“Parsifal” (Wagner) premiered on July 26 1882

The Poem

Parzival, an epic poem, is one of the masterpieces of the Middle Ages, written between 1200 and 1210 in Middle High German by Wolfram von Eschenbach. This 16-book, 25,000-line poem is in part a religious allegory describing Parzival’s painful journey from utter ignorance and naïveté to spiritual awareness. The poem introduced the theme of the Holy Grail into German literature, and it is considered to be the climax of medieval Arthurian tradition. It questions the ultimate value of an education based solely on the code of courtly honour, and it takes its hero beyond the feudal world of knights and lords to the threshold of a higher order.

Opera, Blood, and Tears
celebrating its premiere
July 26 at 3pm EST
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Parzival, who is eager to become a knight, leaves the forest home in which he has led a sheltered life. He visits Arthur’s court but is judged too raw to become a knight of the Round Table. Later, after numerous adventures, he is granted knighthood. When he visits the ailing Grail King, however, he fails to ask the one question that will release the old man from his suffering: the reason behind his illness. For his ignorance, Parzival is punished by being cursed, and in turn he curses God, whom he believes has turned against him. When he meets an old hermit who helps him realize the true nature of God, Parzival reaches a turning point in his spiritual education. He returns to the Grail King and this time, having gained wisdom, performs his duties correctly. He is rewarded with the title and duties of the keeper of the Grail.

The source for Parzival was almost certainly Perceval; ou, le conte du Graal, an unfinished work by Chrétien de Troyes. In Parzival Wolfram claims Kyot (Kiot) of Provence is his source, but scholars have been unable to identify a historical figure by that name and generally believe Kyot to be a fabrication. Wolfram’s eccentric style, with its complex rhetorical flourishes, its ambiguous syntax, and its free use of dialect, makes Parzival a difficult but richly rewarding poem. More than 70 manuscript versions of the poem are extant, testifying to its popularity in its own day. Richard Wagner used it as the basis for his last opera, Parsifal (1882).

Source: Britannica

The Opera

Parsifal, is a music drama in three acts by German composer Richard Wagner, with a German libretto by the composer. The work was first performed at Bayreuth, Bavaria, Germany, on July 26, 1882, not long before Wagner’s death, on February 13, 1883. The Transformation Music from Act I and the Good Friday Music from Act III are sometimes performed separately on orchestral programs.

Wagner himself labeled Parsifal “ein Bühnenweihfestspiel”—that is, “a theatre-consecrating festival piece”—and he initially designated the Bayreuth festival theatre as the sole performance venue for the work, which was the first to be written specifically for that theatre. In its first summer there Parsifal was performed 16 times (July 26 through August 29, 1882). The composer sensed that Parsifal would be his last stage work, and by controlling performances he was putting a financial legacy into place for his young son, Siegfried, as well as solidifying the future of his Bayreuth festival, which remained in the control of the Wagner family into the 21st century.

The composer took as a starting point Parzival, a German epic poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach, but Wagner, as usual, made the tale entirely his own. In the narrative of a questing youth, Wagner set up dichotomies of purity and desecration, self-control and licentiousness. Although he was not conventionally religious, he introduced elements of Christian tradition, including the Grail and the spear that was believed to have wounded Jesus on the cross.

Some critics have also found in Parsifal evidence of Wagner’s highly idiosyncratic views on religion, diet, heroism, and art—views he had elucidated in a series of essays published from 1878 (“Modern”) to 1881 (“Heroism and Christianity”) as the opera was taking shape. The essays are also permeated with his virulent anti-Semitism.

Perhaps largely because of its overtly Christian symbolism, Wagner considered Parsifal to be a sacred work for the stage, not an opera, and his music for the work is on the whole unusually solemn and slow. One of the first parts to be completed was the Good Friday Music, which occurs near the end of the title character’s adventures. It is music of rapt beauty, expressing repentance and transfiguration in part through leitmotifs and changes in key and ending with the pealing of bells. Wagner had by this time become so adept at orchestration that he could invoke visual effects such as shimmering light. He had mastered the union of music and meaning as he evoked ideas, story, and character.

Parsifal takes place in an imagined medieval Spain, over a span of many years.

Character Roles

Kundry, a sorceress (soprano)
Klingsor, an evil sorcerer (baritone)
Parsifal, a wandering youth (tenor)
Gurnemanz, a knight of the Grail (bass)
Amfortas, ruler of the Kingdom of the Grail (baritone)
Titurel, father of Amfortas (bass)

Source: Britannica

Amalie Materna, Emil Scaria and Hermann Winkelmann (right) in the premiere of Parsifal, 1882, in Bayreuth

Act I
Near the sanctuary of the Holy Grail, the old knight Gurnemanz and two sentries wake and perform their morning prayers, while other knights prepare a bath for their ailing ruler Amfortas, who suffers from an incurable wound. Suddenly, Kundry—a mysterious, ageless woman who serves as the Grail’s messenger—appears. She has brought medicine for Amfortas. The knights carry in the king. He reflects on a prophecy that speaks of his salvation by a “pure fool, enlightened by compassion,” then is borne off. When the esquires ask about Klingsor, a sorcerer who is trying to destroy the knights of the Grail, Gurnemanz tells the story of Amfortas’s wound: The Holy Grail—the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper—and the Spear that pierced his body on the cross were given into the care of Titurel, Amfortas’s father, who assembled a company of knights to guard the relics. Klingsor, wishing to join the brotherhood, tried to overcome his sinful thoughts by castrating himself, but the brotherhood rejected him. Seeking vengeance, he built a castle across the mountains with a magic garden full of alluring women to entrap the knights. Amfortas set out to defeat Klingsor, but was himself seduced by a terribly beautiful woman. Klingsor stole the Holy Spear from Amfortas and used it to stab him. The wound can only be healed by the innocent youth of which the prophecy has spoken. Suddenly, a swan plunges to the ground, struck dead by an arrow. The knights drag in a young man, who boasts of his archery skills. He is ashamed when Gurnemanz rebukes him, but he cannot explain his violent act or even state his name. All he remembers is his mother, Herzeleide, or “Heart’s Sorrow.” Kundry tells the youth’s history: His father died in battle, and his mother reared the boy in a forest, but now she too is dead. Gurnemanz leads the nameless youth to the banquet of the Grail, wondering if he may be the prophecy’s fulfillment.The knights assemble in the Hall of the Grail. Titurel bids Amfortas uncover the Grail to give strength to the brotherhood, but Amfortas refuses: The sight of the chalice increases his anguish. Titurel orders the esquires to proceed, and the chalice casts its glow about the hall. The nameless youth watches in astonishment but understands nothing. The ceremony ended, Gurnemanz, disappointed and angry, drives him away as an unseen voice reiterates the prophecy.

Act II
At his bewitched fortress, Klingsor, the necromancer, summons Kundry—who, under his spell, is forced to lead a double existence—and orders her to seduce the young fool. Having secured the Spear, Klingsor now seeks to destroy the youth, whom he knows can save the knights of the Grail. Hoping for redemption from her torment, Kundry protests in vain.The nameless youth enters Klingsor’s enchanted garden. Flower maidens beg for his love, but he resists them. The girls withdraw as Kundry, transformed into a beautiful young woman, appears and addresses him by his name—Parsifal. He realizes that his mother once called him so in a dream. Kundry begins her seduction by revealing memories of Parsifal’s childhood and finally kisses him. Parsifal suddenly feels Amfortas’s pain and understands compassion: He realizes that it was Kundry who brought about Amfortas’s downfall and that it is his mission to save the brotherhood of the Grail. Astonished at his transformation, Kundry tries to arouse Parsifal’s pity: She tells him of the curse that condemns her to lead an unending life of constantly alternating rebirths ever since she laughed at Christ on the cross. But Parsifal resists her. She curses him to wander hopelessly in search of Amfortas and the Grail and calls on Klingsor for help. The magician appears and hurls the Holy Spear at Parsifal, who miraculously catches it, causing Klingsor’s realm to perish.

Gurnemanz, now very old and living as a hermit near the Grail’s sanctuary, finds the penitent Kundry in the forest and awakes her from a deathlike sleep. An unknown knight approaches, and Gurnemanz soon recognizes him as Parsifal, bearing the Holy Spear. Parsifal describes his years of wandering, trying to find his way back to Amfortas and the Grail. Gurnemanz tells him that he has come at the right time: Amfortas, longing for death, has refused to uncover the Grail. The brotherhood is suffering, and Titurel has died. Kundry washes Parsifal’s feet, and Gurnemanz blesses him and proclaims him king. As his first task, Parsifal baptizes Kundry. He is struck by the beauty of nature around them, and Gurnemanz explains that this is the spell of Good Friday. The distant tolling of bells announces the funeral of Titurel, and the three make their way to the sanctuary.Knights carry the Grail, Amfortas, and Titurel’s coffin into the Hall of the Grail. Amfortas is unable to perform the rite. He begs the knights to kill him and thus end his anguish—when suddenly Parsifal appears. He touches Amfortas’s side with the Spear and heals the wound. Uncovering the Grail, he accepts the homage of the knights as their redeemer and king and blesses them. The reunion of the Grail and Spear has enlightened and rejuvenated the community.

Source: Moscow Theatre

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