In an age of nuclear anxiety, terrorist phobia, and zombie apocalypses we attempt to project our own insecurities and nightmares onto works whose zeitgeist originates in another era. In our egotism, we often attempt to "modernize" these works, assuming that contemporaneity will clarify for us what the author or composer really had in mind in his own day. We desperately desire to impose modern values, fears, and anxieties on these works to make them "relevant" to contemporary readers or viewers. One particular example illustrates the adage that attempting to clarify a corner only unfocuses the center.
Wagner's Parsifal in modern productions is often stripped of the setting implicit in Wagner's stage directions. Instead, we are regaled with a postapocalyptic wasteland or a desolate industrial ghost town--places no swan in its right mind would approach. Such settings steal the magic and the mysticism that unites all living things through the spiritual life force represented by the Grail. Wagner's Grail realm exists in two dimensions--the physical and the ideal: the living forest and meadow transform beyond space and time into the Grail hall--the physical into the ideal.We, of course, associate this with Schopenhauer and the concept of the phenomenal and noumenal worlds. The protagonist is sent--he is the chosen one--to open the realms to each other, which allows the one to restore the other with vitality, vigor, and voluminous wonder. To present the opera in any other way is to misread the Romantic ideal of sacrifice. Sacrifice, one must note, is for the benefit of others--not for one's own gain.
This misreading of sacrifice is what dooms Klingsor, his selfish hopes, dreams, and desires. Klingsor's actions are motivated by the desire for selfish power-- Power with which he seeks to rule, to force his will upon others, to control the lives and deeds of everyone else. Yes, he sacrifices to attain these goals, but to ultimately succeed, he must acquire the Grail. This ultimate goal, however, is beyond his reach. His necromancy is based upon his own selfish thoughts--thoughts he attributes to everyone else as well. He seduces many of the knights away from the Grail, away from the pruned and kept forest to his rank and foully overgrown garden of flower maidens. He uses Kundry to seduce Amfortas, who in his pride has taken on a role not meant for him in order to be a heilge helde.
With Amfortas's fall the mistake of many modern producers begins. This is their justification for their apocalyptic view turning the Grail realm into Mad Max's desert. Wagner gives no hint of this desolation in the libretto. Wagner tells us that only those who are called can truly enter the realm. Klingsor lost his calling. He sacrifices not for the good of others but for his own selfish desires. He mutilates himself mistaking this for a selfless sacrifice. He is doomed because this sacrifice only intensifies his selfish longings. For it, Titurel cast him out. Once the Grail turns against him, no longer calls him to service, Klingsor's hopes are doomed. The Grail calls the chosen one--the pure fool. When Parsifal fulfills the first part of his destiny, we see the futility of Klingsor's efforts. The sacred spear, the weapon he has succeeded in acquiring from the selfish Amfortas, the weapon upon which he based his hope of overcoming the Grail realm, deserts him the first time he tries to use it as it comes to Parsifal's hand in midair like a lost dog returning to its true owner. In the erlorser's hand, the spear redeems the fallen land.
Parsifal must learn the meaning of sacrifice, so he wanders for 10 years under Kundry's curse until the Grail recalls them both. The Grail forest and meadow are still intact--No decay, no apocalypse, no deterioration. Amfortas has put himself above the good of the others as he seeks death by denying the Grail to himself and the others. In his pride he dooms Titurel to death. Parsifal arrives with the dawn of a new day. The holy spring is there to provide the cleansing water of rebirth. At the height of the day (mitt wok), the Grail calls him to it. The Grail has used the Spear to protect itself, and in Parsifal's hands (the King's hands are the hands of a healer) Amfortas is healed and the two dimensions of the Grail realm are reunited. Kundry is given release. The sacrifice of Parsifal in the wasteland has made him worthy of his calling.