Parsifal, Bayreuth Festival, Germany, 21st August 2017, director Uwe Eric Laufenberg, conducted by Hartmut Haenchen, reviewed by Tony Cooper
Parsifal, Wagner’s farewell to the world, was completed in January 1882 and was first seen in that year. This production by German director, Uwe Eric Laufenberg (Intendant des Hessischen Staatstheaters, Wiesbaden) marks its tenth 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 maintained that Parsifal was not an opera but ‘ein Bühnenweihfestspiel’ (a festival play for the consecration of the stage) thereby underlying the work’s religious overtones. At the end of act one, accordingly, we witness Amfortas, wearing a crown of thorns and covered only by a loin-cloth, re-enacting the Crucifixion with members of the Brotherhood (now seen as a community of Christian monks) gathered around him receiving Holy Communion. Amfortas was movingly portrayed by the talented American bass-baritone, Ryan McKinny.
However, Herr Laufenberg, working in partnership with dramaturg Richard Lorber, turned the production upside down by re-locating Montsalvat – the revered castle of the knights of the Holy Grail in medieval Spain – to territory in northern Iraq held by Islamic State, where Christianity is under threat. A bomb-scarred and badly-damaged church provided the setting for the first act but its sanctuary lamp – commonly used in Christian and Jewish centres of worship – remained, surprisingly, intact. The monks go about their daily business of serving the needs of the homeless, with families of mixed faiths sleeping on field hospital-type canvas beds as befitting a refugee camp, under the tight surveillance 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. German bass George Zeppenfeld delivered an authoritative performance as the veteran knight, Gurnemanz (a role he has sung many times). Andrea Schager was exemplary as Parsifal and the Russian soprano, Elena Pankratova sang Kundry (in which she made her Bayreuth début last year) in a passionate performance.
The church-like setting of act one was turned into a mosque for act two by adding a blue-decorative glazed-tiled wall, while the evil sorcerer, Klingsor – sung menacingly by Australian bass-baritone, Derek Welton – dominated proceedings in this act cavorting about the place as the ‘king of the castle’ and hiding in his reliquary stuffed with crucifixes, towering high above the stage.
One of the most powerful scenes of the whole production featured The Flower Maidens. They stormed onto the stage wearing tschabors and burkas. But when they tempted Parsifal with the sins of the flesh, they discarded the traditional black-robed Islamic dress to reveal brightly-coloured garments and skimpy bikinis.
Amfortas’ father, Titurel (Karl-Heinz Lehner) is seen at the end of the opera as a withered old man rather than the usual hollow-type voice straining from a coffin. In a poignant moment, the lights of the auditorium were slowly heightened to full glow, inviting members of the audience to partake of this redemptive act.
Mahatma Gandhi considered that ‘The soul of religion is one but it is encased in a multitude of forms.’ Therefore, Laufenberg seems more than justified in grouping together, at the closing stages of the opera, a trio of the faithful – Christians, Jews and Muslims – witnessing Amfortas, old, worldly and weary and 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. Under the baton of veteran Wagner conductor, Hartmut Haenchen, the players – hand-picked from Germany’s finest musicians – rose to the occasion. They excelled themselves in the prelude to act one, based on motives heard in The Love Feast and The Spear, and in the ‘Dresden Amen’ representing the Holy Grail. The ‘Dresden Amen’ was composed by Johann Gottlieb Naumann for use in the Royal Chapel at Dresden. Such was its popularity that it took Saxony by storm and was used by Catholics and Lutherans alike. Wagner also incorporated the piece in Das Liebesverbot (one of his earliest operas) and, indeed, drew upon it for the third act of Tannhäuser.
And let us not forget the diligent work of all the members of the chorus, under the guidance of Eberhard Friedrich. Their curtain-call was tumultuous, with Herr Friedrich running excitedly with them from the depth of the deep stage, to thunderous applause.
TONY COOPER is QR’s opera critic
My musical wife and I found Parsifal tedious when we heard it, many years ago, at the Albert Hall, but like the rest of Wagner’s music and ideas it has grown on me. Diana Mosley made the same complaint about this magnificent opera to Adolf Hitler, who replied that she was too young and her appreciation would mature in time. Years later husband Oswald wrote a monograph “Wagner and Shaw” which advanced a theory about the difference between Siegfried and Parsifal. Oh dear, what a can of worms I have opened! To Room 101 straight away!
I have heard/seen Parsifal twice: once at English National Opera, and at the Proms – the latter being an ENO concert performance. Both performances were conducted by, in my opinion, the greatest Wagner conductor of them all, Sir Reginald Goodall. Very elderly by this stage (late 1980s), Sir Reginald produced the most impressive sound using the most sparing of conducting gestures – as if just gently ushering the pulse from the music and musicians.
The prelude to Parsifal is one of the most mysterious passages in late-romantic music – setting the scene for an opera laden with symbolism. It takes many years even to get on to the mountain path that leads to the heart of Parsifal, and even now I doubt if I fully understand everything about it. Curiously, Wagner even considered an opera on the theme of the Buddha, but (as I understand it) this spiritual quest for the meaning of life became Parsifal.
One thing is certain: Wagner’s musical language at once signalled a break with the old order. There is, in the middle of all the beautiful music, a gloom, doom and dissonance – or at least the beginnings of that style of music. And from there came the gigantic funeral marches in Mahler’s angst-ridden symphonies; the thick layers of late-romanticism grinding against atonality in Schoenberg’s (neo-Wagnerian) Gurrelieder; the technicolor magnificence of Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony.