Sunday, 19 August 2018

Bayreuth’s Parsifal provided a sensitive portrayal of humanity overcoming adversity

Wagner: Parsifal - Bayreuth Festival (photo Enrico Nawrath)
Richard Wagner Parsifal: Günther Groissböck, Tobias Kehrer, Thomas J Mayer, Elena Pankratova, Andreas Schager, Derek Welton, dir: Uwe Eric Laufenberg, cond: Semyon Bychkov; Bayreuth Festival, Germany Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 14 August 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A production that underlined and delivered a strong message of unity through a trio of mixed faiths

Specifically written for Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus, Parsifal became Wagner’s final and farewell work to the world completed in January 1882 and first seen in that year. Therefore, this production by German director, Uwe Eric Laufenberg (new in 2016) marks its ninth outing at Bayreuth since its première. On 14 August 2018, Semyon Bychkov conducted, with Thomas J Mayer as Amfortas, Günther Groissböck as Gurnemanz, Andreas Schager as Parsifal and Elena Pankratova as Kundry

Working in partnership with dramaturg Richard Lorber, Mr Laufenberg switched the opera’s traditional setting of Montsalvat (the revered castle of the knights of the Holy Grail in medieval Spain) to the Middle Eastern territory of northern Iraq and Syria under the tight control of Islamic State where Christianity finds itself severely under threat as never before.

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.

Laufenberg, therefore, sensitively brought this pivotal issue to the fore especially at the end of the first act where one witnesses 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 round him receiving Holy Communion and partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ. It was a powerful and moving scene while the Christ-like figure of Amfortas (king of Monsalvat) was magnificently portrayed by the gifted and talented German bass-baritone, Thomas J Mayer.
Wagner: Parsifal - Bayreuth Festival (photo Enrico Nawrath)
At the beginning of the act, monks are seen going about their day-to-day business of attending to the needs of the homeless brought about by the ravages and misdeeds of war. Families of mixed faiths (Christians, Jews and Muslims) are huddled together in a bombed and charred church 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 environment was a large circular basin, a healing bath for Amfortas.

Storming the stage wearing traditional black-robed Islamic dress of tschabors and burkas, the Flower Maidens scene was a provocation in itself and positively hit the nerve in Laufenberg’s realisation. But when the moment came to tempt Parsifal (now looking flash, kitted out in military fatigues and wearing designer sun-glasses) of the sins of the flesh they quickly discarded their robes revealing a more Western-style approach to their clothing crowding and idolising him (as if a rock star) attired in brightly-coloured garments and, indeed, 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, 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 a year before Wagner’s death.

Parsifal’s first act of contrition 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 steam by a waterfall, he listens intently to Gurnemanz explaining the spell of Good Friday where Nature is transfigured by love and innocence completely regained.

Overall, the opera was extremely well cast and apart from Thomas J Mayer putting in an authoritative and commanding performance, Austrian bass, Günther Groissböck (Wotan in Bayreuth’s 2020 Ring) did likewise as the veteran knight Gurnemanz while fellow Austrian, Andreas Schager (Siegfried in 2020) - widely acclaimed for his performances of the highly-demanding parts of the Heldentenor repertoire - shone as Parsifal.

Wagner: Parsifal - Bayreuth Festival (photo Enrico Nawrath)
Russian soprano, Elena Pankratova (who made her Bayreuth début in this role three years ago) equally shone as Kundry delivering a performance to chalk up while Kundry’s fellow baddie, Klingsor, was extremely well interpreted by Australian bass-baritone, Derek Welton, who brought out and explored the evilness of this Svengali-type character in a well-read performance. What a voice! Deep, dramatic and earthy, it was heard in all its glory radiating round the vastness of Bayreuth’s famed Festspielhaus delivering a rock-solid performance.

He dominated proceedings cavorting about as ‘King of the Castle’ in his reliquary towering above the stage aggressively flagellating himself in front of his vast collection of crucifixes as if there was no tomorrow. And, of course, there is and in the scene when he hurls the Holy Spear at Parsifal, who miraculously catches it in mid-air, it witnessed the end of his evil and dark satanic ways. Struck dead on the spot, his treasured reliquary crashed upon him.

And Tobias Kehrer sensitively portrayed Amfortas’ father, Titurel, seen at the end of the opera as a withered and broken old man rather than the usual hollow-type voice straining from a coffin, thereby offering a different approach to this scene which manifested itself by 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 are a lot of lights here) thus inviting members of the audience to partake of this redemptive act, too - an ending of tremendous impact!

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 performers and under the baton of St Petersburg-born conductor, Semyon Bychkov, 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 one 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 Herr Friedrich leading and running excitedly with his charges from the full depth of a very deep stage to wild and thunderous applause.

The creative team clicked well together. Gérard Naziri’s stardust ride through the Galaxy to the Land of the Grail proved a remarkable and visually-exciting video sequence and I felt I was trailing in its slipstream riding back to the Sixties to meet Stanley Kubrick! Odd! Gisbert Jäkel’s sets fitted so well Mr Laufenberg’s thoughtful production 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.

Wagner: Parsifal - Bayreuth Festival (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
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 used 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 acts one and three. 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.

Wagner: Parsifal - Bayreuth Festival (photo Enrico Nawrath)
PARSIFAL 
Conductor: Semyon Bychkov
Director: Uwe Eric Laufenberg
Chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich
Stage design : Gisbert Jäkel
Costume design: Jessica Karge
Lighting designer: Reinhard Traub
Video production: Gérard Naziri
Dramaturg: Richard Lorber
Bayreuth Festival Chorus
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra

Amfortas: Thomas J. Mayer
Titurel: Tobias Kehrer
Gurnemanz: Günther Groissböck
Parsifal: Andreas Schager
Kundry: Elena Pankratova
Klingsor: Derek Welton
First Grail Knight: Tansel Akzeybek
Second Grail Knight: Timo Riihonen
First Squire: Alexandra Steiner
Second Squire: Mareike Morr
Third Squire: Paul Kaufmann
Fourth Squire: Stefan Heibach
Klingsor’s Zaubermädchens: Bele Kumberger, Mareike Morr, Katharina Persicke, Sophie Rennert, Alexandra Steine, Ji Yoon
Alto soloist: Wiebke Lehmkuhl

The DVD of the 2017 revival of this production (with different cast and conductor) is available from Amazon.

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