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Opera Essentials: Parsifal

A quick guide to Wagner's final great masterpiece.

By Kate Hopkins (Opera and Music Publications Officer)

28 November 2013 at 11.25am | 3 Comments

The Story Begins…

The Grail community is in despair, due to the sickness of its ruler Amfortas. A mysterious young man arrives, who appears to know almost nothing, not even his own name. Might he be the ‘pure fool, enlightened by compassion’ who according to a prophecy will heal the community?

A Long Gestation

Wagner first read the poem that inspired Parsifal in 1845. He first drafted a scenario in 1857 and over the following decades periodically returned to the text, finally completing a libretto in 1879. Wagner completed the score of Parsifal in January 1882, and the opera had its premiere at his Bayreuth Festival in July of the same year. After the premiere, an embargo was placed on the work, forbidding performances outside the Bayreuth Festival. The Metropolitan Opera, New York, broke the embargo in 1903 and it was officially lifted in 1914.

From Medieval Romance to Sacred Festival Play

Parsifal is loosely based on scenes from Parzival, a romance by the medieval German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach (who features as a character in Wagner’s Tannhäuser). Wagner’s many alterations to the story for his libretto included making Parsifal a far more innocent, childlike figure, and increasing the importance of the character of Kundry.

Both Sacred and Sensual

The score of Parsifal moves from sections with a strong sacred element (such as the Prelude to Act I, and the Act I procession to the Grail Hall, both of which use the recurrent ‘Dresden Amen’ motif) to long passages of great sensuality, such as Kundry’s dialogue with Parsifal in Act II. Act III contains long sections of almost unearthly beauty, including the ‘Good Friday’ music and the closing scene of the score, in which Parsifal returns to the Grail Hall.

A Work of Great Humanity

Stephen Langridge’s production emphasizes the timeless and universal nature of the Parsifal story. The characters and we, the audience, journey from the bitter suffering and schadenfreude of Act I to the radiancy of Act III, in which the spiritual world is finally open to all. Parsifal’s discovery of compassion enables him to heal the other characters.

Parsifal runs from 30 November to 18 December 2013. Tickets are still available.
The production will also be relayed live to cinemas around the world on 18 December. Find your nearest cinema and sign up for the cinema newsletter.

The production is staged with generous philanthropic support of the Metherell Family, Roland & Sophie Rudd, Dr and Mrs Michael West, Marina Hobson MBE, Ian and Helen Andrews, Peter and Fiona Espenhahn, Annie Frankel, Malcolm Herring, Dr L Mikheev and N Mikheev, Lindsay and Sarah Tomlinson, The Wagner Circle and The Parsifal Production Syndicate and generously supported in memory of Simon Tullah.

By Kate Hopkins (Opera and Music Publications Officer)

28 November 2013 at 11.25am

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged background, Bayreuth Festival, by Stephen Langridge, history, Opera Essentials, Parsifal, Production, Richard Wagner

This article has 3 comments

  1. I was privileged to see the performance on Saturday. This production is refreshing and full of interesting ideas, if somewhat disturbing. Parsifal is, and let us be honest here, awash with elements of shockingly bad taste; Stephen Langridge and his team have taken pains to keep most of them and add to the list.
    My criticisms are those of consistency of ideas, restraint in knowing when an idea has progressed far enough. To give but a few examples; the hospital bed is clearly central to the concept, but its position makes a large section of the stage virtually unusable and thus crowds the action to a thin strip; the cameos on and around the hospital bed are excessive and mostly unnecessary (if it is sung or suggested in the music, it should not be necessary to "show"); the "box" itself can indeed be used for highlighting certain actions, but the hospital bed distracts from actions that do not involve Amfortas; the Oedipal blinding of Parsifal at the end of Act II is interesting (if problematic dramatically, given the account of his wanderings in Act III), but the right moment for renewal of sight is actually in Gurnemanz's text (the anointment); the end of Act III is dramatically static, in that the "Grail" (the Caravaggio-inspired sacrifice is offered earlier as a teaser that does not deliver), but the Knights get nothing at the end, not even the usual ethereal light; Kundry does not "sink lifeless to the ground" but walks off into the woods with Amfortas. (I saw Simon McBurney's Magic Flute earlier in the week (of course I have voiced a similar list of criticisms and encouragement, not least that Queen of The Night joins in the final festivities in the Temple of The Sun, rather than the more usual "cast into eternal darkness").
    In case you think this is a negative post, I must offer the fullest praise to Maestro Pappano, the orchestra, and the chorus. The soloists were all excellent (Mr Pape included, though he had some noticeable problems during Act III).
    Although a lighter note might seem out of place in Parsifal, Mr Lloyd's Titurel looked exactly like Otto Klemperer.

  2. "Wagner first set down ideas for Parsifal in 1845." Sorry, but no he didn't. At that time Wagner read the poem -- in 3 different editions -- but he did not see in it a possible opera before the "Good Friday" morning (which he later admitted wasn't on Good Friday) in April 1857.

    • Rachel Beaumont (Content Producer (Web Copy)) responded on 3 December 2013 at 11:37am

      Hi Derrick,
      Thanks for your comment. Kate's meaning was to show how long the gestation of Parsifal had been, but you're quite right, the wording was misleading. We've amended accordingly.
      All best,
      Rachel

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