Wagner's Parsifal: Opera Synopsis

The Story of Wagner's 3-Act Opera

Set design for Richard Wagner's opera, Parsifal, created by Paul von Joukowsky and performed in Bayreuth in 1882.
Set design for Richard Wagner's opera, Parsifal, created by Paul von Joukowsky and performed in Bayreuth in 1882. De Agostini / A. Dagli Orti / Getty Images

Richard Wagner composed Parsifal.


August 28, 1850 - Weimar, Germany

Other Popular Opera Synopses

Donizetti's Lucia di LammermoorMozart's The Magic FluteVerdi's Rigoletto, & Puccini's Madama Butterfly

Setting of Parsifal

The story of Wagner's opera, Parsifal, is set in the Montserrat mountains of northern Spain.

The Story of Parsifal

Gurnemanz, the eldest Knight of the Holy Grail, wakes two of his esquires to lead them in their morning prayers outside of their castle nestled in the Montserrat mountains. Other knights prepare their king, Amfortas, who was incurably wounded by the Holy Spear in which he guards, for a bath in the holy lake. Gurnemanz sees the knights escorting the frail king toward the water and asks one of them about the king's health. They tell him that the king did not sleep well and suffered throughout the night. Before Gurnemanz can explain how the wound cannot be healed to his curious esquires, Kundry, the Holy Grail's messenger, appears out of nowhere carrying with her a potion that will help ease the king's pain. The king is carried over to her and he speaks of a prophecy that was once told to him. Kundry instructs him to drink the medicine, then to bathe in the lake. The king follows her orders and the knights take him away.  Gurnemanz's esquires wonder aloud and ask him why the sorcerer Klingsor wants to destroy the Knights of the Holy Grail. Gurnemanz tells them the story of how the King acquired his holy relics - the Holy Grail (the cup from which Jesus Christ drank during the Last Supper) and the Holy Spear (the weapon that pierced the flesh of Jesus Christ while he was nailed to the cross). The two items were given to King Amfortas's father, Titurel. When Amfortas took the throne, he created a group of knights to guard and protect the items. Klingsor wanted to be a Knight of the Holy Grail but was unable to successfully pass King Amfortas's tests and requirements. To spite the king, Klingsor constructed a castle nearby and enchanted it with magic and alluring women to trap and ensnare Amfortas's knights. Amfortas took a group of his knights to Klingsor's castle to kill him, but they all fell under Klingsor's spell. In the guise of an incredibly beautiful woman, King Amfortas was deceived into giving her the Holy Spear. Klingsor, now with possession of the powerful relic, stabbed King Amfortas. The wound, which cannot be mended by any medicine they possess, can only be healed by an innocent youth - the same youth spoken in the king's prophesy.

Without warning, a silent arrow cuts through the sky and strikes a swan which falls to the ground in front of Gurnemanz. At his orders, a few knights find the hunter responsible and bring him out of the forest. Gurnemanz questions the young man who boasts about his archery skills, then rebukes him for killing a holy animal. The young man, meaning no offense for his actions, is upset and breaks his bow in half. Gurnemanz asks him about his mother and father, how he found their castle, and what his purpose for being there was, but the young man is unable to answer him. Finally, Gurnemanz tells the boy to tell him what he does know. The boy says his mother, Herzleide, raised him alone in the forest and that he made his own bow and arrow. Kundry, who is nearby, fills in the rest of the boy's story.  His father was a knight killed in battle, so his mother forbids him from ever using a sword, fearing that the boy would suffer a fate like his father. When the boy saw a group of knights pass near his home, he left his mother to follow them. Kundry tells the boy, who still has not told them his name, that his mother was riddled with so much grief, she died after he left the house. The boy collapses in tears, and Gurnemanz helps lead him into the castle while wondering if he is the one to fulfill the prophecy (the castle and the holy relics within its walls call out only to the most pious).  

Gurnemanz invites the boy to a ceremony that Titurel has ordered to take place - the uncovering of the Holy Grail. Titurel believes it will help the knights regain their strength, but Amfortas feels it will only make matters worse. The ceremony is started and the cloth that conceals the cup is removed; emanating from it is a warm light that bathes the entire room in an amber glow. The young man is unable to understand the significance of the ceremony which Gurnemanz finds unacceptable. Despite kicking him out of the castle, he suspects the boy is still the chosen one.

Klingsor paces within his castle and calls out to Kundry, who has been serving him while under his spell. He orders her to seduce the young man, knowing full well that he is the boy that can save the king and restore the knights. Kundry, wanting nothing more than to end her torment, fights Klingsor to the best of her abilities but is unable to resist his demands.

When the young man approaches Klingsor's castle, he is first met with a group of enchanted knights who fight him at every step of the way. They are no match for the young man and Klingsor and Kundry withdraw deeper into the castle. As the young man begins walking toward the flower garden filled with traps and beautiful women, Klingsor instructs Kundry to greet and seduce him. He casts a spell and she is magically transformed into a stunning young woman. She quickly makes her way over to where the young man is standing (though he looks like he is about to flee - all of the treacherous flower maidens are unable to lure him into their embrace and they begin fighting each other) and calls out his name "Parsifal". He turns around and smiles, telling her that he has only been called that name by his deceased mother in a recent dream. They happily walk through the gardens, exchanging loving glances and conversing about his life. When he asks her how she knew his name, she tells him that she once her his mother say it. Parsifal begins to remember his mother and is upset that he had forgotten about her. Kundry tells him that if he kisses her, she can make his pain go away. Parsifal leans in for a kiss and when their lips touch, he immediately recalls the agonizing moans of King Amfortas during the Holy Grail ceremony and realizes that Kundry is the one who stabbed him. Parsifal pushes her away. Hoping to receive his pity, she tells him that she has been cursed since the day she laughed at Jesus Christ's crucifixion, and she has been living a double life under Klingsor's power for too long. He demands her to take him back to King Amfortas - she says she will but only if he stays with her for another hour. He does not give in and she leaves him alone to wander the gardens in search of the Knights of the Holy Grail's castle forever. She rushes back to Klingsor, beseeching his help. He grabs the Holy Spear and makes his way to the gardens. He throws the spear at Parsifal's head with all of his might, but to his surprise, Parsifal catches the spear in mid-air. Within a matter of moments, Klingsor and his kingdom fade away.

Many years have passed, and now Gurnemanz is an old man living as a hermit near the castle. He hears strange noises coming from a nearby clump of bushes, and upon inspection, he finds an incoherent Kundry. Feeling it may be a sign (it is Good Friday), he gives her a drink of water from the holy spring. When she revives, they see a strange man covered in armor from head to toe approaching them. Gurnemanz calls out to the man, be he gets no answer. The stranger walks up to them and removes his helmet and withdraws the spear - it's Parsifal. Gurnemanz moves with a sudden burst of youthful energy and hugs him. Kundry fetches a pan of water and washes his feet. Parsifal recounts the many arduous years he spent trying to find their castle but tells them that he never revealed the spear or used it in any way despite the many battles he faced. Gurnemanz proclaims him the new king and tells him that King Amfortas barely hangs onto life. Amfortas will not allow the uncovering of the Grail, so many of the knights and their order are weak, and even Titurel died several days prior. In fact, the distant tolling bells announce the commencement of his funeral. As new king, Parsifal baptizes Kundry, then they walk to the castle.

Titurel's funeral is underway and knights carry his coffin ceremoniously into the great hall. King Amfortas will not remove the Grail's cover and begs one of the knights to kill him in order to end his misery. Parsifal enters the room with the Holy Spear in hand and walks up to Amfortas. He taps the spear on Amfortas's side and says that it is the only thing that can heal him. Amfortas's wound disappears, the agonizing pain is lifted from his body, and the guilt he felt for failing the knighthood is absolved. Parsifal removes the Grail's cover and its light washes over them. Kundry is set free from her sin and her body falls to the floor while a dove rises above it, taking its place near Parsifal. He happily accepts his new role as king and leader of the order.