Some notes on the genesis of Parsifal by Richard Wagner – in connection with the performance of the Sofia Opera on July 25, 2023


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Parsifal (1882) was the last musical and stage work of Richard Wagner (1813–1883). The author’s libretto of the composer is inspired mostly by an epic poem of the same name (in German: Parzival), created between 1200 and 1210 by Wolfram von Eschenbach (who lived from ca. 1170 to ca. 1220)[2]. Wagner read the poetic work as early as the summer of 1845 (in the year of Tannhäuser’s completion and premiere). Working on his other music and stage works, the composer returns to the poem, re-reads it, reflects on it. In April 1859 (the year of the completion of Tristan und Isolde), Wagner came up with the idea of creating a musical-stage work inspired by the epic poem, in three acts, without yet being completely sure of the title. The first version of his original libretto for Parsifal dates back to 1865 (this is also the year of the premiere of Tristan and Isolde). The libretto was fully completed 12 years later only in 1877. Most of Parsifal’s music was written between 1877 and 1879, and the score was completed in January 1882 (13 months before Wagner’s death)[3]. If we calculate the years between the first reading of the poem (1845) and the completion of the musical-stage work (1882), it can be found that the contemplation and creation of Parsifal stretched over a whole 37 years. Whereas, if Wagner’s intention to write a musical-stage work in three acts on the poem of the same name (1859) is accepted as an initial event, then the work took 23 years to complete. About 17 years passed from the creation of the first version of the libretto (1865) to the writing of the score (1882). Although Wagner has not worked intensively on Parsifal in all these years, it is his individual musical stage work that took the longest (in comparison, The Rhine Gold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods from his famous tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung were written for 26 years – from 1848 to 1874).

In the first published score of Parsifal, Wagner defines his work as “Ein Bühnenweihfestspiel”[4], translated and interpreted as “a festival (festive, solemn) play to consecrate the theatre stage”[5]. The “consecration” or place of “consecration” and “worship” coincided, according to Wagner’s ideas, with his theatre (das Festspielhaus) in Bayreuth, which was officially inaugurated on 13 August 1876 with The Rhine Gold. However, after the performances of the whole tetralogy, the theatre ceased to function until the premiere of Parsifal, which took place on July 26, 1882.[6] This theatre, designed by Richard Wagner, Gottfried Semper (the creator of the Semper Opera in Dresden, in German: Semperoper) and Otto Brueckwald, is still among the best acoustic salons in the world today[7]. Wagner sought to position the audience as in an amphitheatre, as well as equal visibility and audibility for every spectator and from every place in the hall. The deep and detailed sound was also achieved thanks to the deeper orchestra pit, which also aimed to prevent the orchestra musicians from being visible to the audience.

Wagner’s idea of ‘hiding’ the instrumentalists from viewers evokes analogies with the most important instrumental ensemble in Japan’s traditional theatre Kabuki「歌舞伎」–
Ge-za「下座」. Ge-za, the most important of the four musical ensembles in Kabuki, is ‘invisible’ to the audience because it is located behind a screen of bamboo, but the instrumentalists have visibility to the stage and are in the most inextricable relationship with the singing actors of this traditional theatre[8]. It is possible that at the time of the creation of the theatre in Bayreuth (1876) and Parsifal (1882), Wagner was familiar with the specifics of Kabuki theatre, since in his literary work The Artwork of the Future (Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft) from 1849 he gave examples from the theatre of Asia[9]. Wagner’s understandings of the essential importance of the orchestra in the performance of musical and stage works, including the achievement of the ‘endless melody’ (German: (die) unendliche Melodie) defined by him, are presented in his theoretical text Music of the Future (Zukunftsmusik; 1860)[10]. The importance of the orchestra in the music and stage works of Wagner, like the importance of Ge-za for the performances of the Kabukitheatre, most likely requires their ‘hiding’ from the viewers in order not to distract in any way from the course of the stage action.

Along with Wagner’s definition of Parsifal as a work intended to consecrate a theatrical space, in a letter to his wife Cosima (daughter of Ferenc Liszt), Wagner compared Parsifal with his ‘last card’[11] (German: (die) letzte Karte). If such a comparison is interpreted, the fact that the composer compares Parsifal with the strongest card (or the so-called ‘trump card’), which the good player reserves for the very end of the game, shows that Wagner perceives his last work as his most significant work.

Parsifal is indeed an emanation from Wagner’s philosophical and creative quests[12] not only in connection with his understanding of the orchestra, but also with his idea of ‘synthetic production of art’ (German: (das) Gesamtkunstwerk), in which poetry, music and drama impact the audience simultaneously, ‘at hand’, ‘in an embrace’, as ‘related’ and completely equal arts[13]. The composer’s idea of a ‘theatre hall’, thought to be equivalent to a ‘temple’, is also interesting. In this case, it is important that under ‘theatre hall’ he refers to his theatre in Bayreuth. Like a temple where sacred acts take place, the ‘theatre hall’ should be a space where the highest art is performed[14].

The premiere for Bulgaria of Parsifal was performed by the Sofia Opera on July 4, 2017. This year’s performance of the work on 25 July 2023 was related to the Wagner Festival organized by the Sofia Opera (between 8 and 30 July 2023), dedicated to the 210th anniversary of the composer’s birth[15]. It should be noted here that the merit for the permanently maintained Wagnerian repertoire, with which the Sofia Opera attracts not only Bulgarian fans of Wagner, but also ‘Wagnerians’ from all over the world, belongs to the director and head of the Sofia Opera – Acad. Prof. Plamen Kartalov. His large-scale creative ideas and unique staging thought had found a unified concept in the joint work with the other representatives of the international staging team: the conductor – Constantin Trinks, the set designer – Sven Jonke, the author of the costumes – Stanka Vauda, the choir conductor – Violeta Dimitrova and others[16]. The costumes were simple, an integral part of the stage act. The lighting effects created by the lighting artist Andrey Haydinyak and the author of the computer graphics, Laura Runevska, were strongly influenced. Many of the effects were moving light images that reinforced what was happening on stage. The magical abilities of the evil magician Klingsor (performed by Veselin Mihaylov) were recreated using laser effects by Michael Sollinger. In the very end of the work, the laser effects contributed to the overall feeling of enlightenment and upliftment.

Important for the overall impression of the performance was the preliminary ‘musical training’ of Richard Trimborn, who had managed to bring the interpretation of Parsifal by the soloists, choirs, and orchestra of the Sofia Opera to the heights of the most renowned world opera theatres[17]. The Bulgarian ensemble impressed with all soloists, as well as the choir and orchestra of the Sofia Opera.

It was palpable that they had all worked hard and defended their level of world-class Wagnerian master interpreters with dignity.

The orchestra (with concertmaster – Alexandre Dimchevski) was intense, homogeneous, the conductor Trinks had skilfully crafted the orchestral sound and dynamic nuances, charming with their diversity and beauty. The choir of the Sofia Opera (with choirmaster – Violeta Dimitrova) performed like vituosos the serious vocal and acting challenges. Young singers from the Children’s Radio Choir at the Bulgarian National Radio (with chief conductor – Venezia Karamanova) performed the fragments for boy choir provided for in the score[18], achieved the sound of a kind of ‘angel choir’ and caused delight in the audience. Among the solo ensemble of brilliant singers from the Sofia Opera, the audience the strongest applause to Atanas Mladenov as Amfortas. He has a strong impact with his beautiful timbre, well-tuned voice and heartfelt performance. According to the libretto, Amfortas was wounded by a spear with which Christ was once pierced. Amfortas is healed by Parsifal, a character who possesses such a degree of purity that allows him to defeat the evil sorcerer Klingsor. Parsifal purifies, heals, and uplifts the entire community spiritually and illuminates the stage space with his presence. Kostadin Andreev as Parsifal managed to instil the initial unawareness of the character, his personal transformation and ascension to a kind of Saviour. Andreev’s interpretation was generously rewarded by the admiration of the audience. Gergana Rusekova as Kundri demonstrated memorable singing and acting presence. The position and behaviour of her body seemed to reflect her slow but irreversible spiritual growth. Throughout the first act, she sang in a supine or reclined position on her body, and her costume was sewn as if from rags. During the second act, Kundry, enchanted by Klingsor, transformed herself into a seductress dressed in a red and black dress. It aroused longing in Parsifal, but it failed to lead him into sin and to divert him from his chosen path of chastity. At the beginning of the third act, Kundry was on his knees and seemed to be experiencing catharsis. After washing Parsifal’s feet with water from the sacred lake, she dried them with her long ebony-black hair. At the end of the third act, Kundri was already standing, moving with calm and dignity, and her white robe testified to her purification and forgiveness before merging with eternity. Veselin Mihaylov as Klingsor built perhaps a character closest to today. The different light-reflecting material of his black suit contributed to such a feeling, as well as the laser and other light effects that accompanied his appearance as an evil magician. The singers Petar Buchkov and Angel Hristov were convincingly portrayed in Titurel and Gurnemanz. Lyubov Metodieva, Ayla Dobreva, Ina Kalinova, Juliana Katinova-Petrova, Angelina Mancheva and Alexandrina Stoyanova-Andreeva performed complex tasks combining singing with acting and dance movements with ease. The character of the Wounded Swan (from Parsifal) was entrusted to Nikola Arnaudov, who achieved an impact with the radiant innocence, elegance, and kindness. Hrisimir Damyanov as the First Knight of the Grail, Nikolay Voynov as the Second Knight of the Grail, Rada Toteva as the First Squire, Ina Kalinova as the Second Squire, Krasimir Dinev as the Third Squire, Kalin Dushkov as the Fourth Squire, as well as Georgi Banchev, Simeon Atanasov, Deyan Ivanov, Dario Yovchevski, Teodor Vodenicharov, Ivan Georgiev, Georgi Asparuhov and Matthew Whittle as the Black Knights of Klingsor, also presented their characters faithfully and convincingly.

At the end of the performance, the conductor and the director were loudly applauded. Along with the soloists on stage came the orchestras, who also received well-deserved recognition and gratitude from the spectators. The reading of Parsifal by the Sofia Opera conveyed to the audience in pure form significant philosophical and creative achievements of Wagner. The heartfelt reactions of the spectators and the fact that after more than six astronomical hours (together with the intermissions) the audience in no way showed a desire to leave the theatre proved that the masterful performance had actually worked purifying and uplifting. It was also confirmed that in a highly professional stage realization, such as that of the Sofia Opera on July 25, 2023, Wagner’s ideas are influential and communicative even today, in small Bulgaria, 141 years after the world premiere of Parsifal in Bayreuth – in the composer’s homeland.

Photos: kindly provided by the Sofia Opera and Ballet


[1] Miglena Tzenova is an Associate Professor, PhD at the Institute of Art Studies, BAS, Music Sector.

[2] Wagner, R. My Life. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1911: 661–662; Wolfram von Eschenbach. – In: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 18 Feb. 2022. Available at:

[3] See Kinderman, W. Introduction: The Challenge of Wagner’s Parsifal. – In: A companion to Wagner’s Parsifal. Kinderman, W. and K. R. Syer, Eds. New York: Camden House, 2005: 1–26.

[4] Wagner, R. Parsifal. Ein Bühnenweihfestspiel. Mainz: Verlag von B. Schott’s Söhne, 1877: 1.

[5] Specifically -weihe- (from Bühnenweihfestspiel) except as consecration is translated as initiation (e.g., in a knighthood, etc.);

worship; receiving communion; state of enlightenment; etc. See, for example, German-Bulgarian Dictionary. Volume 1–2. Arnaudov, Y., A. Dimova, G. Minkova, L. Andreeva, M. Naumova, Sofia: Ed. of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, 1992 [Institute for Bulgarian Language, BAS]; Bruhn, S. Saints in the Limelight: Representations of the Religious Quest on the Post-1945 Operatic Stage. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2003: xxiii–xxiv; Tzenova, M. Parsifal on the stage of the Sofia Opera – a perfect expression of Richard Wagner’s philosophical and creative quests. – In: Musical Horizons, 2023, № 8: 3-5; and others.

[6] Hartford, R. Bayreuth, the early years: an account of the early decades of the Wagner Festival as seen by the celebrated visitors & participants. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980: 121-122.

[7] Detailed study on the acoustic features of the concert hall: Garai, M., Ken Ito, D. D’Orazio, S. De Cesaris, and F. Morandi. The Acoustics of The Bayreuth Festspielhaus. – In: The 22nd International Congress of Sound and Vibration, Florence, Italy, 12–16 July 2015 [Conference Paper]: 1-8.

[8] For more information on Ge-za: Scott, A. C. The Kabuki Theatre of Japan. Massachusetts: Courier Corporation, 1955: 66-72; Tzenova-Nusheva, M. Some Similarities and Differences between the Musical Ensembles of the Traditional Japanese Theatrical Genres Noh, Bunraku, and Kabuki. – In: Asia and the World – Relationships and Interactions – 2017. Sofia: Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, FCNF, CELC, 2018: 225-230; Tzenova-Nusheva, M. Importance of the Musical Ensembles in Traditional Japanese Kabuki Theatre. – In: Asia and the World – Relationships and Interactions – 2017. Sofia: Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, FCNF, CELC, 2018: 236-241; and others.

[9] See Wagner, R. Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft. Leipzig: Verlag von Otto Wigand, 1850; Wagner, R. The Art-Work of the Future. – In: Wagner, R. The Art-Work of the Future and Other Works. Lincoln and London: Nebraska University Press, 1993: 69–213.

[10] See Dahlhaus, C. The Idea of Absolute Music. Transl. by R. Lustig. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989: 120.

[11] See Kinderman, W. Introduction: The Challenge of Wagner’s Parsifal

[12] For more on the theoretical concepts of the composer, reflected in Parsifal: Tzenova, M. Parsifal on the stage of the Sofia Opera – a perfect expression…: 3-5.

[13] See Wagner, R. Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft. Leipzig: Verlag von Otto Wigand, 1850; Wagner, R. The Art-Work of the Future. – In: Wagner, R. The Art-Work of the Future and Other Works. Lincoln and London: Nebraska University Press, 1993: 69–213.

[14] Wagner, R. The Art-Work of the Future…

[15] The translation of the libretto is by Ana Dimova, subtitles – Yulia Krasteva, subtitle operator – Nia Nedkova, prompter – Draga Machuganska. See Sofia Opera. Sofia Opera. Wagner Festival. 08–30.07.2023. Sofia: DMI Development EOOD, 2023. [120 pp.]; Parsifal. Richard Wagner 25 July 2023 18:00 Sofia Opera and Ballet 22/23/Parsifal. Richard Wagner. 25.07.2023. 18:00. Sofia Opera and Ballet 22/23. [2 pp.] For more on the Parsifal Festival and stage performance of 25 July 2023, see: Tzenova, M. Parsifal on the stage of the Sofia Opera – a perfect expression…: 3-5.

[16] Vera Beleva (assistant director), Stefka Georgieva and Vladimir Gorchakov (assistant directors), and others.

[17] Yolanta Smolyanova (responsible accompanist) and Svetlana Ananievska (accompanist) have also contributed to the height of the musical performance.

[18] See Boys’ Chorus: Durch Mitleid wissend in Warner, R. Parsifal in Full Score. New York: Dover Publications, Ins., 2013: 190-226.

Some notes on the genesis of Parsifal by Richard Wagner – in connection with the performance of the Sofia Opera on July 25, 2023

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