- Parsifal:A Workshop Conversation with Ruth Berghaus, Michael Gielen, Klaus Zehelein, and Axel Manthey
A quotation from act one to get us started: "Was ist der Gral?—Das sagt sich nicht!" ("What is the Grail?—that cannot be said!") What do we make of this?
It really cannot be said, because it is the very heart of Parsifal. It is the theme. If it were easily said, the piece in all its ambivalence would be simply superfluous. What the Grail symbolizes—that is, the question of the vessel, of the streaming blood, of the self-transforming blood, that the spear definitely belongs to the Grail and that it threatens the Grail—taken together, this is of such colossal meaning that this utterance—the notion that it cannot be said—is the truest utterance in the piece.
That means that rather than defining it verbally, the idea is expressed through the piece, Parsifal.
. . . on a variety of levels and with changing meanings.
The way and manner in which the motivic material is handled points to Wagner's intentions and goals. The heart of the opera presents two figures—Kundry, Parsifal—who are given verbal as well as musical material from all the other figures in the piece. These strata and various layerings of the material, done to a degree unusual for a love scene, point more to Wagner's purpose than does the Grail, which he himself considered inexplicable. The Grail is Wagner's attempt in the piece, Parsifal, to make the conditions of life clear to the world. What he intended with this piece is arguably a particular self-realization and self-discovery for Parsifal and Kundry. All the other figures in the piece participate in this self-realization and self-discovery in various ways and to varying degrees: Gurnemanz teaches and preserves history; Amfortas experiences the wound in the moment—the tearing of spirit and flesh. Everyone is marked by the wound, Klingsor too of course, but not yet Parsifal. And the two poles, Kundry and Parsifal, to whom an entire act is dedicated, search to find themselves and one another. The Grail is not an opposition to Klingsor's world, but is one side of a whole. In other words, the whole has two sides: Klingsor and the Grail.
Isn't the Grail, for the short time it flows, or better, for the time of its incandescence, utopia elevated to theatrical reality? [End Page 349]
When history seeks utopia, myth and religion are sublated [aufgehoben] in history.
During our work, we came closer to the piece only when we didn't burden ourselves with definitions. The less we drove external wedges into it, the more we gained in specificity. The process in the reverse direction is also conceivable. To return to the example of the Grail: the piece lasts almost five hours, and the Grail does not remain the Grail, since the Grail of the first act is not that of the third. Thus the question: where is the Grail really the Grail? The wound and the loss of the spear also belong to the Grail. That is the first Grail. The Grail at the end of the third act is the one to which the spear is restored and where the wound is closed. And now comes what I think is the image of the always-open Grail: "Nicht soll der mehr verschlossen sein:—Enthüllet den Gral—öffnet den Schrein!" ("Nevermore shall it be closed: uncover the Grail—open the shrine!") That means, from the moment of this forever-open Grail onwards, it will never again be possible to write about it sequentially, because history has ended. It is the idea of eternity, of the eternal stream of the Grail, the eternal nourishment and eternal nurturing.
Cockaigne? A kind of Wonderland?
Yes and no. That is a part of it. We indeed accept it as that; it is also nourishment. But the lasting impression at the end is that ambivalence is not up for...