Parsifal is Wagner’s last opera; and that, with its religious subject, has encouraged both admirers and enemies to invest it with a kind of holy aura. It was also his only work written expressly for the Bayreuth theatre, which after a lengthy but fruitless fundraising effort (an approach to Chancellor Bismarck drew a blank) was eventually completed in 1875 on the back of a substantial donation from Ludwig II. Cosima (who in 1870 won her battle to divorce Hans von Bülow and marry Wagner) later fought to have it performed there and there alone, and many claim it only sounds authentic in that unique acoustic.
Wagner called Parsifal not a Bühnenfestspiel like the Ring, but a Bühnenweihfestspiel – not a stage festival play, but a stage consecration festival play. This caused the anti-clerical Nietzsche, an erstwhile friend, to accuse him of ‘falling at the feet of the Cross’. But Parsifal is hardly a Christian opera; it’s an opera about Christianity. As Wagner was aware, its legendary background is pagan – the ‘Graal’ only evolved in late medieval times into Christ’s chalice at the Last Supper, later used to catch his blood. (Eventually it was subsumed into Arthurian legend, its hero becoming ‘Sir Perceval’, but Wagner preferred earlier forms.) Wagner synthesised them as he had Norse myth in the Ring, adding such aspects as karma and reincarnation from his Buddhist leanings, theosophistic concepts like instinctive insight, and remarkably modern-sounding speculations about the interdependence of space and time, then being contemplated by physicists like George Fitzgerald.
The quality of the score is extraordinary. Where the Ring is mercurial and elemental, and Tristan sensual and nocturnal, Parsifal is strongly ritualised, with formal chants, processional marches and the borrowing of the ‘Dresden Amen’, centering on the great quasi-Mass that concludes Act I. But despite such potential weight, from the Prelude onward the music seems airy and translucent, like a great cathedral roof sustained by soaring buttresses. Its harmonies look forward, for example, to Debussy, who quotes Parsifal in Pelléas et Mélisande. In common with Tristan it often suggests yearnings, but for relief and redemption rather than erotic self-negation, and the revivifying presence of the Grail itself.
The leading roles are unusual: Parsifal himself, the uneducated boy who discovers a mission of redemption; the enigmatic Kundry, heroine and quasi-immortal temptress in one; and her victim, the maimed Amfortas, are traditional Wagnerian roles, for heroic tenor, dramatic soprano and heroic baritone respectively, yet they’re all fairly brief – Amfortas has only two great scenes, and Kundry, despite her huge Act II scene with Parsifal, sings just one word in Act III. Her corrupt master, the enchanter Klingsor appears only briefly in Act II. Only Gurnemanz, the wise Grail knight who recognises Parsifal’s potential, has anything like a long, demanding part, and much of that is narration. Did Wagner’s difficulties in casting the Ring make him more considerate to singers? Perhaps; but it’s also the concentration of age and experience, and it greatly enhances the work’s unique atmosphere. For many reasons, Parsifal remains controversial, but is also, at its best, the most grippingly transcendent experience Wagner created.
Michael Scott Rohan