Concerts & Opera

A Parsifal transferred to Islamic State's Northern Iraq



Specifically written for the Festspielhaus, Parsifal became Wagner’s final and farewell work to the world completed in January 1882 and 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 fuses 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 actually described Parsifal as ‘ein Bühnenweihfestspiel’ (A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage) not an opera thereby underlying the deep-religious overtones the work harbours. Herr Laufenberg sensitively brought this issue to the fore especially at the end of act I where one witnesses 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 round him receiving Holy Communion and partaking of the Blood of Christ. It was a powerful and moving scene while the Christ-like figure of Amfortas was magnificently portrayed by the gifted and talented American bass-baritone, Ryan McKinny.

However, Herr Laufenberg, working in partnership with dramaturg Richard Lorber, turned the production upside down and inside out dumping 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 go about their daily business of serving the needs of the homeless brought about by the ravages and misdeeds 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 battle-dressed armed soldiers. Dominating their prison-type space was a huge circular basin used mainly 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 turned out to be Russian soprano, Elena Pankratova, making her Bayreuth début. And what a début! She delivered an amazingly strong, confident and articulate performance as Kundry while fellow baddie and sorcerer, Klingsor, was admirably portrayed by bass-baritone, Gerd Grochowski, whose strong, dramatic and earthy voice was heard in all its glory but proving its worth in act II. He commanded the stage!

Amfortas’ father, Titurel (Karl-Heinz Lehner), also put in a comfortable and rewarding performance and 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 which manifested itself by 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 (and there’re a lot of lights here!) thus inviting members of the audience to partake of this redemptive act, too.

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 about as the ‘king of the castle’ in his reliquary towering above the stage stuffed with crucifixes by the dozen.

But all good things come to an end and in the scene where he hurls the Holy Spear at Parsifal who miraculously catches it in mid-air, it witnesses the end of the evil sorcerer’s realm and his dark satanic ways. Struck dead on the spot his treasured reliquary dramatically crashes down upon his body.

In the Flower Maidens scene, who stormed on to the stage wearing traditional black-robed Islamic dress of tschabors and burkas, it positively hit the mark in Laufenberg’s realisation. But when the moment came to tempt Parsifal of the sins of the flesh they quickly discarded the robes revealing a more Western-style dress approach to taunt him ranging from brightly-coloured garments to skimpy bikinis. In essence, they could have jumped out of an edition of One Thousand and One Nights.
The last act sees Gurnemanz, tired and weary, aided in his mobility by a wheelchair, offering Parsifal his blessing and proclaiming him king. And the scene where a penitent Kundry (who suffered endlessly for mocking Christ on the Cross) washes the feet of Parsifal proved a poignant and telling moment as always.

Parsifal’s first task was to baptise long-suffering Kundry and then struck by the ethereal beauty of Nature surrounding him, punctuated by naked young girls enjoying bathing in an idyllic and natural stream by a waterfall, he listens intently to Gurnemanz explaining the spell of Good Friday where Nature is transfigured by love and innocence completely regained.

Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying: ‘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 a trio of faiths - 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!

But as far as Wagner operas are concerned the orchestra is as important as the singers and under the baton of veteran Wagner conductor, 73-year-old Hartmut Haenchen (who, incidentally, replaced Andris Nelsons at very short notice) the players - hand-picked from some of Germany’s finest musicians - more than rose to the occasion. They excelled themselves and were heard to 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.

The ‘Dresden Amen’ was, in actual fact, composed by Johann Gottlieb Naumann for use in the Royal Chapel at Dresden. But such was its popularity that it took Saxony by storm and 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’s not forget the members of the chorus who, under the guidance of Eberhard Friedrich, put in some hard and 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’ for that year. Their curtain-call was glorious, too, with Herr Friedrich leading and running excitedly with them from the full depth of a very deep stage to wild and thunderous applause. There were so many of them that it mirrored the start of a Marathon!
Review by Tony Cooper

Photos: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath



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