Opera + Classical Music Features

Music for Holy Week: Good Friday – Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’

A little bit of Wagner makes Good Friday even better. Keith McDonnell explains why.

Whilst the vast majority of people recognise today as Good Friday, we true believers know that’s not the case. Because today is Parsifal Day – the holiest day in the operatic calendar. A day when time becomes space, and we let Richard Wagner’s final, transcendental work transport us to a mystical, spiritual realm. Whether or not, of course, an opera should have such sway over mere mortals is a vexed question. But one thing is for certain – an unassailable fact indeed, and that is Parsifal is the greatest opera ever written. Some people may disagree, but those lost souls deserve our pity, not our ire. They will come round eventually. Resistance is futile.

Described by Wagner as a ‘Bühnenweihfestspiel’ or ‘Festival Play to Consecrate a Stage’, it was the culmination of the composer’s life-long obsession with purity, sacrifice and redemption, and received its premiere in Bayreuth in 1882 following a 25-year gestation period. Many leading lights from the European music scene made the journey to Wagner’s theatre to see it, and the mystery surrounding Parsifal was enhanced due to the fact that performances were not permitted in any other opera houses. It was only in 1903, 21 years after its premiere, that a fully-staged production was given elsewhere, at the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Then the floodgates opened, and every opera house worth its salt was clamouring to mount a production. But, of course, Wagner wrote it for his festival theatre in Bayreuth – the only one he did, and it shows. Famed for its acoustic, and the fact the audience has no view of the orchestra, which is seated below the stage, Wagner worked miracles with the orchestral sounds and textures. Parsifal at Bayreuth is the Mecca for all Wagner disciples – but we have yet to make that pilgrimage.

The opera is littered with references to Christianity, with Kundry, Wagner’s most complex character – part seductress, part penitent – actually recounting laughing at Christ on his way to the cross, following her failed seduction of our eponymous knight. Unfortunately Amfortas, the fallen knight of the Grail, wasn’t so resolute. Failing to subdue his carnal desires in the face of Kundry’s wiles, he was wounded by the spear – a wound that stubbornly fails to heal, providing a constant reminder of his transgressions.

But it’s Act III, which takes place on Good Friday, where Wagner’s intoxicating music really weaves its spell. It’s 70 minutes of unadulterated beauty, containing some of the most transcendental music ever penned, transporting the listener, if they’re prepared to succumb, to a place that’s simply not of this world.

After years wandering in the wilderness, Parsifal stumbles upon the elderly knight, Gurnemanz. He hears how the realm of the knights is in disarray following the death of its leader, Titurel. Amfortas, racked with guilt and pain, refuses to celebrate the eucharist, and can only be healed by the return of the spear, which Parsifal carries with him. Gurnemanz anoints Parsifal as King, Kundry washes his feet, and then he baptises her, absolving her of her sins. We then hear the Good Friday music, which is unsurpassed in its beauty, before the three of them head to the realm of the knights, where Parsifal heals Amfortas’ wound with the spear.

It’s heady, glorious stuff, concluding with a series of cascading musical roulades as the chorus sings ‘Erlöser dem Erlösung’ – ‘Redemption to the Redeemer’. So today, on Parsifal Day, sit back in your favourite armchair, relax, and let Wagner’s final opera transport you away from this humdrum world, to somewhere far more exquisite. And if you’re wondering which recording to choose, make sure it’s either the Knappertsbusch, Boulez or Janowski – if you go for Levine or Goodall, you’ll still be sitting in that chair on Easter Sunday.

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Music for Holy Week: Good Friday – Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’