Parsifal - Synopsis

Richard Wagner: Parsifal. Nikolai Schukoff, John Tomlinson Richard Wagner: Parsifal Richard Wagner: Parsifal


Richard Wagner



In the time of the Christian persecution angels entrusted the Knight Titurel with two sacred objects: a grail and a lance. The Grail is the chalice from which Jesus Christ drank at the Last Supper and in which the blood of Christ was caught as he hung on the cross. The lance was that used by the Roman soldier Longinus to open Christ’s side after his death. To safeguard these sacred relics Titurel built the castle Monsalvat in a remote place. Here he gathered about him men who, having taken a vow of chastity, have pledged themselves as Knights of the Holy Grail to fight injustice in the world. The strength they need for this is provided by regular unveilings of the Grail. They consider unconditional obedience to the vow of chastity to be the absolute precondition for their work.

Klingsor also aspired to join the Knights of the Holy Grail. As he was unable to remain chaste, he emasculated himself, but was still rejected by Titurel. To take revenge he built a castle with tempting maidens. It is their task to tempt the chaste Knights to break their vow and thus weaken the order of the Grail. After Amfortas had been crowned King of the Grail by his father Titurel, he resolved to destroy Klingsor and thus remove the constant threat. Armed with the sacred lance, he encountered Kundry in the magic castle. She had ridiculed Christ on his way to the cross. But ever since she has seen the error of her ways, she has wandered restlessly through countless lives, in order to encounter this situation once more and redeem her mistake. In the area of the Grail she is the helping servant, always hoping to encounter here her redeemer. In Klingor’s realm, however, she is the diabolical temptress. Amfortas succumbed to Kundry’s charms, lost his lance to Klingsor and suffered a wound which will not heal.

Act One

Gurnemanz, who founded the order of the Grail with Titurel, lives outside the community of Knights like a hermit. He is waiting in the early morning for the sick Amfortas to be carried down to the lake where he hopes to find in the water relief from his suffering.

Kundry brings a medicine from Arabia. Amfortas takes it, although he knows from the prophecy of the Grail that he can only be healed by a guileless fool who has gained knowledge through compassion. As the squires begin to torment Kundry, who is a stranger to them, Gurnemanz protects her, although he cannot deny that she is partly to blame for the king’s suffering. He tries to impart to the young men the idea and history of the order of the Grail and to explain the causes of the present catastrophic situation.

Suddenly a swan hit by an arrow plunges to the ground before them. The archer is not aware that he has done wrong. He knows neither his name nor where he comes from; the only name he knows is that of his mother: Herzeleide. Kundry knows that he was raised by his mother in complete isolation, because she wanted to prevent him from dying in battle like his father. Gurnemanz begins to see a glimmer of hope: this youth could be the guileless fool they have been waiting for, the redeemer of the Grail. He takes him to the Grail, where he is to take part in the ritual of its unveiling. Amfortas does not want to carry out the sacred rite because the sight of the Grail provides him with new vitality which prolongs his suffering. Finally he does his duty.

The unknown young man has witnessed the ritual which causes Amfortas so much pain, but because of his immaturity is unable to express his compassion. Deeply disappointed Gurnemanz banishes him from the realm of the Grail.

Act Two

Klingsor has recognized that his existence is endangered. He orders Kundry to seduce the strange young man who is approaching the magician’s territory. Within the framework of a value system opposed to physical and sensual pleasures he would be thus rendered unfit to redeem the Knights of the Grail for whom the vow of chastity is absolute.

In Klingsor’s magic garden the flower maidens try to tempt the young man to join their loveplay, but he refuses. Then Kundry calls him by the name his mother once used in a dream – Parsifal – and he turns to her. She tells him of Herzeleide, who died after her son left her.

Parsifal feels responsible for the death of his mother. Kundry offers to comfort him: by experiencing love he will mature and free himself of this guilt. She kisses him. At this moment Parsifal comprehends what he saw in the temple of the Grail. Now he understands Amfortas’s suffering und realises what task has been entrusted to him: to regain the sacred lance; to heal Amfortas, to become King of the Grail and to restore to the Order its former effectiveness.

Kundry tries desperately to make clear to him that she too needs to be redeemed. She is convinced that she has finally found the person with whom she can expunge her error: to have derided a person who did not pay like with like. Parsifal remains steadfast. Kundry curses him and calls Klingsor to help her. He throws the lance at Parsifal but cannot wound him. Parsifal destroys Klingsor’s magic garden and sets out to seek the Grail.

Act Three

Kundry has returned to the realm of the Grail where Gurnemanz finds her on Good Friday morning half-frozen. She appears unable to speak and can only utter two words: »to serve, to serve!« A strange knight appears. By the sacred lance he is carrying Gurnemanz recognizes that it is Parsifal. With intense emotion Gurnemanz tells him how hopeless the situation in the Grail kingdom has become. Amfortas has not unveiled the Grail for a long time and Titurel has died.

Parsifal accuses himself of being responsible for the catastrophe. He is washed by Gurnemanz and Kundry and crowned king. Kundry is baptised by Parsifal. All three experience a moment of complete and utter human fullness. Amfortas had reluctantly agreed to unveil the Grail one last time during his father’s funeral. But now he refuses. A violent dispute threatens to erupt. Parsifal intervenes. He heals Amfortas and assumes the office of King of the Grail. Kundry dies.

Translation: Christopher Balme
© Bayerische Staatsoper