- Parsifal's Promise or Parsifal's Reality?On the Politics of Voice Exchange in Wagner's Grail Operas
Both Parsifal and Lohengrin are operas about futurity: hope that prayers will be answered, promise that redemption will bring about a new day. Yet paradoxically, the two works also share an investment in reversing futurity: time turned into space, modernity exchanged for medieval regalia. These external similarities between Wagner's "grail operas" are more than mere family resemblances, however, for this hesitant nexus of hope and despair, of progress and stultification, is perhaps at its strongest in the movement between the two works. Parsifal comes to its autumnal close so that Parsifal's son may attend to his heroic duties, just as Lohengrin bows its head as an opera to make way for its prophetic older sibling, the music drama.1 Fueling this circular movement between the two works is the catalyst of self-realization, the promise—and the cost—of finding one's voice, of fulfilling prophecy. This, then, is an essay about coming into one's own within the ambivalent and closed economy of Wagnerian myth.
Our starting point is the beginning of the third act in Parsifal, as Parsifal the character—now the "Black Knight"—shares with Gurnemanz what he has learned about his place within Parsifal the story: "Und ich," he cries, "ich bin's, der all dies Elend schuf" [And I, I am the one who caused all this misery]. The "misery" is Titurel's death, and it represents the sorry state into which Montsalvat has fallen since Parsifal's initial failure to recognize his redemptive potential. The bad news initially threatens to overwhelm Parsifal, but it ultimately serves to strengthen his resolve. "Ich bin's": I am the one I myself heard prophesied. Although this hard-won realization carries embarrassingly little dramatic suspense—Wagner made the "pure fool's" identity painstakingly obvious in act 1—it serves as a decisive linchpin in the opera's dénouement: Parsifal exchanges his old mien for a new one, and now armed with both spear and the knowledge of his role within a preordained narrative, he is able to heal Amfortas, baptize Kundry, and proclaim healed all the ills that have befallen Montsalvat.
I begin with this moment in Parsifal not because it is unfamiliar, or because its mechanics demand detailed exegesis, but precisely because there is something so familiar about it. Indeed, we have heard Parsifal's words before in other of Wagner's works, and so, too, have we witnessed similar scenes of self-realization. Senta, at the turning point of her ballad, switches from narration to apostrophe to [End Page 249] blurt out to the absent Dutchman: "Ich sei's, die dich durch ihre Treu' erlöse!" [I shall be the one to redeem you through her fidelity!]. And in Brünnhilde's ominous annunciation of death to Siegmund, we hear the formulation again, its dramatic formality employed to soften the blow of a new responsibility Brünnhilde herself has yet to grasp: "Ich bin's, der bald du folgst" [I am the one whom you will soon follow]. This announcement sets in motion a series of heroic renunciations for Brünnhilde, just as it commences a seemingly inexorable drive toward Senta's comic plunge at the end of The Flying Dutchman. Thus Parsifal's "Ich bin's" operates according to the principles of an old Wagnerian standby, according to which Parsifal learns to insert himself in a story he already knows. The device functions as a narrative interpolation, whereby Wagner's characters learn not only a name and an identity, but a predetermined role in an already familiar tale.2
Yet if the insertion of Parsifal the character into Parsifal the story partakes in a narrative strategy well-rehearsed in earlier works, it does so with an increased sense of finality. The process of matching up character and prophecy helps reduce narrative excess, and it is representative of a general summing-up, a reduction of the margins, that characterizes the opera more generally. On a musical level, as Adorno was keen to point out, the work marks a severe cutting back (compared...