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Wagner's Holy Grail of Opera: Parsifal

Classical Academy | Composers | Richard Wagner | Opera


When Richard Wagner's latest opera "Parsifal" premiered at Bayreuth Festival in 1882 it was one of the biggest operatic performances that have ever been seen. The conductor Hermann Levi was in charge of an 107 musicians in the orchestra, 135 chorus members and a double-cast of soloists. There were harps, onstage trumpets and trombones, church bells and even a thunder machine.


Despite the army-sized forces needed to stage the opera, the music is very easy to follow and an excellent starting point for those new to Wagner's operas. It is based on the story of Parzival (or Percival), the Arthurian knight who is seeking the Holy Grail and all of the fascinating characters and settings are conjured up in Wagner's music - from the seductress Kundry and Klingsor's magical castle to the flower-maidens and the sacred grail itself.


It had taken Wagner 25 years to complete Parsifal and was to be his very last completed opera. He wrote it especially with the acoustics of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in mind. This opera house had been built especially for Wagner and had been opened six years earlier for the premiere of Wagner's "Ring Cycle" - four operas that form the story of "The Ring of the Nibelung". For the first few decades after the premiere, "Parsifal" was only allowed to be performed at Bayreuth. It became a musical Mecca for other great composers - among them Hugo Wolf, Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius.


This classic recording of "Parsifal" is one of tenor Wolfgang Windgassen's many performances of Wagner. He was one of the leading Wagnerian singers of the 50s and 60s and also the son of Fritz Windgassen - another Wagnerian "Heldentenor" (a "hero tenor", the lead male character in most of Wagner's operas). Also listen out for stunning performances from two other opera greats: French soprano Régine Crespin and German bass-baritone Theo Adam.