Continuing Melanie Newbould‘s occasional blogs on faith and the arts:
And yn þat bed þer lythe a knyght,
His wowndis bledyng day & nyght;
Lully, lulley, lully, lulley! Þe fawcon hath born my mak away.
Parsifal is Wagner’s last opera; the above verses are from the English Corpus Christie carol, which bears a striking resemblance to Act I of the opera. I saw it and studied it much later than Tristan or the Ring when I had thought more about Christianity, for Christianity is its central theme. However, Parsifal is not an opera about any formal church or denomination – rather, its central idea is releasing Christ from a Church (the one presented in the opera, which is an invented rather than an actual church). The phrase used in the work is redeeming the Redeemer. The work is set in a declining, all male religious community (Monsalvat), formed to protect the most important truths and objects in the world—and in particular, two precious objects, the Holy Grail (the cup into which Christ’s blood was placed at the Crucifixion) and the Holy Spear (which pierced his side). At the start of the opera, the community is inward looking, somehow empty and women have no role as members of the community. (I wonder if this reminds anyone of anything?)
There is speculation and uncertainty regarding Wagner’s personal beliefs. He seems to have been interested in the importance of the symbolism of Christianity, rather than a believer himself. He was also deeply interested in Buddhism. He had written opera librettos dealing with the life of the Buddha (The Victors) and also a libretto for Jesus of Nazareth, though he never wrote any music for either of these.
In the course of the opera we encounter the Fool who is to be made wise by compassion (Parsifal), the wounded man (Amfortas), and a woman who was present at (and laughed at) the crucifixion (Kundry), who is forced to live through multiple cycles of life filled with pain and depravity interspersed by short times of release in temporary death.
In Act I, Amfortas, is the leader of the community is being taken to his daily bath, to ease his wound. Kundry, dressed in rags, brings a healing ointment for him. Not only is he wounded, but the whole community is; at the time he sustained his wound, the Holy Spear was stolen. A young man, not part of the community, draws attention to himself when he shoots a swan with an arrow (this is Parsifal) Gurnemanz, a member of the community, questions the young man, finding he knows very little and wonders if this is the wise fool that the community are awaiting to effect healing. Gurnemanz takes the young man to watch the Grail ceremony, a sort of reverse Eucharist, where blood within the Grail becomes wine. Amfortas must officiate and is ordered to do so by his aged father, Titurel. All are strengthened by the ceremony, but it increases Amfortas’ pain. Parsifal confesses that he has understood nothing of what he has seen.
The second act takes place in a castle owned by Klingsor, a knight who was rejected by the Monsalvat community. He has cast a spell on Kundry, and she must, at his bidding, transform herself into a beautiful seductress. He knows that Parsifal is about to pass by. First Klingsor sends flower maidens to try to seduce Parsifal, but they fail and Kundry calls to him. They have a long dialogue, which ends with a kiss, but at this moment, Parsifal suddenly knows that this is what happened to Amfortas and is why he was wounded; he experiences Amfortas’ suffering. Amfortas was wounded because he did not resist Kundry, he used her sexually. Parsifal resists Kundry’s advances, does not use her as a sexual object, but recognises her as a person and, because of this, she can be released from the eternal cycle of life. Klingsor appears, attempting to wound Parsifal with the Holy Spear, but Parsifal, the Fool made wise by compassion, can seize it from him and Klingsor’s power is no more.
The third act takes place on Good Friday. It starts sometime before dawn with music of the utmost desolation, but as the act progresses, the beautiful Good Friday Music is heard. It is many years after the action of Act II and the Grail community has further declined; Titurel has died. Gurnemanz is in the grounds when he finds Kundry (again in rags) and wakes her to life (for her final cycle through earthly life). She then sings her only words in this Act, “dienen, dienen” (serving, serving) though she is on stage almost throughout. They see a knight approaching and realise that this is Parsifal, bringing the Holy Spear back to Monsalvat. Kundry bathes Parsifal’s feet, drying them with her hair and Gurnemanz anoints him leader of the Grail community. Parsifal then blesses Kundry, who is healed. In Monsalvat, Titurel is to be buried and the knights are trying to force Amfortas into performing the Grail ceremony again, which he cannot do as his suffering is too great. But into this affray enter Kundry, Gurnemanz and Parsifal, with the Holy Spear. Parsifal the Wise Fool can heal Amfortas. Parsifal is now leader of the community and he declares that the Grail will never be hidden but belongs to the world- and so the Redeemer is redeemed (and given to the world instead of the narrow confines of Monsalvat).
I think it would be true to say that there is some argument about the meaning of Parsifal and, of course, just as in any work of art, it is up to those in the audience as much as anyone to decide what it means to them. Many directors see it as an argument against organised religion; this is certainly one interpretation. One of the really wonderful aspects of the opera is the journey of the various characters; Parsifal journeys from a young man who shoots birds to the wise leader of Monsalvat, who is compassionate to all. Kundry journeys from the women who laughed at the crucifixion though times as an exploited seductress (I suppose, a sort of prostitute, controlled by Klingsor) and also acts as a despised servant to the community. Finally she becomes Parsifal’s equal and chooses herself to serve. She acts out the role of Christ at the Last supper, when she washes Parsifal’s feet. (She is also following Mary sister of Martha, who anoints Christ‘s feet with Nard). She finally walks into the all-male community of Monsalvat. Amfortas, the wounded man, who represents the brokenness of whole community and, indeed, the world (and, perhaps, the Church) is finally healed, by Parsifal’s compassion and understanding. For me, it made me think about Christianity and that it might be a direction in which I wished to go. The opera seems to suggest that, even if one finds that organised churches appear to have much about them that one might find difficult, there might be a central core that is true, vibrant and eternal.