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Deeply-religious overtones

06.09.2019


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Specifically written for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, Wagner described Parsifal as ‘ein Bühnenweihfestspiel’ (A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage) not an opera thereby underlying the work’s deeply-religious overtones. The philosophical ideas of the libretto, however, 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.


Therefore, in this compelling and rewarding production by German director, Uwe Eric Laufenberg, he sensitively portrayed the religious aspect of the work especially at the end of Act I where one witnesses the Christ-like figure of Amfortas (magnificently sung by the gifted American bass-baritone, Ryan McKinny) wearing a crown of thorns covered only by a loin-cloth re-enacting the Crucifixion with members of the Brotherhood - now seen as a community of Christian monks - gathered closely round him receiving Holy Communion partaking of the Blood of Christ. 

Working in partnership with dramaturg Richard Lorber, Mr Laufenberg also rethought the traditional scenario of the work by dumping the 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.

A bomb-scarred church provided the setting for Act I (for the mosque featured in Act II a decorative blue-tile wall sufficed) while its sanctuary lamp, used in Christian and Jewish centres of worship, remained intact. Here the monks go about their day-to-day business of serving the needs of the weak and homeless brought about by the ravages of war with families of mixed faiths sleeping on makeshift canvas beds and kept under tight surveillance by a small group of armed soldiers. 

Overall, the opera was well cast and the strong and authoritative voice of Austrian bass, Günther Groissböck, proved an excellent choice for the pivotal role of veteran knight Gurnemanz while Bayreuth favourite, Andreas Schager, sang an impassioned Parsifal and Russian dramatic soprano, Elena Pankratova (who made her Bayreuth début in this role) delivered a strong, articulate and commanding performance as Kundry. Her fellow baddie, Klingsor, effortlessly portrayed by Derek Welton and no stranger to the role was seen cavorting about as King of the Castle in his reliquary stuffed with crucifixes by the dozen highlighting the evilness of this Svengali-type character.
Storming the stage wearing traditional black-robed Islamic dress of tschabors and burkas, the Flower Maidens positively hit the mark in Mr Laufenberg’s realisation and when the moment came for them to taunt Parsifal of the sins of the flesh they quickly discard their Islamic dress to reveal an array of brightly-coloured Western-style garments.

Amfortas’ father, Titurel (William Schwinghammer) also put in a rewarding performance seen at the end of the opera as a withered old man rather than the usual hollow-type voice straining from a coffin which manifested itself by a group of mourners depositing all sorts of artefacts into the coffin as a sign of redemption. As the scene unfolds the lights of the Festspielhaus were slowly heightened to full glow thus inviting members of the audience to partake of this redemptive act, too.

The last act sees Gurnemanz, tired and weary, aided in his mobility by a wheelchair, solemnly baptising and anointing Parsifal while offering his blessing and proclaiming him king while a penitent Kundry (who suffered endlessly for mocking Christ on the Cross) washes his feet in a quiet and dignified ceremony that’s always such a poignant and telling moment in this most sensitive and delicate work premièred just a year before Wagner’s death.

Under the baton of St Petersburg-born conductor, Semyon Bychkov, members of the orchestra played tremendously well and were heard to extremely 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. And let’s not forget the members of the Festival Chorus who, under the guidance of Eberhard Friedrich, put in some hard and diligent work. Really, their curtain-call said it all, with Mr Friedrich leading his charges to the front of the stage to wild and thunderous applause. 

The creative team clicked, too. Gérard Naziri’s stardust ride through the Galaxy to the Land of the Grail proved a remarkable and a visually-exciting video sequence and, oddly, I felt I was trailing in its slipstream riding back to the Sixties to meet Stanley Kubrick! Gisbert Jäkel’s sets fitted so well Mr Laufenberg’s ideas while Jessica Karge’s costumes and Reinhard Traub’s lighting added greatly to the overall stage picture making this production one that the cognoscenti of the Green Hill most certainly approved of. 

Historical note: There’s an interesting link between Parsifal and the Steingraeber piano factory in Bayreuth, founded by Gottlieb Steingraeber in Arnshauk, Thuranglia, in the 1820s. His son, Eduard, moved the business lock, stock and barrel to Bayreuth in 1852 and by the time Wagner arrived in Bayreuth in 1871, it had become the largest piano factory in Bavaria. Wagner befriended Eduard and his pianos were used extensively in the Festspielhaus and Wahnfried while Liszt also played them.

When Wagner came to perform Parsifal he was not satisfied with the quality of the bells brought in for the four-note motif (C, G, A and E) used in the transformation scenes of Act I and Act III. He asked Steingraeber to come up with a solution to the problem and, in doing so, they invented an instrument comprising bands of metal piano strings for each of the four notes, arranged like a harp, to be struck by a soft hammer. 

This instrument (a replica of which can be seen in the Steingraeber museum) was used for the original performances and, I think, is still in use today. However, for a more detailed account Google ‘The Bells of Montsalvat’. Interestingly, the Steingraeber factory is still in the hands of the founding family and the current director, Udo Schmidt-Steingraeber, is a sixth-generation member.


Bayreuth Festival, Germany, August 2019
Tony Cooper
Photograph, Enrico Nawrath

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