With Parsifal, composed in 1882, Wagner´s creative path came to an end. This work, at the resolute insistence of the composer, was to be performed only at Bayreuth. Agreeing to include Parsifal in the normal repertoire of opera houses, «where it would be performed every week along with Zampa and La favorite,» Wagner considered, would be to «make peace with the vulgarisation of everything utterly pure, completely holy, that has been in my humanistic yearnings. I started work on Parsifal totally aware that it could not and should not become a run-of-the-mill opera success, especially in the commercial sense of the word. This opera should be staged but rarely and only in my theatre, the only one which can afford it the atmosphere of strict concentration without which the action would not achieve its aim.» Even in his will, the composer demanded that the opera be staged nowhere else than in Bayreuth, right up until 31 December 1913. As a result, the music of Parsifal was only performed in concert in London, New York, Boston, Amsterdam, Monte Carlo, Zurich, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro...
Wagner turned to the idea for Parsifal back in 1857, taking for the basis of the libretto the epic Germanic poem Parsifal by medieval Minnesinger Wolfram von Eschenbach (13th century). However, the composer was unable at the time to embody the idea in such a way as to portray it in opera, «self-denial and suffering being the cause not of death, but rather of new life.» Although this idea did find expression in Tristan und Isolde, in Der Ring des Nibelungen and in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. It was only in 1865 that Wagner made the first sketch of the music for the forthcoming mystery based on the subject of Parsifal. Later, returning several times to the idea of Parsifal, Wagner increasingly left the original source behind. And if von Eschenbach, through his own Parsifal, sang a hymn to the ideal of knighthood, then Wagner sang a hymn to the ideal of humankind. His hero not only destroys the surrounding sinful world – he creates and confirms the idea of a new and pure life, redemption and enlightenment recreating it on Earth.
Richard Wagner´s triumphant stage mystery was first performed in Bayreuth on 26 July 1882 under the baton of Hermann Levi. The lead roles were performed by the outstanding singers of the time: Hermann Winkelmann (Parsifal) and Amelia Materna (Kundry).
Awaiting official news on the end of the ban to stage Parsifal, many theatres began rehearsals in advance. As a result, in the first two weeks alone of January 1914, Parsifal appeared at theatres in Paris, Milan, Rome, Berlin, Vienna, Brussels, Budapest, Prague, Madrid and Barcelona, so great was musicians´ interest across the world in Wagner´s mystery.
In Russia Wagner´s ban had been somewhat infringed upon and became the first country in the world with companies performing Wagner´s mystery outside Bayreuth. On the initiative of conductor Alexander Borisovich Khessin and music aficionado Count Alexander Dmitrievich Sheremetev who established the Sheremetev Music and Historical Society, on 21 December 1913 the People´s House Theatre staged the Russian premiere of the work by the company of the Music and Historical Society under the baton of Sheremetev. Subsequent performances were conducted by Khessin. The lead roles were performed by N. N. Kuklin (Parsifal), S. I. Ilin (Klingsor) and Felia V. Litvin (Kundry). «Parsifal made a good impression ... on a public that hitherto did not know a single note of the music or the nature or style of the work,» Khessin recalled, «This mystery was performed as a production and should have satisfied the high demands of stage art. In this regard, the performance of Parsifal could not be called satisfactory. First and foremost, because of the lack of a talented stage director, there was no general tone of stage embodiment... There were many superfluous movements, agitation, to-ing and fro-ing, there was insufficient due restraint, insufficient majestic peace, insufficient plastique gesture, insufficient sculpturesqueness ... Of the men, the best artiste was Ilin in the role of Klingsor – his good voice sounded convincing, he had clear diction and he succeeded in creating a good dramatic embodiment. The highly complex role of Kundry was performed by Felia Litvin, who had been invited from Paris... the sets were not a success: the sets had an everyday, conventional operatic look, in places one felt even an outer, striking decorativeness.»
Despite its flaws, the production of Parsifal was a major event in St Petersburg´s cultural life. Two months later, on 27 February 1914, the opera was performed by the Musical Drama Theatre. Here Parsifal was presented on a grander scale. Conductor Georg Schnéevoigt succeeded in getting an invitation for his orchestra from Helsinki, and, as a result, from a musical point of view the production was absolutely stunning. The main flaw lay in the realistic approach of stage director Iosif Lapitsky to the stage interpretation of the mystery. And so individual discoveries taken by the stage director and the brilliant performances by I. Veselovskaya (Kundry) and Sergei Levik (Klingsor) were not enough to save the performance.
The opera then disappeared for a lengthy period from Russia´s theatres – its famous return came only on 11 May 1997 at the Mariinsky Theatre with Valery Gergiev conducting.