Music with Ease > Operas of Richard Wagner > Parsifal (Wagner) - Plot
The Plot of Parsifal
An Opera by Richard Wagner
The curtain opens to disclose a woodland glade near the Castle of Monsalvat, in the northern mountains of Gothic Spain. Gurnemanz, one of the Knights of the Holy Grail, and two of his young squires are stretched in slumber under a tree. From the unseen castle, temple of the Grail, the dawn of day is announced by the solemn music of trumpets and trombones. The sleepers start up, and fall on their knees, to breathe a silent morning prayer. This over, Gurnemanz sends his esquires to make ready the bath for Amfortas, the sick king, guardian of the Grail.
End of Act III in the original 1882 production of Wagner's opera, Parsifal; The set design for this prodcution was by Paul von Joukowsky.
Amfortas had been wounded under circumstances which must here be related. Near Monsalvat dwells the magician Klingsor. He represents the power of evil, and his enchanted castle, looking towards Moorish Spain, is the abode of temptation. He had been refused admission to their "order" by the Knights of the Grail, and, in revenge, he tries to corrupt them, chiefly by a company of lovely girls, women of "diabolical beauty," as Gurnemanz says. To the allurements of one of these sirens Amfortas had once succumbed; with the result that he lost the sacred lance which pierced the Saviours side, and was wounded by it -- he, too, in the side. The wound can be healed only by a touch of the lance which caused it. But the lance is in the keeping of Klingsor, who, armed with it, can attack even the holy knights, and hopes some day to obtain possession of the Grail itself.
Well, to resume, Amfortas is ill, and Gurnemanz is inquiring anxiously after his health from two knights who have just entered. The king is no better. Presently the talk is interrupted by the appearance of Kundry, the wildest but most potent character in the drama, who bolts in with a rare healing balsam for the king, which she has ridden to Arabia to find. Wagner thus indicates her appearance: "In wild garb fastened high with a hanging girdle of snakes skins; black hair, flowing in loose tresses; dark brown, reddish complexion, piercing black eyes, at times flaming wildly, but oftener fixed as in death." At this point the wounded king appears for a moment, pale and feeble: borne on a litter on his way to bathe in the lake.
Kundry, refusing to be thanked for her futile assistance, crouches down sullenly, like a hunted wild beast. The young esquires tease her, and hint that she is bewitched; which indeed she is, though only when under the evil influence of Klingsor. This mysterious, conflicting, tempestuous character, it should be observed, is none other than Herodias who demanded and obtained the head of John the Baptist, and was doomed to eternally wander the earth in consequence. Wagner, however, represent her crime as that of laughing at our Saviour on the Cross, her punishment being to traverse the world under a curse of laughter, praying always for the gift of tears to relieve her weary soul. When not dominated by the demoniac power of Klingsor, she is entirely on the side of the ministers of the Grail. But, in scriptural language, "the evil that she would not, that she does."
She is defended now by Gurnemanz, who proceeds, in several long speeches, to tell the young esquires the story of the Grail. After this they repeat together the oracular utterance according to which the suffering Amfortas can be healed only by the mediation of a guileless fool enlightened by pity. A weird interruption occurs while they are speaking. Loud cries are heard without, and a wounded swan, one of the sacred birds of the Grail, flutters to the stage with an arrow through its breast. Knights and esquires rush in, dragging with them the murderer, as they call him, bow in hand -- "a strange youth who does not even know his own name." Gurnemanz shows impatience at his stupidity. "A dolt so dull I never found, save Kundry here," he says.
The youth, who is none other than Parsifal, has lived all his life in the woods. His innocence presently strikes Gurnemanz in a new light. What if this should be the "guideless fool" of the prophecy, the promised Deliverer? With that idea in his mind, he leads Parsifal to the Castle of the Grail, the whole way to which is shown by an elaborate panorama, a masterpiece of scenic illusion. (Regarding this Wagner wrote: "The unrolling of the moving scene, however artistically carried out, was emphatically not intended for decorative effect alone; but, under the influence of the accompanying music, we were, as in a state of dreamy rapture, to be led imperceptibly along the trackless ways to the Castle of the Grail; by which means, at the same time, its traditional inaccessibility, for those who are not called, was drawn into the domain of dramatic performance.") In the great domed hall of the Grail, the knights assemble, entering in line while singing a solemn unison chant. Amfortas is brought in and laid on a couch before the altar, in the center of the hall, followed by a procession bearing a crimson-draped shrine containing the Grail, which they set down in front of the king.
The wretched sufferer -- the one sinner in the whole brotherhood of the Grail -- implores in piteous tones that his task of uncovering the sacred chalice, source to him of bitter remorse and anguish, may be waived. But Titurel, his father (the original guardian of the Grail), speaking from the grave, where his life is just sustained by the marvellous potency of the Grail, bids Amfortas perform the sacred office. Amfortas accordingly, while protesting his unworthiness, lifts the crystal vase, and the rites of the Blessed Sacrament are celebrated. Shortly after, Amfortas wound again bursts forth, and he is carried away senseless, only Gurnemanz and Parsifal remaining on the stage.
From the first agonising cry of Amfortas, Parsifal has stood stupefied and motionless, watching the whole scene from the side. In answer to Gurnemanzs somewhat testy inquiry whether he understands what he has seen, he only shakes his head vacantly. Thereupon Gurnemanz, angry with disappointment, unceremoniously thrusts him from the hall, saying as he slams the door: "Leave thou our swans for the future alone, and seek thyself, gander, a goose."
The rising of the curtain reveals Klingsors magic Castle of Perdition. The sorcerer, sitting in his laboratory -- a sort of Faust-like chamber -- amid the mysterious necromantic implements of his unholy craft, becomes conscious that Parsifal, the "pure fool," is approaching his domain. By his infernal incantations he summons Kundry (the "she-devil," the "rose of hell," as he calls her) to his side. In the previous Act Kundry had been thrown into a hypnotic sleep by that same evil power which here dominates her again. Now she arises in a cloud of violet vapour to receive the magicians commands.
The order is that she must use all her seductive arts against Parsifal, now nearing the castle. In vain she protests: Klingsors malignant power is paramount. Looking over the ramparts, he describes how he sees Parsifal routing the feeble, enslaved knights who guard the castle, and forcing an entrance. Peremptorily he dismisses Kundry to her task of fell destruction and the scene changes to the garish garden of the castle, with its wealth of wonderful tropical flowers, unearthly in their hue and splendour. Troupes of houris, half-clad, pour in from all sides. Parsifal appears on the walls, gazing rapturously on the enchanting scene, lost in amazement. The maidens first assail him with reproaches; then, to ravishing music, coax him with their most seductive cajoleries. "If you do not love and caress us, we shall wither and die," they cry. Parsifal, not relishing their attentions, struggles to free himself.
While he is thus engaged, a voice from a flowery thicket near by calls, "Parsifal! stay!" The youth is deeply moved, bewildered. This name is to him but a faint remembrance of his mother having once murmured it in a dream. The network of flowers in unraveled, and Kundry appears: not the swarthy, disheveled, eerie witch of the First Act, but "a beautiful siren arrayed in floating drapery -- a very Venus." Reclining on a bank of flowers, she dismisses the nymphs, and again implores Parsifal to stay. She seeks to engage his interest by recounting to him the story of his origin, dwelling particularly on his mothers woes and death. Parsifals heart is touched; he is distracted by sorrow and remorse.
My mother! my mother! could I forget her?
Ah! must all be forgotten by me?
What have I eer remembered yet?
But senseless folly dwells in me!
The wily temptress urges the claims of love as a panacea for these pangs of the heart. Drawing the unsophisticated youth towards her, she presses her lips upon his in "a long, long kiss." Instantly the "guileless fool" springs up, maddened and terrified. The touch of defilement has "wakened him to a sense of human frailty." He seems to suffer intense pain, physical and mental. He recalls the anguished cry of the ailing. Amfortas, which now becomes plain to him. His sympathy with Amfortas has made him wise unto salvation. His eyes are opened to know good and evil. "Amfortas! The wound! the wound! It burns within me too," he exclaims, awakening to a realisation of his mission.
This that has happened to him, this submission to the blandishments of woman, is, he feels, what must have been the undoing of Amfortas. No sensation of sensual pleasure vibrates through his frame. Kundry, pouring out the tale of her curse, her sin, and her sorrow, makes an impassioned appeal for pity and love; but he puts her away from him with an impatience born of horror. "Away, unholy woman!" he cries. Frenzied with rage and despair, the sorceress curses him and his mission. In a final burst of passion at her defeat, she calls upon Klingsor to come to her aid.
Answering her summons, the magician appears upon the castle steps, brandishing the sacred spear. If Parsifal will not be subdued otherwise, that must be requisitioned. Klingsor hurls the spear at the intruders head. But, lo! -- a miracle -- it floats harmless in the air, suspended above the intended victim. Parsifal grasps the weapon, and, making with it the sign of the Cross, he bids the Castle of Klingsor disappear. Immediately a cataclysm ensues. The whole place, garden and all, falls to ruins. Kundry drops senseless; and as the curtain descends, Parsifal, standing on the shattered ramparts, addresses her sternly in the prophetic, sinister words: "Thou knowest where only we shall meet again."
Many years have passed before the curtain rises on the idyllic landscape of this, the Third Act. The guardians of the Grail have fallen upon evil times. Amfortas, in his longing for the release of death, has ceased to uncover the sacred cup; and the Knights of the Grail, thus deprived of their miraculous nourishment, are sunk in dejection and withered with age. Titurel, no longer strengthened by the Grail, is dead -- really dead -- and Gurnemanz, now a white-haired, sorrowful old man, lives as a hermit in a forest hut.
There, one spring morning, hearing groans near by, he tears the bramble growth away, and discovers the body of Kundry, clad in a penitents coarse garb, cold and rigid, as if dead. He chafes her to life once more, and, moaning "Service! service!" she placidly resumes her work as a servant of the Grail. While Gurnemanz is contemplating this phenomenon, a knight in coal-black armour, with visor down, and bearing the sacred spear, approaches. It is Parsifal, a grown man now, weary and worn with the strife of thr world.
Gurnemanz, amazed, recognises him. Parsifal relates how he has wandered and wandered vainly in search of Monsalvat; how he has ever carried the spear in his hand, though forbidden to use it, and so has suffered countless defeats and distresses. Now he has but one desire -- to get back to Monsalvat and free Amfortas from his afflictions. Gurnemanz sympathises with his wish, but before conducting him to Monsalvat, he and Kundry remove his armour (for it is Good Friday, when no Christian knight must bear arms) and bathe his feet in the brook. Kundry then takes a phial of ointment from her bosom, and, Magdalen-like, pours its contents on his feet, which she afterwards wipes with her hair. Gurnremanz anoints Parsifals head and blesses him, and then he, in his turn, sprinkles with water and baptizes her in the name of the Redeemer.
At last Kundry is redeemed by love from her eternal curse. She sheds exquisite tears of joy at her deliverance. The three then set out for Monsalvat, where the knights have assembled for Titurels funeral. Amfortas on his litter, the Grail in its shrine, and Titurel in his coffin are carried in. A last appeal is made to Amfortas (more weary and despairing than ever) to resume his office and uncover the sacred chalice. Amfortas expostulates, his agony at its apex. He springs to his feet, and tearing open his dress, shrieks:
Behold me! The open wound behold!
Here is my poison -- my streaming blood.
Take up your weapons! Bury your sword-blades
Deep-- deep in me to the hilts!
Ye heroes, up!
Kill both the sinner and his pain:
The Grails delights will ye then regain.
The knights stand by, transfixed with awe. Parsifal enters, accompanied by Gurnemanz and Kundry. Pointing to his spear, Parsifal solemnly observes that only that can stay the flow of the rent in the kings side. With a touch of the weapon he heals the wound. Then, taking his place, he un veils the Holy Grail, and bends before it in silent adoration.
A sacred glow illumines the mystic vessel; and while Parsifal swings it gently from side to side, in token of benediction to the pardoned Amfortas and the ransomed Kundry, a white dove, emblem of the Divine Spirit, descends from the dome and hovers sover his anointed head. And so, with voices from the middle and extreme heights, singing softly,
Wondrous work of mercy!
Salvation to the Saviour!
this noble and impressive mystery-music-drama ends.