Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, his final opera, was created in parallel with his greatest creations including The Ring and Tristan. Beginning in the 1850’s, its prose and poetry was returned to over and over again in first and second drafts, and was finally orchestrated and presented in 1882; it occupied over a quarter century in Wagner’s creative life. The work was scored with the acoustics of the newly built Bayreuth in mind and has one of the oddest operatic history’s imaginable. Originally, it was never to be performed outside Bayreuth and there were legal suits to stop all other presentations.
It was viewed, by both critics and musicians, as his most refined and elaborately conceived work, if we allow that The Ring is a multi-part mosaic. There is no one view as to exactly what it is about being an alternately described opera, "festival play," dramatic oratorio, fairytale, parable, psychodrama or symbolic mystery play. References to the German town of Oberrgamergau abound and all these descriptions have some element of truth. As a practical matter, before we wax too philosophical, there is an amusing element to all this.
So what is Parsifal?
Whatever it might be, it is a work presented in opera houses. It is a work that at times people feel is too profound to even applaud, and in a humorous twist, a fact that annoyed the composer. At times, when he would applaud a certain scene, Wagner would be hushed by members of the audience (as they say, be careful what you wish for).
This work is also thought to simultaneously represent or espouse Christianity, Buddhism (yes, that’s right- that was the subject of an early draft called The Victors), racism, anti-semetism, Aryanism( the Nazi’s didn’t like it, thinking it too close to Catholicism) and finally, the simple travails and suffering of man and woman in general.
Speaking for myself, after thirty five years of listening, I opt for the latter. At different times I have considered it from different angles, without knowing or needing to know what it might mean in particular - like life itself. What everyone agrees on is that it's either the greatest opera ever written (neck and neck with Don Giovanni) or is simply beyond categorization and just has some big fans. Tchaikovsky called it, "Four hours of Bliss," Hugo Wolf called the work, "Colossal and sublime," and Nietzsche said it is, "Blasphemous, and Wagner’s greatest work." For me, Parsifal is all of the above.
The basic plot of Parsifal concerns a circle of Knights led by a wounded King (Amfortas) who was crippled when he was seduced by Kundry, an agent or slave of the magician Klingsor. Amfortas was sent by his father Titurel to do battle and vanquish Klingsor with the Sacred Spear (which had pierced the side of Christ) and lost it while distracted by the wiles of Kundry, who had mocked Christ and now wanders the world forever.
Klingsor tried to be a Knight of the Grail, but failed and now has declared war on them. He seeks nothing less than possession of the Holy Grail itself. It is foretold that the Knights, the kingdom and the Grail will only be saved by the arrival of a hero. Who will vanquish the magician, survive Kundry’s wiles and heal the dying and tormented Amfortas with the aid and guidance of the hermit Gurnemanz? Wagner’s music depicts the process of transformation of a naïve youth into a hero with a holy mission and music that incredibly rises to the occasion:
Durch Mitleid wissend, Dur reine Tor…
Enlightened through compassion, The innocent fool …
Tune to Saturday Afternoon at the opera for Wagner’s Parsifal. Listen to the classic recording that reopened postwar Bayreuth in 1951 with Hans Knappertsbusch at noon on KPAC and KTXI .