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Parsifal

28 Aug [1865]

Waltraud Meier

The most untiring in the worldwide quest for a cure to Anfortas' wound is the High Messenger of the Grail, Kundry. Who this woman is and where she comes from, no one knows; she must be extremely old, for she appeared here in the mountains in the reign of Titurel: although she is wild and dreadful to behold, one notices no signs of real age: she has a complexion which is pale one moment and sunburnt the next; her black hair hangs down long and wild; sometimes she plaits it strangely; she is only ever seen in her dark-red robe which she closes with a curious snake skin girdle: often her black eyes shoot out from their sockets like burning coals; one moment her gaze is unsteady and wandering, the next - staring again and fixed. The brotherhood of knights treat her more as a strange, magical animal than a human being. Also she keeps her distance, how she survives is not known, nor where she finds shelter: at times she vanishes completely; then nothing is seen or heard of her.

Then someone chances upon her in a cave, or in dense undergrowth, in a deathlike sleep, lifeless, numb, bloodless, with all limbs rigid. Gurnemans, the old squire, usually takes care of her then: he has known her for so long! - carries her to his home, warms, chafes her and restores her to life; on waking, she believes she has dropped off to sleep for a while, curses herself for letting sleep overcome her, gazes at the sun, heaves a dreadfully deep sigh, darts away, and begins her activity anew. If there is something difficult to be accomplished, something to be done far, far away, a message or order from the Grail for a Knight of the Grail contending in foreign zones, then suddenly Kundry is at hand, eager to undertake the task which none can perform so speedily and reliably as she; one then sees her racing off in the storm on a tiny horse with a long mane and tail flowing down to the ground, and before one knows it she is back. Never has anyone remarked the least disloyalty in her; her zeal, her care in the performance of her missions is boundless. Thus she is a true, indispensable servant to the company of knights: all her missions turn out well. Against which, she is greatly missed on the occasions of her mysterious absences: then some adversity, some mysterious danger usually befalls the knights, and there is alarm, and often the wish for Kundry to return. Because of that, many too are in doubt whether she should be considered good or evil: what is certain is that she must still be a heathen. Never is she seen at any religious ceremony: nor elsewhere either, unless there is some uncommonly difficult service to be performed. Gurnemans, who at other times is not gentle in his behaviour toward the wild woman, takes her half grudgingly, half humorously under his protection. One must consider her good works, he says, and be glad if she returns. He supposes her to be a woman accursed and with great sins to atone for in her present life. The services she performs are as much for her own benefit as that of the Knights, who should not be afraid to accept them.-

spear

For the rest, she shows great indifference, indeed scorn for the Knights, refusing to accept their thanks. Even Anfortas is not exempted. Now she is just returning on her panting horse from the fabled land of Arabia where she has found the most precious balm. Hastily she hands it to Gurnemans, refuses thanks and without a word throws herself down in a corner of the forest, while Gurnemans hastens to the King and the knights by the holy lake, bearing what might be a cure. Kundry smiles scornfully. 'You know who alone can help. Why drive me on a false track?' Nothing else will she reveal. She never gives advice nor opinion: but simply shows the swiftest zeal in at once carrying out what is commanded or desired. She is therefore considered completely stupid and senseless, as well as animal. Yet she seems to attach great, indeed passionately great, importance to delivering Anfortas from his suffering: she betrays violent uneasiness over it. But then again she laughs scornfully: one should not wish the end of this distress; who knows whether the resourceful knights might not in future have to perform their own missions; she too would like peace, etc.

While the King is bathing in the sacred lake, a wild swan circles over his head: suddenly it falls, wounded by an arrow; shouts from the lake: general indignation, who dares kill an animal on this sacred spot? The swan flutters nearer and drops bleeding to the ground. Parzival emerges from the forest, bow in hand: Gurnemans stops him. The young man confesses to the deed. To the violent reproaches of the old man he has no reply. Gurnemans, reproaching him with the wickedness of his act, reminds him of the sanctity of the forest stirring so silently around him, asks whether he has not found all the creatures tame, gentle and harmless. What had the swan, seeking its mate, done to him? Was he not sorry for the poor bird that now lay, with bloodstained feathers, dying at his feet? etc.,-

Parsifal Act 1, Bayreuth 1989 Parsifal Act 1 in the 1989 Bayreuth production by Wolfgang Wagner. Parsifal: William Pell, Gurnemanz: Hans Sotin. ©Bayreuther Festspiele.

Parzival, who has been standing riveted to the spot, bursts into tears and stammers, "I don't know!" - "Who is your father?" - "I don't know!" etc. Gurnemans' amazement at this stupidity which hitherto he has encountered only in Kundry, gives way to emotion as he prevails upon Parzival to stay awhile and tell Gurnemans something about himself. All that Gurnemans can get out of the shy boy, however, is that he knows only his mother, Schmerzeleide; she has brought him up in great seclusion, and so that he was ignorant of arms and knighthood. - "Why?" As Parzival knows no reason, Kundry, recumbent in her corner, who all along has been staring hard at Parziv., quickly throws in, "His father was killed before his son was born; his mother wanted to protect her son from a similar violent death - the fool!" She laughs. Parzival's memory and understanding of his past are thus awakened. Armed men had passed their lonely farm: Parzivalhad followed but lost them. He has had many adventures: made himself a bow and with it, protected himself on his wild wanderings.-

Parsifal Act 1, Norwegian Opera Parsifal Act 1 in the Norwegian Opera production. Parsifal: Reiner Goldberg, Gurnemanz: Manfred Schenk. ©Den Norske Opera.

K undry confirms that he has made himself feared through his heroic deeds and incredibly bold strength. "Who fears me?" - "The wicked." - "Were those who barred my way wicked?" - Gurnemans laughs. "Who is good?" - Gurnem.: "Your mother. You have run away from her; she will be grieving for you; there is no need to treat all from the start with hostility." - "Am I hostile?" - "Towards the swan you were, and towards your mother." - Kundry: "She is dead!" - Parzival: "Dead? My mother? Who says so?" - Kundry: "I saw her die!" Parziv. leaping up seizes Kundry by the throat. Gurnemans holds him back. "Will you do more wrong here? What has the woman done to you? She has surely spoken the truth, for Kundry never lies and knows much." Parziv. stands dazed, as if paralysed. At length, "I die of thirst." He is on the verge of collapsing; Gurnemans holds him. Kundry goes swiftly to the spring and returns with a filled horn: she sprinkles Parz. with the water and gives him to drink. Gurnemans praises Kundry; so that what was done here, was evil repaid by good. Kundry laughs: she never does good, but she wants peace. As Parz. recovers and is tended in fatherly fashion by Gurnemans, Kundry retires, sad and seeming growing weary, to a corner of the forest: "Ah, I am tired. Where shall I find peace?" She drags herself off into the forest, unobserved.-

Parsifal Act 1, Metropolitan Opera Act 1 in the Metropolitan Opera production; Production: Schenk, Design: Schneider- Siemssen. ©Hans Fahrmeyer Photography, NY.

G urnemans sees that the King, with his attendants, has long set off back to the castle. The sun is at its zenith; the time for the sacred meal approaches. Parz., supporting himself on the old man, asks where they are, for the forest seems steadily to be disappearing as they enter stone corridors. It looks as if they are on the right path, and the boy, he realises, is still innocent, otherwise the way to the castle would not be opening up before them so readily. They climb stairs and again find themselves in vaulted corridors. Parzival, hardly feeling that he is walking, follows in a daze. He hears wonderful sounds. Trumpet notes, long-held and swelling, answered from the far distance by a gentle ringing, as of crystal bells. At last they arrive in a mighty hall which, cathedral-like, loses itself in a high dome. Light falls only from above: from the dome - an increasingly louder ringing of bells. Parzival stands enchanted. Gurnemans: " Now hold up: it is clear that you are a fool, let me see whether you are aware."


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