By Barry Millington
The opera is set in the domain and castle (Monsalvat) of the guardians of the Grail, and their environs, in the mountains of Gothic Spain
A forest clearing
Young squires are guarding the sacred relics of the Grail domain. Gurnemanz rouses two of them from sleep and together they kneel and pray. He bids two knights prepare the bath for Amfortas, the son of Titurel, and now the ailing guardian of the Grail. Kundry, the accursed 'wild woman', rushes in with balsam from Arabia for Amfortas, who intones the formula of the 'innocent fool enlightened through compassion', whom he has been promised as a saviour. He is given Kundry's balsam and led away to his bath.
Gurnemanz reprimands the squires for their harsh words about Kundry; she is perhaps atoning with good deeds for a past sin, he says. Their taunt that she should be sent in quest of the missing spear draws from Gurnemanz an emotional recollection of how Amfortas was seduced and dealt his terrible wound, losing possession of the sacred spear to the magician Klingsor. The squires inquire how Gurnemanz knew Klingsor. He narrates the following story. The sacred relics had been given into the care of Titurel. The brotherhood of the Grail, assembled by Titurel to guard the relics, was closed to Klingsor because he could not control his sexual passions. Klingsor even castrated himself, but was still rebuffed. To avenge himself, he turned to magic and created a garden of delights where he lies in wait for errant knights, seducing them with 'women of infernal beauty'. The aging Titurel sent his son Amfortas to defeat Klingsor, with the consequences already described. Gurnemanz ends his narrative with a recollection of the divine prophecy concerning the 'innocent fool'.
A young man wielding a bow (Parsifal) is suddenly brought in by the knights; he has shot down a swan on the holy ground. Gurnemanz's rebuke fills him with remorse and he breaks his bow. To Gurnemanz's questions about his name and origins, however, he professes ignorance.
The two are left alone with Kundry, and Parsifal tells what he knows about himself: his mother's name was Herzeleide (Heart's Sorrow), he had strayed from home in search of adventure and had made his own arms for protection. When Kundry, who clearly knows more about him than he does himself, announces that his mother is dead, Parsifal attacks her and has to be restrained.
Bells ring out. Gurnemanz offers to lead Parsifal back to the Grail castle.
The castle of the guardians of the Grail
Gurnemanz and Parsifal enter the Grail hall. Amfortas is led in, reluctant to accede to Titurel's request for him to uncover the Grail. Amfortas breaks into a tormented monologue; he seeks atonement for his sin. At Titurel's insistence, the cover is removed from the Grail and its guardian is borne out again, his wound gaping anew. Parsifal is unable to tell Gurnemanz what he has seen and is roughly shepherded out. A voice from above repeats the prophecy, answered by other voices.
Klingsor's magic castle
From his castle, the sorcerer Klingsor watches over his domains. Seeing Parsifal approach, he summons Kundry, who groans monosyllabically. Attempting to resist Klingsor's instructions to seduce Parsifal, she taunts her master with his self-enforced chastity. Klingsor watches Parsifal as he fells one guard after another. The tower suddenly sinks and in its place appears a luxuriant magic garden.
Flowermaidens rush in from all sides, and as Parsifal appears they vie for his attention. Just as he manages to free himself, he is stopped in his tracks by the sound of his long-forgotten name. It is Kundry, now transformed into an enchanting beauty, who calls it. At her command the Flowermaidens reluctantly disperse.
Kundry tells Parsifal how she saw him as a baby on his mother's breast. His mother watched over him lovingly, but one day he broke her heart by not returning and she died of grief. Deeply distressed at the news, Parsifal is consoled by Kundry, who urges him to show her the love he owed his mother. As Kundry caresses him ever more intimately, Parsifal becomes increasingly confused between the maternal love he once enjoyed and the sexual love he is now offered. Kundry attempts to press her lips to his mouth and deliver a far from maternal kiss. Parsifal leaps up, clutching his heart. His cry 'Amfortas! Die Wunde!' ('Amfortas! The wound!') indicates his first real identification with Amfortas's suffering, and his first step on the road to self-knowledge. Falling into a trance, he hears Christ the Redeemer himself call on him to save him from 'guilt-tainted hands' and cleanse the polluted sanctuary.
He repels Kundry, but she appeals to him to use his redemptive powers to save her: for her blasphemous mockery of Christ she has wandered the world for centuries. One hour with him would bring her release, she says. But Parsifal, recognizing that salvation for them both depends on his withstanding her allurements, resists her. She attempts to block his way to Amfortas and calls to Klingsor. The magician appears and hurls his spear at Parsifal. Parsifal seizes the spear and as he does so Klingsor's realm is destroyed.
In the domain of the Grail
Gurnemanz emerges from his hut and discovers Kundry, whose groans, as she lies stiff and lifeless, he has heard. He revives her, but receives no thanks: Kundry's only utterance is 'Dienen. dienen!' ('Let me serve. serve!'). A man in a suit of armour approaches, bearing a spear. Gurnemanz welcomes him but bids him divest himself of his weapons: it is Good Friday and this is holy ground. As the man does so, Gurnemanz recognizes him as Parsifal, whom he once roughly turned away.
He also recognizes the spear, which, Parsifal tells him, he has guarded safely throughout his troubled wandering. Gurnemanz hails its recovery, and tells Parsifal that his return with the healing spear is timely. Amfortas, longing for death, has refused to reveal the Grail, the brotherhood has degenerated, and Titurel has died. Parsifal is almost overcome with remorse. His feet are bathed by Kundry, and Gurnemanz sprinkles water from the spring on his head. Kundry then anoints his feet and dries them with her hair.
Gazing on the beautiful meadows, Parsifal says that on Good Friday every living thing should only sigh and sorrow. Gurnemanz replies that on this day repentant sinners rejoice at the Redeemer's act of self-sacrifice and nature herself is transfigured.
Gurnemanz now leads Parsifal and Kundry to the Grail hall. Amfortas refuses to uncover the Grail, and when the knights become insistent, he merely invites them to plunge their swords into his heart.
Parsifal meanwhile has appeared; he holds out his spear and with its point touches Amfortas's wound. Amfortas is miraculously healed; he yields his office as lord of the Grail to the new redeemer.