Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Parsifal, Act II: Prelude… ‘Parsifal! – Weile!’… (Parsifal, stay!)
Parsifal, first performed in 1882, was Wagner’s last opera, or music drama, as he called his stage works. There is evidence to suggest he knew it would be his last statement on themes that had obsessed him throughout his life – the conflicts of maddening desire, and redemption through understanding and renunciation. Parsifal was his ‘last card’, as Wagner apparently told Cosima, his wife.
He had extensively explored the idea of the healing of a core corruption in his massive 15-hour Nibelung cycle. In that epic, a worldly balance was restored by returning the stolen ring of world-domination to the bed of the Rhine where, as pure gold, it had once harmlessly lain. In Parsifal, a pure fool (Parsifal) must reclaim the healing holy spear that the Grail-keeper Amfortas lost when he succumbed to the charms of Kundry and opened in himself a continually-weeping (sexual) wound.
Parsifal is a problematic work. Should we read it as Christian allegory (in line with its source material, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval poem Parzival)? Or is it Buddhist or Schopenhauerian in its denunciation of desire? The association of the temptress Kundry with Judaism is alarming. Parsifal is certainly the result of one person’s exploration of their own personal philosophy, which may explain why Wagner intended it exclusively for his own theatre at Bayreuth (and possibly why Syberberg’s film version has Parsifal enter the Grail vault through a giant image of Wagner’s open dressing gown).
What is easiest to acknowledge is the magnificence of the score. Not only does the principal action reside there: a case could be made for claiming that the orchestra pit is the arena for Wagner’s deepest thoughts.
Wagner is renowned for the way he anchored his often freely-flowing melody in a web of musical motifs or themes. But now, after completion of the Nibelung drama, The Ring of the Nibelung (1876), where motifs were often clearly linked to specific characters, objects or concepts, his motifs are more equivocal in meaning. They arise in relation to the libretto in freer-floating ways that simulate the manner in which ideas and associations rise and fade in our consciousness. Cases in point in this scene are the recurrences of the theme associated with Kundry’s mentor the wizard, Klingsor (first heard at the beginning of Act II). It resurfaces as Kundry admits that, as a sinner, ‘I cannot weep, but crying…sink again into shameful night’. Even, the ‘Dresden Amen’, less equivocal in meaning, is only briefly touched on and quickly replaced by other themes when Kundry concedes that she saw His (Christ’s) look, or when Parsifal destroys Klingsor’s kingdom.
Theatrically Parsifal is extremely spare. It is like Wagner’s preferred model of Ancient Greek theatre. Most of the plot unfolds as recounting of past events. The Act II scene between Parsifal and Kundry is, however, the most significant action in present tense, as Kundry tries to seduce Parsifal as she once successfully seduced Amfortas.
Tonight’s selection begins with the Prelude to Act II and then jumps 100 pages to the moment where Kundry banishes the beguiling Flowermaidens (covered by the orchestra) and goes to work on Parsifal herself (‘Parsifal, stay!’). She recalls the mother he never knew (‘Ich sah das Kind…’), almost a traditional AABA aria except that, in Wagner, form has to be traced in the orchestra rather than the voice. When Parsifal reacts in despair for his lost mother, Kundry reassures him that empathy makes him ripe for her consolation. At her kiss however, full of references to Wagner’s own erotic opera, Tristan und Isolde (1865), Parsifal is stricken with memory of Amfortas’s wound (‘Die Wunde!’). This, at last, is the fulfilment of Parsifal’s destiny as the pure fool, apprehending compassion, who resists Kundry and saves Amfortas and his Grail kingdom. Kundry redoubles her attempts and finally Klingsor returns, but Parsifal makes the sign of the cross with the spear and Klingsor’s magic citadel disappears.
Much of Parsifal justifies Debussy’s 1903 description of the work as ‘one of the loveliest edifices in sound ever erected to the glory of music’. And this scene contains beautiful and rivetting moments. But it is also worth remembering that this is the key moment of the opera, a ‘showdown’ between the opera’s two most sharply-drawn antagonists.
Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2016
This note was written for Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performances of part of Act II of Parsifal with Stuart Skelton, Michelle de Young and Simone Young in December 2016.