Music by Richard Wagner
Libretto by the composer
First performed: 1882
Many years ago, two holy relics were placed in the safekeeping of Titurel: the Spear with which Christ was wounded on the Cross, and the Holy Grail (the cup used at the Last Supper, into which His wounds then bled). Titurel established an order of chivalry to guard and serve the Grail, which had miraculous powers.
Klingsor failed to gain admission to this chaste brotherhood. As the ultimate proof of his desire to be pure, he castrated himself; however, such self-mutilation earned him only the further scorn of the knights. In anger and despair, he vowed revenge upon them. He turned to sorcery, transforming a barren desert into magic garden populated by beautiful women whose charms can beguile any errant knights. Many have succumbed and are now his prisoners, forming his army. He still longs to be guardian of the Grail.
In old age Titurel abdicated and his son, Amfortas, was chosen by the community of knights to succeed him. Amfortas resolved to destroy Klingsor but failed to resist the temptress – whom he did not recognize as Kundry, messenger of the Grail – sent to ensnare him. Although he escaped, he lost the Spear to Klingsor who wounded him with it. It has been prophesied that only a pure fool made wise through pity can heal Amfortas’s wound. Until the fulfilment of that prophecy, Amfortas lives in continual agony and the fraternity of knights is weakened because, for all his penance, Amfortas can scarcely bear the pain of officiating in the ritual of the Holy Grail by which they live.
Before the Sanctuary of the Holy Grail
Gurnemanz, oldest of the knights of the Holy Grail, wakes the squires who are meant to be guarding the sanctuary, and chides them for neglecting their duty. Together they say the morning prayer. They must prepare for the arrival of Amfortas, who will bathe his wound in the lake. Kundry, a strange wild woman whom the knights treat with suspicion, brings a soothing ointment for him. Amfortas longs for a time when he will be relieved of his intense pain, and reminds the knights of the prophecy: only an innocent fool enlightened through compassion can recover the sacred Spear and end Amfortas’s suffering.
Gurnemanz is recounting the history of the Grail when shouts from the knights interrupt him. A swan has been wounded by an unknown youth – Parsifal. He is reprimanded for his action; however, it quickly becomes clear that not only does he not realize that he has done wrong, but also that he has no understanding of the concepts of good and evil. To Gurnemanz’s questions concerning his name and origins, Parsifal can only reply that he knows nothing of himself except his mother’s name, Herzeleide. Kundry, however, is able to supply more details, including the fact that his mother is now dead.
The squires return from the lake with news that Kundry’s ointment has eased Amfortas’s agony. Gurnemanz, already hopeful that Parsifal may be the fulfilment of the prophecy, invites him to share in the knights’ ritual.
Gurnemanz leads Parsifal ‘through time and space’ to the sanctuary’s inner temple, where the fraternity of knights has assembled to have Amfortas expose them to the Grail’s life-enhancing powers. In the course of the ritual, the holy blood of the Grail mystically enters Amfortas’s body, expelling his sinful blood through his open wound and causing him unendurable pain. Amfortas begs the order not to make him open the shrine. At Titurel’s insistence, however, the Grail is uncovered. The wound once again begins to bleed, and the reinvigorated knights are then ready to set out on their holy missions. Unable to tell Gurnemanz that he has understood what he has witnessed, Parsifal is made to leave.
Klingsor watches over his lands. Seeing Parsifal approach, he summons Kundry, over whom he has reasserted his power, and commands her to seduce the unsuspecting youth as once she ensnared Amfortas.
In a magic garden, beautiful flower maidens attempt to entice Parsifal; they are unsuccessful. Kundry enters, now transformed into a great beauty. She calls Parsifal by name, talks to him of his mother’s love for him and how his departure had caused his mother so much anguish that she died from grief. Distressed at this final revelation, Parsifal is consoled by Kundry. Her embrace, intended to bring him into her power, has the opposite effect: as they kiss, Parsifal instantaneously understands the purpose of his mission – to end Amfortas’s suffering – and he rejects Kundry.
Kundry appeals to Parsifal to use his redemptive powers to save and release her: for her blasphemous mockery of Christ on the Cross, she has been condemned to wander through the world for centuries. But Parsifal recognizes that salvation for them both depends on his resisting her allure. Realizing she has failed, Kundry reacts furiously to Parsifal’s suggestion that by showing him the way to Amfortas she can be redeemed. She curses him, vowing that he will never find Amfortas again. She tries to block Parsifal’s escape and appeals to Klingsor for help. The magician appears, brandishing the sacred Spear taken from Amfortas. However, it cannot harm Parsifal: when he takes possession of the Spear, Klingsor’s power is at once destroyed and his domain collapses in ruins.
Good Friday; Before the Sanctuary of the Holy Grail
Gurnemanz, now living as a hermit, finds Kundry half-dead. No longer wild and untameable, she is eager only to serve. A black knight approaches them. It is Parsifal, who has been condemned to wander and struggle endlessly because of Kundry’s curse. Gurnemanz rebukes him for being armed in this sacred place and on such a holy day, before recognizing Parsifal and the Spear. Gurnemanz recounts that Titurel has died and the knightly community is on the point of collapse because of Amfortas’s refusal to allow them access to the Grail. Parsifal blames himself for these misfortunes. Kundry bathes Parsifal’s feet and Gurnemanz anoints him as guardian of the Grail. Parsifal’s first act is to baptize Kundry.
The knights of the Grail try to force Amfortas to preside over the last rites of his father, and once again make available to them the Grail. Deranged with pain, Amfortas pleads with the knights to kill him and bring his agony to an end. Parsifal steps forward and restores the Spear to the knights, thus healing Amfortas’s bleeding wound.
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