Parsifal, Bayreuth Festival
Parsifal, Bayreuth Festival, Germany, August 2016. Director Uwe Eric Laufenberg, conducted by Hartmut Haenchen, reviewed by TONY COOPER
Specifically written for the Festspielhaus, Parsifal was Wagner’s final work completed in January 1882 and was first seen in that year. This production by German director, Uwe Eric Laufenberg, marks its ninth outing at Bayreuth since its première.
The philosophical ideas of the libretto fuse Christianity and Buddhism but the trappings of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th-century poem – focusing on the Arthurian hero Parzival and his long quest for the Holy Grail – are essentially Christian based.
The composer described Parsifal as ‘ein Bühnenweihfestspiel’ (A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage) not an opera thereby underlying the deeply-religious overtones of the work. Herr Laufenberg brought this issue to the fore, especially at the end of Act I, when Amfortas, wearing a crown of thorns and covered only by a loin-cloth, re-enacts the Crucifixion with members of the Brotherhood (now seen as a community of Christian monks) gathered around him receiving Holy Communion and partaking of the Blood of Christ. It was a powerful and moving scene. The Christ-like figure of Amfortas was magnificently portrayed by the gifted American bass-baritone, Ryan McKinny.
However, Herr Laufenberg, working in partnership with dramaturg Richard Lorber, turned the work upside down, eschewing the traditional setting of Montsalvat – the revered castle of the knights of the Holy Grail in medieval Spain – and switching it to Islamic State’s Middle Eastern-held territory of northern Iraq where Christianity (and so much more) is under threat as never before.
A bomb-scarred and badly-damaged church provided the setting for Act I but its sanctuary lamp – commonly used in Christian and Jewish centres of worship – remained surprisingly intact. Here the monks went about their daily business of serving the needs of the homeless brought about by the ravages of war with families of mixed faiths (presumably!) sleeping on field hospital-type canvas beds as befitting a refugee camp and kept under tight surveillance by a small battalion of armed soldiers. Dominating their prison-type space was a huge circular basin used as a healing bath for Amfortas.
Overall, the opera was well cast and German bass, George Zeppenfeld, delivered a solid and authoritative performance as the veteran knight, Gurnemanz, while the ‘wunder boy’ of the Green Hill, Klaus Florian Vogt – who possesses a clean, clear and distinctive tenor voice – was exemplary as Parsifal.
But the surprise in the pack was Russian soprano, Elena Pankratova, making her Bayreuth début. She delivered an amazingly strong, confident and articulate performance as Kundry, while the sorcerer, Klingsor, was admirably portrayed by bass-baritone, Gerd Grochowski, whose strong, dramatic and earthy voice proved its worth in Act II.
Amfortas’ father, Titurel (Karl-Heinz Lehner), also put in a powerful performance and is seen at the end of the opera as a withered old man rather than the usual hollow-type voice straining from a coffin. It offered a different approach to this scene, with a large group of mourners depositing all sorts of artefacts into the coffin as a sign of redemption. And as the scene unfolded the lights of the vast auditorium of the Festspielhaus were slowly heightened to full glow, thus inviting members of the audience to partake of this redemptive act.
The church setting of Act I was adorned for Act II simply by adding a decorative glazed-tiled wall as befitting a mosque plus other minor decorations, while Klingsor dominated proceedings cavorting as the ‘king of the castle’ in his reliquary towering above a stage stuffed with crucifixes. The scene in which Klingsor hurled the Holy Spear at Parsifal who miraculously caught it in mid-air, witnessed the end of the evil sorcerer’s realm and his satanic ways. Struck dead on the spot, his treasured reliquary dramatically crashed down upon his body.
The Flower Maidens, in the scene of that name, stormed onto the stage wearing traditional black-robed Islamic dress of tschabors and burkas. But when the moment came to tempt Parsifal with the sins of the flesh they discarded their robes, revealing Western-style dress, ranging from brightly-coloured garments to skimpy bikinis.
The last act sees Gurnemanz, tired and weary, aided by a wheelchair, offering Parsifal his blessing and proclaiming him king. The now penitent Kundry (who suffered endlessly for mocking Christ on the Cross) washes the feet of Parsifal. This was a poignant and telling moment as always.
Mahatma Gandhi observed that ‘The soul of religion is one but it is encased in a multitude of forms.’ Therefore, Laufenberg seems more than justified at the closing stages of the opera in grouping together representatives of a trio of faiths – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – witnessing Amfortas, longing for death, entering the Hall of the Grail only to be miraculously cured by Parsifal who touches his side with the Holy Spear thus saving the Brotherhood and mankind.
In Wagner’s operas, the orchestra is as important as the singers and under the baton of veteran Wagner conductor, 73-year-old Hartmut Haenchen (who replaced Andris Nelsons at short notice) the players – hand-picked from some of Germany’s finest musicians – rose to the occasion. They were heard to especially good effect in the prelude to Act I based on motives heard in The Love Feast and The Spear, as well as the ‘Dresden Amen’ representing the Holy Grail, while the Transformation Music in the same act was brilliantly executed.
And let us not forget the members of the chorus, under the guidance of Eberhard Friedrich, who put in some diligent work. For 15 years, Herr Friedrich worked at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden and achieved great things there. But under his leadership at Bayreuth he has surpassed himself and trained the chorus to such a degree that it took top honours in 2014 by receiving the International Opera Award as ‘Best Opera Chorus’. In their curtain-call, they were greeted with thunderous applause.
TONY COOPER is QR’s opera critic