“Parsifal is the kind of opera that starts at six o'clock. After it has been going three hours, you look at your watch and it says 6:20”
The final opera by Richard Wagner, Parsifal was composed for the consecration of Beirut town hall. The first performances were not a success; many felt that Wagner was losing the snappy, economical style he had exhibited in Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Postman Always Rings Twice), Tristan und Isolde (Troilus and Cressida) and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (a biopic of singer Martha Mödl). Consequently nobody clapped, and this has become the customary reception ever since, except at the Metropolitan Opera in New York where they'll clap anything.
The plot of the opera (deferred until Act II, Scene 2) is based loosely on the medieval German work Parzival, written by Wolfram Aschenbach shortly before his untimely death in Venice, where he had been enjoying a weekend break admiring the evening stars. As nobody has read Parzival it is as yet difficult to ascertain how closely the opera reflects the original, and will probably remain so.
Gurnemanz. Aged grail knight. His monologues were inserted by Wagner to provide ample opportunity for the audience to get ice creams while waiting for the plot.
Waltraud Meier. Half wild-woman, half seductress, the character of Waltraud Meier is Wagner's amalgam of the legendary opera singer Kundry, and Daniel Barenboim. She suffers from Tourette's Syndrome. Cursed for laughing uncontrollably during a performance of the Siegfried Idyll in Israel, she is forced to wander the opera houses of the world, looking for managements who will allow her to perform with minimal rehearsal time.
Parsifal. The 'holy fool', awaited by the community of the Grail knights, who will retrieve the holy spear, heal Amfortas' wound and take over the kingdom. An excellent sportsman, he is very good at shooting swans and catching spears, but is unfortunately the stupidest man on the planet and gets lost on the way home (see also David Beckham). An unsuccessful seduction attempt by Waltraud Meier calls his sexuality into question and is the clearest indication that the Grail knights are Wagner's metaphor for the Liberal Democrats.
Amfortas. Present king of Monsalvat. Amfortas suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, and has the whole kingdom run ragged running him endless baths. Waltraud Meier and Sir Gawan roam the earth looking for new and interesting varieties of bath salts to appease him, but Saudi Arabia has sold out and Moulton Brown hasn't yet been invented.
Klingsor. A would-be Grail knight, rejected by the community for castrating himself. Fortunately he was already in possession of a dramatic bass-baritone voice before doing this, or we would have difficulty hearing him.
Titurel. Founder of Monsalvat and father of Amfortas. He just isn't funny.
Squires, knights, flour maidens, swans, pigeon on a string.
A woodland clearing in Monsalvat, the kingdom of the Grail knights. After a lengthy prelude, Gurnemanz utters a quick word or two to the squires and they all take a long rest so as not to overdo things all at once. Over a period of approximately five hours, Gurnemanz slowly tells the squires the history of the Grail kingdom: how Titurel, the first king, obtained the holy spear from a pair of helpful pigeons and brought it back to Monsalvat; how Klingsor, a famous castrato, stole the spear; how Amfortas, Titurel's son, attempted to retrieve it, was seduced by a mysterious enchantress and wounded by the spear; and how to this day the kingdom is in decline waiting for the arrival of a 'holy fool' (see George Carey) who will redeem it. That this small amount of information takes five hours to narrate is explained by the fact (a) that in Monsalvat time works differently, and (b) that every time Gurnemanz gets close to explaining about the holy fool his senility kicks in and he forgets what he's talking about. Eventually the squires have to say it for him, and just in time, for at that very moment Parsifal bursts on the scene as the music swells to a shattering mezzo piano. Waltraud Meier, who has twisted and turned in desperation throughout Gurnemanz's narration, finally gives up hope of ever getting more than a couple of words to sing and falls asleep. To the tune of a big guitar, Gurnemanz and Parsifal go to the Grail Temple, where the knights rudely eat dinner without offering Parsifal any food or even a seat. Not surprisingly, Parsifal feels very unsympathetic to the knights' plight after such treatment, and it is the final straw when Gurnemanz offers him a bit of old goose, long after everyone else has had dessert and left the dining room. Parsifal runs away, and Gurnemanz is left to contemplate his next 200 birthdays, if only he could remember when exactly his birthday is.
Klingsor's magic kingdom, Chelsea. Klingsor summons Waltraud Meier and orders her to seduce Parsifal. As a way to lure Parsifal to his enchanted garden, where the seduction will take place, he releases his flour maidens, all dressed in black suits with bowler hats, who attempt to entice Parsifal with freshly baked bread, cakes and pastries. The attempt fails, as inevitably the vocal charms of the two sopranos we have heard of cannot fully compensate for the four wobbly and overweight house mezzos who will never sing anything more prestigious than Annina, and the way is cleared for Waltraud Meier who calls Parsifal by name, thus discovering a novel way to get his attention. After trying to distract him by telling him about his mother, she plants a stealthy kiss on his lips, but of course this just reminds Parsifal of Amfortas, and he is most ungallant in his response to her advances. Waltraud Meier now resorts to telling Parsifal the story of her own curse, culminating in an impressive leap to a high B on the words 'und lachte!'. At this moment it occurs to her that she could, in fact, sing Isolde, and she spends the rest of the act hurling out as many high notes as possible to convince everybody that this is the case. Consequently Parsifal slips through her fingers. In a last-ditch attempt, Klingsor enters to try and seduce Parsifal himself but being sadly compromised in the trouser department he has no more luck, and Parsifal leaves as Waltraud Meier threatens never to sing with him again.
The Grail kingdom, as Act I. After all the ill-advised high notes at the end of Act II, Waltraud Meier has lost her voice, and lies in a heap moaning about it. Gurnemanz, now 356 years old, hears the noise and comes to investigate. Waltraud Meier is quite unable to do more than utter in a broken voice the words 'Dienen, dienen' (Get Melanie Diener – I'll never make it through this act), and for the rest of the opera she is forced to mime. Parsifal turns up in heavy armour. Gurnemanz and Waltraud Meier help him take it off, and only two hours later they are ready to set off to the Grail Temple. Things have got so bad there that there is now nothing on the menu at all, and the knights are getting quite angry about it, but Amfortas refuses adamantly to spend any of his shampoo budget on food. Parsifal saves the day by offering everybody some of the bread, cakes and pastries he has left over from the flour maidens, but it is too late for Waltraud Meier, who dies of malnutrition. Fortunately she's only a woman, so everybody else lives happily ever after.