For Angela Maraventano
Kundry, the only female character in Richard Wagner's last opera, Parsifal (1882), is also the only character to make an overwhelming impression on us with the raw power and extreme versatility of her singing voice. The most arresting vocal gesture of the opera, for example, comes from her mouth at the work's epicenter in the middle of Act II (example 1). As a preternatural calm descends over the sonic landscape, (1) grounded by the distant but ponderous tread of the timpani in mm. 1175-77, we are transported outside the time and place of the opera to a remote primal scene: Golgotha, the site of Christ's crucifixion. (2) In mm. 1177-78, a theme swells up in the orchestra that we have come to associate with the Holy Grail and its original contents, the blood of the suffering Christ (see example 26 for the complete theme). Kundry now hesitantly sings--"I saw ... Him ... Him"--and the revelation of "His" identity in mm. 1179-80 is aligned precisely with a dissonant, paroxysmal orchestral idea heard here for only the second time in the opera. (3) The strings' hairpin crescendo and spasmodic triplet figure, convulsing onto the leaden harmony on the third beat of the bar, (4) suggest the dense throbbing of Christ's imponderable, intractable pain. The Grail theme picks up where it left off in m. 1181, and as it dies away, Kundry begins to re-enact her shocking response to the sight of Christ on the cross: she laughed. (5) Her bold ridicule of Christ is "voiced" not only by the orchestral music that betrays her laughter, but also by her singing voice. First, tonally-ambiguous triplet chords ripple in the woodwinds in mm. 1181-82, building in intensity until the precipitous descending melodic motif that usually signifies Kundry's caustic laughter bursts forth irrepressibly in the first violins. In mm. 1182-83, the laughter motif tumbles headlong onto what we now hear as the dominant in D minor, clarifying the winds' earlier tonal function and setting up the extraordinary vocal outburst that follows. Now, in the middle of m. 1183, Kundry suddenly hits a high B[natural] on the first syllable of the word "laughed [lach-te]," ushered in by the flutes and given an extra punch by the bassoons, horns, and a violent string pizzicato. The B[natural], a formidable feat for any dramatic mezzo, is also the highest sung note in the opera. (6) If that weren't stunning enough, Kundry's B[natural] brazenly exceeds the Bb called for by the reigning D-minor tonality. (7) The glaring major-mode brightness of the high note adds an extra dose of impudence and brash mockery to Kundry's shriek of laughter. She ends the word unaccompanied on a low C[sharp], opening up a yawning vocal chasm that reverberates acoustically and psychologically in the vast silence that follows. (8) This voice, Kundry's voice, is clearly a force to be reckoned with.
A bit of dramatic context can help us appreciate the full impact and importance of this moment in Parsifal. Shortly after the curtain rises on Act I, Kundry hurtles onto the stage like a wild animal, with her coarse robe and unkempt black hair, in order to deliver comforting balsam to Amfortas, the mortally wounded king of the knights of Montsalvat who preserve the Holy Grail. After Amfortas had been seduced by "a terribly beautiful woman [ein furchtbar schones Weib]," he dropped the Holy Spear that once pierced Christ's flesh. Klingsor, a former knight turned evil sorcerer, seized the Spear and stabbed Amfortas with it. Now the king languishes with the unending pain of a wound that perpetually reminds him of his sin and prevents him from fulfilling his duty to uncover the Grail during Communion, the ritual that gives eternal life to the knights of his order. We will discover that Kundry was Amfortas's temptress (acting partly as Klingsor's reluctant slave), although at the moment this is hardly imaginable, given Kundry's ungainly manner, disheveled appearance, and guttural musical utterances. …