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Friday, June 15, 2012

The Miseducation of Parsifal

In which I get all pedantic about Wagner's last opera.
"Parsifal enters the Grail temple" from a codex
copy of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival.
© Universtaatbibliothek Heidelberg

I'm still in the middle of writing the forthcoming Metropolitan Opera Preview for the 2012-2013 season. In the course of perusing the Metropolitan Opera website (mostly for the cast information on coming productions) I came across the following synopsis for Parsifal. It was on a page for the old (Otto Schenck) production, but I thought I'd take the time to correct a few points--and explain a bit about one of my favorite operas.

The emphasis below is mine:

"Much has been written about the mysticism of Wagner’s final music-drama, which is based on German mythology, with many critics disagreeing about the extent to which it can be termed a religious or a theatrical work. Parsifal, a young and arrogant knight, stumbles upon the home of the Knights of the Grail and discovers much about himself from them and from an encounter with Kundry, an enchantress. After many years he returns to heal a terrible wounded inflicted years before on the ruler of the Kingdom."

Sigh. Let's take this point by point, shall we?

"which is based on German mythology"
Wagner adapted the libretto of Parsifal from Parzival, a medieval epic by the poet Wolfram von Eschenbach (who also appears as a character in the composer's opera Tannhäuser.) Wolfram's poem is indeed in German, but is based on an uncompleted French romance, Perceval, le Conte du Graal by the trouvere Chretien de Troyes. Chretien's story include familiar figures like Gornemant (later "Gurnemanz") the Fisher King ("Amfortas"), and are the source for the Arthurian legends of Britain.

"a young and arrogant knight"
It is explicitly stated in the opera that while Parsifal's father (Gamuret) was a knight, his mother did her damnedest ton prevent her boy from running off and joining the military. Parsifal is more correctly identified as a "tor" (fool). He enters in homespun clothes, armed with a bow and arrow (which he breaks) and does not know anything--except the name of his mother, Herzeleide.

"discovers much about himself from them"
Actually, Our Hero doesn't learn jack scheiss from the knights of the Grail. Gurnemanz brings him to the "love feast" ceremony where he witnesses Amfortas performing the daily ritual that allows the knight to go forth into the world and kick ass in the name of good and righteousness. At the end of the ceremony, Gurnemanz asks Parsifal if he's learned anything:

"Dort hinaus, deine Wege zu! Doch rät dir Gurnemanz: lass du hier künftig die Schwäne in Ruh', und suche dir, Gänser, die Gans!"

(Translation: "Off with you, and go on your way! But heed Gurnemanz: in future leave the swans here in peace; a gander should look for a goose!")

Gurnemanz then throws him out of the Grail Temple, ending the first act.

from an encounter with Kundry, an enchantress
While Kundry does teach Parsifal much about himself (telling him about his childhood and the identity of his father, the fool actually becomes wise through sudden understanding of compassion for Amfortas' wounded state. This is the central idea of mittleid in this opera which made Wagner's last opera unpopular with the Nazis in the later stages of World War II.

Kundry is the most complicated figure in this opera, created when Wagner combined two of Wolfram's characters, the nameless "wild woman" and the maiden "Cundrie." She is not an enchantress. Actually she is the slave of the magician Klingsor, a former Grail Knight who, due to an act of self-mutilation, is immune to her charms. He uses her as a seductive cats-paw to lure the Knights to their doom in a plot to seize the Holy Grail for himself.

Kundry is trapped by a thousand-year curse for having mocked Christ as he suffered on the cross. She travels (unwillingly) back and forth between the realm of the Grail (where she serves as the knights' messenger) and Klingsor's magic castle, until that castle is destroyed by Parsifal at the end of Act II.

a terrible wounded
"Damn it Jim, I'm a writer, not a copy editor."

OK. Now that that's all clear, it's time to get back to work.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.