Herzeleide, of the royal house of the guardians of the Holy Grail, has brought up her son Parsifal in a lonely forest, to prevent him from following in the footsteps of his father, Gamuret, who had departed in quest of heroic adventure and died an early death. Ignorant of the world Parsifal grows up a “guileless fool.” One day he sees by accident a company of knights, his love of adventure is roused, and he begs his mother to allow him to depart.
ACT I. An opening in the forest near Montsalvat, the castle of the Grail, which is situated upon an inaccessible mountain. Amfortas has been appointed by his venerable father, Titurel, keeper of the Grail. Contrary to his solemn obligation to refrain from the love of woman, Amfortas has succumbed to the seductive arts of Kundry, and has been wounded by the enchanter Klingsor with his own lance, which fell from his hand and was grasped by Klingsor. The lance of Amfortas is the one with which Longinus pierced the side of Christ on the cross, and which was saved by Joseph of Arimathea, together with the Grail — the vessel which caught the blood of the Redeemer. Amfortas, mortally wounded, suffers agony, but cannot die nor be healed until a “guileless fool, by compassion wise,’ brings back the lance and touches with it the wound. Kundry is in the power of the enchanter Klingsor, but is also the messenger of the Grail. She is the woman who scorned Christ on the cross, and now, longing for release, and alternating between good and evil, is condemned to wander the earth forever. She brings Gurnemanz a healing potion, as Amfortas is being carried to be bathed in the sea. Gurnemanz in a long recitative relates how Klingsor, refused by Titurel as one of the knights of the Holy Grail, had created a magic garden, and peopled it with beautiful maidens, destined to seduce the knights of the Grail. Parsifal enters the precincts of the castle of the Grail, wounds a swan with his arrow and is brought before Gurnemanz. He excuses his fault as one of ignorance, and Gurnemanz recognises in him the “guileless fool” who alone can heal Amfortas. Kundry informs him of Parsifal’s descent, and when the wounded king returns to the castle, the youth is brought before him. While he and Parsifal ascend the heights to the castle, the scene gradually changes, so that they always remain visible until the castle appears. At the end of their wandering the scene changes to a hail within the castle. The knights of the Grail enter, the wounded Amfortas is carried in, and is compelled, against his will, to display the miracle of the Grail, the sight of which will keep him alive against his will. Parsifal is astounded at the miracle, but forgets to utter the question which would release Amfortas, and when he confesses to Gurnemanz that he comprehends nothing of what he has seen, he is roughly ejected from the castle.
ACT II. The dungeon beneath an open turret, in which are displayed Klingsor’s implements of magic. ‘When Parsifal approaches Klingsor, who recognises his danger, he compels Kundry to attempt to seduce him. The magician has aroused Parsifal’s fighting spirit by sending against him knights, whom he conquers, and he now enters the magic turret. Klingsor and the turret suddenly vanish, and in their place appears a wonderful garden peopled with fairy flower girls. They surround Parsifal, who resists them, but is almost vanquished by the beautiful Kundry, who touches his heart by announcing to him the death of his beloved mother. When he kisses Kundry the “guileless fool” is awakened, and he now understands why Amfortas suffers and how he can be relieved. When Kundry tells him of her sin against the Lord he turns away from her in horror. In vain Klingsor comes to the rescue, for when he throws the holy lance, taken from Amfortas, at Parsifal, it remains suspended above his head. Parsifal seizes the lance, making the sign of the cross, and Klingsor and his magic forces disappear. Kundry bitterly curses Parsifal, predicting that he will seek the Grail in vain, hut Parsifal replies that she now knows where to seek him and that she will soon be released.
ACT III. A wood in the glory of spring, flowers, a well and the hut of a hermit. Parsifal, after wandering for years, has learned wisdom, and journeys once more toward the castle of the Grail. Gurnemanz lives in the wood, below the castle, and having found Kundry, just awakened from a long magic sleep, takes her as his servant. Gurnemanz, like the other knights, has grown old, for Amfortas has not exhibited the youth-giving Grail since Parsifal’s departure. When he sees the holy lance in Parsifal’s hand, he recognises with enthusiasm the “guileless fool.” It is Good Friday; Kundry, who only utters the word “serve,” washes Parsifal’s feet, that he may enter the castle clean and pure, while Gurnemanz annoints his hair. (“Good Friday spell.”) Parsifal releases Kundry by baptising her as a Christian. All three proceed to the castle in the same manner as in Act I. (Change of landscape.) The knights of the Holy Grail have assembled to bury the aged Titurel, and Amfortas, himself about to die once again, prepares to exhibit the Grail. Remembering that this act will again prolong his sorrowful life, he shows his wounds to the knights and implores them to slay him. But Parsifal, entering, seizes the holy lance and heals the king’s wound by touching it with the point. He proclaims himself the king of the Grail, which he reverently holds aloft. The repentant Kundry, dying, falls to the ground, and for one moment Titurel comes to life. As Parsifal raises his hands in benediction, Amfortas, Gurnemanz and the other knights acclaim him as the new king of the Grail.
References and external links: Plot taken from The Opera Goer's Complete Guide by Leo Melitz, 1921 version.