Parsifal was Wagner’s last music-drama, and in many ways it is the artistic culmination of his life, bringing his techniques of musical composition, his love of medieval legend, and his penchant for long, slow musical lines together into what I can only describe as a sublime musical creation. Debussy called it a “monument of sound”, and he was right. The music is gorgeously majestic, and, like Lohengrin but to an even greater degree, it seems to be illuminated from within by an intense and pure radiance. It is among the most beautiful things that I have ever heard.
Most of this beauty is in the orchestra. The singing does not partake of any of the usual operatic conventions: there are few melodies that remain in the ear, and nothing at all that resembles an “aria”. The vocal lines are almost uniformly very slow, as though the singers were statues just come to life, and this stateliness is a good match for the on-stage “action”, of which there is not very much. This unhurried pace, which in some of Wagner’s previous work tended, in my judgement, toward ponderousness, here achieves a kind of rapt intensity and heroic strength.
The story of Parsifal is drawn from Chretien de Troyes, Wolfgang von Eschenbach, and the Welsh Mabinogion. The Knights of the Holy Grail are tormented by Klingsor, a sorcerer, who has stolen the sacred spear which pierced Christ’s side, and who, by means of an enchanted garden filled with beautiful maidens, seduces any knight who attempts to retrieve it. Meanwhile, Amfortas, the leader of the knights, has been wounded by this same spear and is racked with pains. Only another touch from the spear can heal his wound, and a prophecy says that the spear can be retrieved only by a guileless fool. Accordingly, the knights await him. Parsifal, of course, is the awaited one.
In Act I, we learn the back story, and we see Parsifal make his first appearance among the knights. In Act II, he goes to Klingsor’s enchanted garden and there confronts Kundry, the chief seductress who is herself under Klingsor’s spell, and who is one of Wagner’s most complex and interesting characters. Parsifal overcomes her temptations, finds the spear, and, making with it the sign of the cross, sees Klingsor’s castle collapse into ruin. In Act III, he returns, after many years, to the knights, and heals Amfortas’ wound with the sacred spear. Parsifal is over four hours in performance. (Act I alone lasts nearly two hours.)
I am not sure how to interpret this work. It is full of Christian imagery, with much of the action centered around sacred relics and the Blessed Sacrament. One of my opera guides says that it depicts the triumph of Christianity over paganism, and this is a plausible — indeed, the most obvious — reading. It is possible, I think, to appreciate it simply as a particularly effective dramatization of one of the wonderful medieval tales of the knights of the Grail. On the other hand, one hardly expects a forthright defence of Christianity from Wagner, and there may be something else afoot. Some sources say that Parsifal is consciously influenced by the philosophy of Schopenhauer. That would explain the long section in which one of the characters articulates a view of the world as will and representation. I jest.
The orchestral prelude to Parsifal introduces many of the central leitmotifs — those of the Sacrament, of the Grail, and of Faith, most notably — and it illustrates very well what I tried to say above about the translucent purity of the music. The prelude lasts longer than 10 minutes, so too long for a single YouTube clip, but here is the first part of it, conducted by James Levine. (The remaining part is here.)
One of my favourite scenes is from Act I, in which Parsifal is brought, for the first time, into the great hall of the Knights of the Holy Grail. The knights themselves then enter, singing a beautiful chorus, and gather around the Grail. This is really beautiful. English subtitles are included in this high-quality video of a Bayreuth production:
To illustrate the style of singing that dominates most of Parsifal, consider this lovely scene from Act III. Parsifal has returned from his long journey, carrying the sacred spear, and he meets the old knight Gurnemanz and a repentant Kundry in a meadow. It is Good Friday. This clip is again from Bayreuth, and with English subtitles. Parsifal is sung by Siegfried Jerusalem, Gurnemanz by Hans Sotin, and Kundry by Eva Randova. (If you like this scene, it is continued here.)
I believe that I have now completed this survey of all ten of Wagner’s mature operas. May those who think that it has gone on too long, and those who think that it has gone on too short, forgive me. May those who think that it has gone on just long enough join me in giving thanks to God. Amen.