale, Illinois), who captivated turn-of-the-last-century Paris by using long pieces of silk in her dancing.
By Act Three Amfortas’s agony has increased almost beyond endurance, and the brotherhood has totally deteriorated. The hall of the Grail, says Engels, is now “ripped apart, columns have fallen, and we’re taking out pieces of the floor, so the knights will literally be climbing through holes trying to form some kind of order in that space.” Relief comes with Parsifal healing Amfortas and becoming the brotherhood’s savior.
The opera ends with a benedictionlike chorus sung by women’s voices, traditionally from offstage. It has always bothered Caird that “Wagner has created a world that ignores the very existence of women as independent beings.” The women’s voices represent to the director “a clear indication of a return to the idea of the feminine in the last five minutes of the opera.” Caird enables them to appear, sharing in the redemption. The director adds, “Personally I can’t see how that story can possibly end with only the blokes as celebrants.”
There’s one more innovation, recalling Caird’s legendary staging of Nicholas Nickleby, where certain non-human production elements (a coach being the most memorable example) are brought to life by human performers. Examples in Parsifal are the swan in Act One, then in Act Two the spear thrown by Klingsor and caught by Parsifal. In such cases “we never hide the tricks that we do,” says Engels, “but at the same time you generate the imagination of the audience, letting them create the world and giving them the ability to take flight.”
director John Caird takes questions from Lyric Opera dramaturg Roger Pines
I know you consider redemption the piece’s
overall theme, and I’ve seen this stated a lot in print, but just as frequently
people seem to think it’s all about compassion.
But it’s about both, isn’t it?
Compassion and redemption. Yes, one is very dependent on the other. The theme
of redemption—Parsifal’s redemption— is entirely tied up with whether or not
he learns compassion. That’s the fundamental story of the work that the opera
is based on: Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.
Parsifal has to grow up and become a proper man by understanding what compassion
is. In the original story, his inability to feel compassion for Amfortas when
he first meets him is proof that he needs to redeem himself before he is worthy
of the Grail. Wagner has closely followed that story line.
RP: In your comments to our general director,
Anthony Freud, you mentioned the idea that Wagner was using the piece as a
vehicle to redeem himself. How is it an autobiographical work, and what
was he redeeming himself from?
It’s a very good question. I think, in many senses, all of Wagner’s late work
is autobiographical. He puts himself into all his characters in one way or
another, especially in Parsifal. Sometimes
with the work of great artists, you feel they are identifying more with one
role than another. For instance in the late works of Henrik Ibsen, the central
male role is always Ibsen himself, up against the rest of the world—a world
that is always antagonistic toward him or uncaring about him.
the case of Wagner, knowing as I’m sure he did that this was his last major piece,
there is a sense that he is writing his own Requiem
Mass, or Missa Solemnis—a piece
that he knows will be his final artistic and intellectual statement. Because of
this, he seems to fill all his characters with some autobiographical elements.
Most obviously he is Parsifal, the questing knight, just as he was in life. Wagner
quested after new developments in music—in a long and quite lonely aesthetic journey—just as Parsifal, the holy fool, quests for the truth in his journey.
Wagner is also present in Amfortas, the psychologically and sexually wounded
man. He was, all his life, an extraordinarily self-inquiring man. He couldn’t
leave himself alone in terms of his thought processes and artistic
accomplishments. He felt slights against him very deeply. Indeed, he felt all his
personal relationships very deeply—with family, friends and enemies. The
portrait of Amfortas as a man who needs healing, who needs redemption, is
is also present in Klingsor—the libertine, the sybaritic man who kicks against
the conventional world by indulging himself and defying the social proprieties around
him. In a strange way he’s even present in Kundry—as the person who just
wants to serve others. All of this is another way of saying that Wagner’s
writing technique involved himself in steeping himself in the characters he was
writing, acting them out in his imagination as he wrote them, which was why
they’re all written in their way so sympathetically. There aren’t villains and
heroes in the sense of one character being evidently superior or more morally
worthy than another. Even Klingsor is written passionately from Klingsor’s
point of view. You can feel the pain of the man, and the deep emotional
commitment needed to conquer his enemies as he develops his stratagems.
You’ve spoken about the brotherhood in
this opera as “a hermetically sealed male society.”
This is the theme with which Wagner has strayed furthest from the original source
material. In the Wolfram von Eschenbach story, the exploits of the knights are
all being done in service of ladies. The knights’ primary mission is to be
worthy of their womenfolk. Indeed, that is the over-riding theme of most medieval
romance literature. Wagner has chosen to lose that side of the story
completely, and it’s interesting to ask why. It explains a lot about Wagner
himself: he wanted his hero to be motivated by a pure sense of self-exploration,
untainted by the weakness he associated with sexual desire.
radical simplification of the original story also had a musical motive: he
wanted Kundry to be the only female voice in the work. The only other women he is interested in are drawn from Eschenbach‘s
original story - the women who are imprisoned by Klingsor. Wagner seems far
more fascinated by women who need rescuing than by women who require to be
served! They seem to be the women he found most alluring. But having said that,
in Act Two he does write a
wonderfully semi-erotic scene with the Flowermaidens and Parsifal, with Kundry
at the very center of an absorbingly female world. His writing is glamorous there—and sensual.
need is to have Parsifal strong enough to deny himself the pleasure of those
females, and deny himself the pleasure of a real relationship with Kundry when
she tries to seduce him. This provides a difficulty for the performers and
director: Kundry is for the most part painted quite sympathetically, but at the
heart of Act Two she is required to be a heartless femme fatale. Having experienced that wonderfully sensual scene,
Parsifal then returns to Monsalvat seeming
to have forgotten about her, and indeed, about all the other women. But Wagner
leaves us a clue in Act Three: after the repentant Kundry has washed his feet, Parsifal
sings about the beauty of the countryside and remembers the Flowermaidens,
wondering if they, too, will be redeemed. I’m taking that as a clue to bring these
lost souls back in the third act - but as ordinary women. The Flowermaidens are
women trapped into being the seductive lures of Klingsor’s empire. At the point
when Parsifal overcomes his desire for Kundry, they are revealed to be what
they truly are.
my interpretation of the work, I want Parsifal to be worthy of his redemption, and
the redemptions of Amfortas and Kundry. But I also want him to understand that
the only way the brotherhood can redeem itself is if it includes a sisterhood
RP: Is Parsifal a truly religious piece?
is a religious piece—there's no question of that. Wagner’s decision to present
the dénoument of the work on Good
Friday and to infuse Parsifal’s quest with so much Christian imagery—it can’t
be regarded as a completely secular work. But I think it’s also a deeply philosophical work. Towards the end of
his life, Wagner got more and more interested in Buddhism and Asceticism. He
was also profoundly influenced by the work of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer—and especially fascinated by his theories about collective consciousness, the
subjugation of the will, and compassion towards the animal kingdom. Parsifal is a strange and rich mixture
of Schopenhauerian philosophy on the one hand and Christian mythology on the
other. It's almost as if Wagner is trying to reconcile the two ideologies, partly
because he was so deeply influenced by both and at the end of his life wanted
to reconcile them within himself—and partly out of a brave and grandiose
desire to distill the real truth about human existence in one great work.
RP: Do you think the Buddhist element is important?
read that Buddha explained in his first sermon that desire is the cause of
suffering. Buddha also taught that to realize
enlightenment, a person must develop two qualities – wisdom and compassion.
It’s part of the central theme—the
way Buddhist philosophy overlaps with Christian faith. And of course the two
have a great deal in common. The central event of Christianity, the
crucifixion, tells of the death of a man who has the wisdom and compassion to
understand that he is laying down his life for his fellow man.
RP: How do you view the whole idea of Wagner’s
designation of the piece as a “Stage-festival consecration play”? Is this all that
Not really. At the point when he was writing Parsifal, the form of opera was beginning to go through quite a
revolution, very much influenced by Wagner himself. At the time he may have
been a little nervous that his piece would be misunderstood because of its lack
of conventional drama. These days opera has become all sorts of things to all
sorts of different people, composers and librettists included. So the Parsifal we know today is no more nor
less of an opera than any other piece written in a groundbreaking way. There are
certainly elements in Parsifal of
oratorio and the Passion. The action is static, and what drama there is takes a
long time to develop. For its period the libretto is not standard operatic fare:
there’s nothing melodramatic in it, the plot doesn’t rely on weird
coincidences, there are no romantic heroes or villains, there isn’t a central
romantic love story in it. In Bernard Shaw’s phrase, it doesn't have a soprano
and a tenor trying to make love and a baritone trying to stop them! Parsifal is far more contemplative than most
operas of its period. Wagner perhaps felt that a subtitle would help to explain
his chosen form. But it’s an opera, through and through!
Wagner is pretty amazingly detailed in
his stage directions. How closely do you intend to follow them?
As with all stage directions, some of them are useful, some less so. A lot of
the stage directions were written in order to prove to his producers at the
time that what he was writing was possible, and to help explain how elements of
the music could be interpreted visually—perhaps because he started with a
visual inspiration for which he then created music. Getting the visual elements
right is crucial, but slavishly copying what Wagner has suggested is not so important.
What he describes is mostly in a conventional 19th-century
theatrical tradition. In many instances you really wouldn’t want to watch exactly
what he’s written! But you get some good clues from it, as to the relative
importance of the visual impact set against the musical impact, or the symbolic
image he’s after as a way of underpinning the musical idea.
RP: We hear so much from Gurnemanz. How do you as
a director maintain interest through his whole big scene in Act One and bring
the audience along with you?
There is always the risk of over-illustrating things. If a singer is given a
long aria by the composer, the most important thing is really to listen to the
artist, in our case Kwangchoul Youn. It will be a wonderful experience simply listening
to a great Wagner interpreter singing that aria—just as it will be with Thomas
Hampson singing Amfortas or Tómas Tómasson Tomasson singing Klingsor. You don’t
want to fill the stage with a lot of extraneous visual material that will stop
you from enjoying the detailed interpretation the singer brings to the role. On
the other hand, the context in which Gurnemanz and the other characters are singing
is also very important. Who are they singing to? How are their listeners understanding
them? This is crucial in terms of how well the audience will understand them.
RP: Amfortas speaks of “the agony of ecstasy” –
is that a useful idea?
That’s a tricky one. His agony is from a wound that is, in a way,
self-inflicted. In the original story, he is wounded in “the very place in
which he sinned.” Klingsor is able to stab him with the holy spear because
Amfortas’s fortitude was weakened by an irresistible woman in Klingsor’s realm.
This makes him a mirror image of Klingsor, who has castrated himself as a punishment
for his uncontrollably sinful thoughts. But Amfortas is a man whose wound is as
much psychological as it is physical. If it was simply a case of a man with a
painful illness or disease, then that’s not a very dramatic event on which to
build a whole story.
real agony is that he needs the Grail
to continue living. But his continuing life is a torture to him because he
feels unworthy of the Grail, and he feels unworthy of the respect of the brotherhood
because he knows he has let them down. He’s a man living in the grip of a terrible
failure. I suppose, in a way, this is the most mortal of all wounds, especially
for someone who is in any way a moral or spiritual figure, or in the case of his
creator, Wagner, an artistic giant. The agony of Amfortas is that his journey
is incomplete, that his relationship with God has been sullied, that he can’t
live happily and he can’t die happily. That’s his great torture.
said that, it is hard not to imagine that the woman who seduced Amfortas in
Klingsor’s realm was Kundry in one of her many incarnations. So, to some
extent, one might think of him as suffering the pangs of unrequited love! It is
certainly significant that Kundry is with Amfortas when Parsifal salves away
his pain with the spear.
using people to play the swan. And aren’t you planning to use the swan at the
end, instead of the usual dove?
Yes, I am. The dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit descending, a symbol of the
spirit of resurrection, a symbol of redemption. But it is Parsifal's
destruction of a living creature in Act One that Wagner uses to show how
morally worthless Parsifal is—and to illustrate his inability to understand
human compassion. By using a human figure as the swan, one is able to make this
clear. One can also draw attention to Wagner’s fascination with the idea of the
“oneness” of creation. For the brotherhood, the life of a swan and the life of
a man have an equal value. It’s therefore quite fitting that in the final
analysis Parsifal, as it were, repairs the damage he has done.
How specific and detailed would you like
the ritual in the second scene of Act One to be? And what is the overall spirit of that episode?
It’s all in the content of the words there. What is being sung by the
brotherhood is an anthem of faith in God, faith in one another, faith in the
spiritual world, faith in something beyond the physical, faith in the future,
in the face of terrible deprivation and pain and suffering.
interesting that in the source that Wagner is drawing from—the Eschenbach story—the Grail is described as a stone. It’s Wagner who has made it much more an
emblem of the Christian faith, like the chalice of the Last Supper. In Eschenbach
it is more like a philosopher’s stone, an alchemical force that can create
magical feasts and effects with an array of different drinks and meals. But if
Wagner has created his own form of Holy Communion, he has added some highly
original touches. He has his younger squires singing a verse about their
expectation that the Innocent Fool will come one day and bring enlightenment to
all. Again, the focus here is the all-important element. While the service
continues, Parsifal witnesses it unaware that he himself is the Innocent Fool
who will one day become the Redeemer.
In this production we also see the gold
hand. This will be a major topic of conversation, so we should be clear from
the start as to how you want to use it.
This is an emblem invented by Johan Engels, the designer, as a metaphorical
symbol of brotherhood—the clasping of hands, praying hands, the emblem that
unites the brotherhood in its quest for simple humanity. But Johan has taken it
into the realms of religious iconography, just as you have with crucifixes in
church, or with golden Buddhas. Religions have a tendency, the more established
they become, to express the metaphors of their beliefs in terms of solid
gold hand also helps us to tell the story of Amfortas’s father Titurel. There
has to be a real figure of Titurel—it’s not just a light from above or
whatever. His death is being mourned in Act Three, therefore he must be more
alive than dead in Act One, or there isn’t a story. But this is a very strange
character: he is partly a father figure, Amfortas’s father, the ex-king—or king
emeritus—but he’s also a way of representing God the Father. Thus, in the
dysfunctional brotherhood that Parsifal returns to in Act Three, the destroyed version, God the Father has
died—constituting a shocking event in the history of the brotherhood, but
corresponding very much to what Wagner felt happening to religious belief in
the 19th century. If God died in the Age of Reason, then coherent
philosophies were needed to replace the time-honored religious dogmas.
What should the uncovering of the Grail
represent to the audience?
I think it’s a focal point for the brotherhood to be able to concentrate their
minds on the things they find most important in life. It’s like any religious
or philosophical metaphor—it’s the ability to focus on a solid object as a
way of focusing the mind on something important philosophically or spiritually,
in this case the need for reverence and compassion, brotherhood and humanity.
RP: What about your vision for Klingsor? It’s a
red world he’s in, isn’t it?
It comes from feeling that there is a great deal of imagery in the piece about blood – the killing of the swan in the
first act, Amfortas’s wound, the blood of the Savior, Klingsor’s
self-mutilation. Amfortas and Klingsor are really different aspects of the same
character, both suffering very similar fates. Klingsor has castrated himself
and is living in a sexless world, but is holding to himself all the available
females in the story—including Kundry. He is ruling over a world of the
purely sensual and purely selfish. It’s a world that has one man at the center controlling
everything around him—all women, all men, the future, anything that comes within
his ambit. In other words, he’s set himself up as a god, just as Lucifer did
when he fell from grace. So his world has to be intensely sensual, but
completely unnatural. It’s a tricky world to find the right pictures for. But
given that it’s full of Flowermaidens—flowers that have become women or women
who have become flowers, or some mixture of the two—the visual decision by
Johan and myself was to make that world the world of very vivid floral colors,
the most vivid Johan could conjure up, purples and reds, pinks and oranges. By
contrast, the natural world of Monsalvat is all in greens and grays and browns.
Your view of Kundry, the opera’s most
complicated character. How do we make sense of the totally different sides of
her? She’s seemingly schizophrenic.
Yes, she is. And that’s a reflection of her origin as a character—or a
conflation of characters. Wagner decided to subsume all the other female
characters from the Eschenbach story into this one person in order to shape the
plot to a specific musical design. The basic source for the character is Kundry
the sorcerer, who in the Eschenbach story is a monstrously revolting creature—incredibly clever, intellectual, speaking dozens of languages, cleverer than
any man alive - but she also has the features of a bear, huge claws—actually
a devilish creation. She represents every possible threat to men, all wound up
into one creature. But Wagner only wanted one major female character in the
piece. I think musically he didn’t hear another female protagonist, and he
didn’t want Kundry just to be the mighty sorceress who affects the plot against
Parsifal in the first instance and then in his favor in the second, as in the
source. He wanted her to represent all the other aspects of the feminine, the
maternal, the sexual, the alluring, the manipulative, the caring—so he’s
rolled all these female attitudes up into one character. Inevitably that makes
for a schizophrenic mix! She has no choice but to be. It’s an understandable choice
of Wagner’s, I think, given the subject matter. He could easily have written the
piece with another female character—but it’s hard to see how she wouldn't
have become some sort of romantic interest for Parsifal, and he really wasn’t
interested in that. He must have been conscious, too, of writing a mighty part
for a leading singer. He wanted the part of Kundry to be a fantastic vehicle
for an artist to sing and act—and he obviously relished writing all these conflicting
aspects of her.
She’s longing for Parsifal to yield to
her, yet at the same time
longing for him to resist her, since that way she’ll be redeemed.
In fact, Wagner makes it very clear that she is unwilling to seduce Parsifal
until Klingsor threatens her and forces her to do it. At the start of Act Two
she is completely under Klingsor’s magic control. As such, it is Parsifal is
perceptive in interpreting the way she behaves towards him in their long scene;
he works out that he is making love to a woman – or he is talking love to a woman—who is not being true to herself. In
other words, he sees through her false feminine seductiveness to something
underneath. In fact, he sees his mother, or perhaps all women in the form of
his mother—a psychologically fascinating and potent moment. In doing so, he
sees that there is something more important than sex—or something more important
than mere sex, put it that way.
says to Parsifal, “Let me love you and you will give me redemption.”
How does the one follow from the other? I thought he needs to resist her and she finds redemption that
What one mustn’t leave out of account here is that Parsifal understands, in a
sudden flash of perception, that if he yields to Kundry he will betray
Amfortas, because he will become like
Amfortas. He will be yet another man who went on a mission and came back with
nothing but a wound. He understands where Amfortas’s wound comes from, and at
that moment he knows that his true mission is to return to Monsalvat and express
his compassion for Amfortas. He finally understands the nature of Amfortas’s
Until Klingsor’s grip on Kundry is
broken, she’s still under his spell. She might think in that moment that she’s going to be redeemed by seducing Parsifal,
but if she managed it, he would be yet one more name on her long list of
seductions and she would be back in her agony again. Parsifal’s perception is absolutely
correct: the only way he can save Kundry is by resisting her, and it turns out
to be true. She follows him back to Monsalvat and is contrite. She becomes his
creature, his worshipping mother/lover/Magdalen figure, but only because he’s managed
to resist her, or rather Klingsor through her. He’s managed to resist becoming a
selfish, sensual man and has come to feel compassion for people who are less
fortunate and weaker than he is.
Let’s talk about the labyrinth onstage in
Act Three of this production.
It’s another one of those very tricky things about the story: in the original Eschenbach
source there is no way back to Monsalvat—you can’t get there by wanting to
get there. You can only arrive there when you least desire it. It’s like the
children trying to get into Narnia in C.S. Lewis's chronicles—if you try to
get back, you never will. It’s only because of what you feel deep inside, or
what other people’s needs of you are, that allow you to get back to Monsalvat.
It’s a deeply philosophical and metaphysical point that the road to salvation
is not necessarily one that is completely in your control; it is defined by how
you live and not by what you want—so in that sense it is a labyrinth. You
won’t know when you’ve arrived at the end of it until you suddenly find
RP: In the final scene you want Amfortas to
die and Kundry to live, correct? Why?
I’m still thinking about that—I’m not sure which way I’m going to jump there.
The death of Kundry is frankly a little sentimental and uncalled for. It’s
another example of the rather obvious sexism involved in the piece—the bad
girl having to die in the last act. It’s not really fair, after all she’s
achieved and all that she’s served, to suddenly kill her off for no coherent reason,
whereas I think the demise of Amfortas is much more obviously called for. If Amfortas
is completely cured again, why is he not re-crowned king? Given his mortal
spiritual agony, he seems to me more like a man in desperate need of a
dignified death than a man who would much savor a quiet retirement! But we
shall see what the music tells us to do with these characters in their final
What about the unity of men and women in
the finale of this production?
The brotherhood will never be the same again—it shouldn’t try to be the same again. What a grim
place, where boys are chosen to become knights, locked away from their mothers
and normal family life, and shut up in a monastery to be taught self-negation. Wagner
has created a world that ignores the very existence of women as independent
beings—and is therefore in danger of denying the power of his parable to half
of his audience. On first analyzing the piece and listening to the music, and especially
on reading the material from which it's drawn, I think my instinct was that Wagner
was right on the edge of doing something with the story that he didn’t quite follow
through. He has these wonderful female voices singing at the end, voices from
heaven—not all boy-soprano voices—but rather, a return to the sensual sound of the Flowermaidens
in Act Two. Real soprano and mezzo voices, operatic voices. So there is a clear
indication of a return to the idea of the feminine in the last five minutes of
the opera. But Wagner kept his women in the wings—or up in the fly-tower—and
it’s not that big a leap to let them appear and share in the redemption with
everyone else. They've certainly earned it!
end of Parsifal has always felt to me
like the end of a war. It’s as if everyone has been wounded, damaged by a long
period of terrible experience but finally released from pain into salvation—just as the great Passions of Bach end by celebrating the peaceful joy and deep
rest that are the natural successors to pain and death. I think Wagner was very
influenced by the Passion story—and the long journey that finally ends with a
homecoming of happiness, resolution and compassion. Personally I can't see how
that story can possibly end with only the blokes as celebrants. That’s not how
stories have their happy endings. With only men onstage at the end, all I would
be able to think is, “Here we go again—Parsifal is the new Amfortas, Amfortas
is the new Titurel, and we’re back at the beginning. Nothing’s been decided,
it’s the same dysfunctional all-male society, and nobody’s learned anything.”
What about your collaboration with Johan Engels—how did you develop your vision for the piece?
I think the first thing I said to Johan was, “The music in Parsifal is shatteringly beautiful, so the set’s got to be
beautiful—the world has to be
beautiful.” There has to be beauty both visually and aurally throughout the evening. It’s not a sufficient response to
the piece to create something ugly and barbaric onstage in response to the
stunning complexity and beauty of the music. Perhaps not exactly as Wagner described
in the stage directions, but we have to come up with a visual imagery that is
comparable in some way with the sheer scale and beauty and majesty of the
music. That’s where we started, and then we moved on to how we had to be able
to present a natural and an unnatural world, a world of monasticism—and a
world of sensuality. There are a lot of opposites in the piece—a world that
is very strictly controlled and regimented that turns into a world that is destroyed
and dysfunctional. Once we started to talk about the basic structure of the
images, we went on to the specific staging difficulties demanded by the score, the
very long transformation scenes in which something has to be continuously happening
in order to keep the stage picture alive.
We haven’t said much about the music up to now. What episode do you find most
memorable and why?
So much of it is so moving—the Amfortas material is very beautiful and
painful. I think the Act Two material between Klingsor and Kundry, and then between
Kundry and Parsifal is absolutely spellbinding, musically and emotionally mesmerizing,
wonderfully written and orchestrated. In the final 40 minutes—Parsifal’s
return to the destroyed brotherhood and the restoration of the spear—the music
is so beautifully conceived. But really, it’s too huge and complete a piece to be
able to single out favorite bits. One piece of the musical experience leads
seamlessly onto the next.
What suggestions can we offer to audience
members who are new to the piece?
Newcomers to opera probably shouldn't start with Parsifal. But newcomers to Wagner can look forward to one of the
greatest operatic works by one of the greatest 19th-century composers,
in the form of his artistic and philosophical masterwork. For anybody who has a
real interest in religion or philosophy, in the spiritual life, this is a beautifully
contemplative way of thinking about the most important things in this world—humanity, compassion and man’s relationship with god and nature. It's an opera
that will be very well understood by people who are ready to sit and listen and
appreciate, and are not be in too much of a hurry to get to the end!
need to be ready to invest
emotionally and intellectually in a production of Parsifal. You won’t sit there in floods of tears from one moment to
the next as the protagonist characters tear themselves and one another to
emotional pieces—this is a very different palette of colors from that of
Puccini or Verdi—but you will sit there and have profound thoughts about the
nature of human life and how philosophy and religion, bravery and
self-knowledge can combine as a salve to the greatest tribulations in our
On the Record
Roger Pines, dramaturg, and Jesse Gram, audience education manager at Lyric Opera, recommend these recorded performances:
Minton, Weikl, King, Moll, Mazura; Bavarian Radio Chorus and Orchestra, cond. Kubelik. (Arts Music)
Meier, Hofmann, Estes, Salminen, Mazura; Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival, Levine. (Philips)
Shuard, Vickers, Bailey, Hendrix, McIntyre; Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, cond. Goodall. (Covent Garden Historical Series)
Meier, Domingo, Struckmann, Selig, Bankl; Vienna State Opera Chorus and Orchestra, cond. Thielemann. (DG)
Dalayman, Vogt, Struckmann, Holl, St. Hill; Netherlands Radio Chorus and Orchestra, cond. van Zweden. (Challenge)
DeYoung, Elsner, Nikitin, Selig, Schulte; Berlin Radio Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, cond. Janowski. (Pentatone)
Meier, Ellsworth, Joll, McIntyre, Follwell; Welsh National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, cond. Goodall. (EMI)
Vejzovic, Hofmann, van Dam, Moll, Nimsgern; Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Berlin Philharmonic, cond. Karajan. (DG)
Urmana, Lehman, Putilin, Pape, Nikitin; Chorus and Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater, cond. Gergiev. (Mariinsky)
Of special historical interest:
Mödl, Windgassen, London, Weber, Uhde; Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival, cond. Knappertsbusch. (Teldec)
Mödl, Thomas, London, Hotter, Neidlinger; Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival, cond. Knappertsbusch. (Philips)
Mödl, Vinay, London, Weber, Uhde; Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival, cond. Clemens Krauss. (Archipel)
Lammers, Liebl, Waechter, Frick, O. Kraus; Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, cond. Kempe. (Testament)
Meier, Ventris, Hampson, Salminen, Fox; Baden-Baden Festival Choir, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, cond. Nagano, dir. Lehnhoff. (Opus Arte)
Meier, Elming, Struckmann, Tomlinson, von Kannen; Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival, cond. Barenboim, dir. Kupfer. (EuroArts)
Randová, Jerusalem, Weikl, Sotin, Roar; Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival, cond. Stein, dir. Wo. Wagner. (DG)
Naef, Ventris, Volle, Salminen, Groissböck; Zurich Opera Chorus and Orchestra, cond. Haitink, dir. Hollmann. (DG)